Whenever you are applying for an opportunity that is competitive—whether it be college, graduate school, law school, med school, a scholarship, or a job—you are asking someone to take a risk and invest in you.
There are typically a limited number of spots available, so in economic terms the supply (number of applicants) outweighs demand (number of openings).
So when you are applying, you are not only saying “please pick me,” but, more accurately, “please invest your valuable resources in me.”
And since we invest to earn a return on our investment, your readers need to see you as an investment worth the risk. They need to believe that choosing you is going to pay off, both in the “short term” and in the “long term.”
“Short term” investment refers to the contribution you’ll make to the opportunity while you’ll be a part of it (e.g. those four years that you’re in college, or those 2 years you’ll be in grad school).
And “long term” investment looks further, to you making a positive impact long after you leave the institution of which you’re currently applying to be a part.
So how do you demonstrate that you’re a worthy investment?
Let’s remember that the point of the Personal Statement is to convince your readers that this is the perfect opportunity for you (in terms of what you’ve done and what you plan to do in the future) AND that you’re the best person for this opportunity.
That’s the entire argument and all reasons you use in support of that argument should implicitly or explicitly lay out a return on the investment you’re proposing to make.
Follow these steps to help build your argument:
Step 1. Align your goals with those of the institution
You should start by looking up the school or organization’s mission statement.
What does it value?
What kind of culture does it attempt to create?
Think strategically (and genuinely) about the mission of the place to which you are applying. Consider how your own plans for the future align with that mission.
Show that you understand the culture of the institution by focusing on what you will contribute to the program while a part of it and in the long-term.
Step 2. Remember that it’s not all about you
Think not what you are getting from this opportunity but what you will be contributing in terms of something bigger than your personal edification, how you’ll be able to make a greater, more positive contribution to the world as a result of being a part of this program/institution.
For example, just writing that attending an MBA program will help your career or that getting this particular scholarship will allow you an opportunity to travel abroad can be poison for your application.
One surefire way to check if you are focusing too much on what you’ll get is to search your essay for all uses of first-person pronouns (I, me, my, etc.). Another option is to use an online word cloud generator (like this one) to show you how much you are repeating words and especially first-person pronouns. Use these tools to make sure you aren’t making it “all about you.”
As I wrote in another post, Personal Statements and cover letters have this in common. In neither document should you privilege what you’ll “get” from the experience rather than what you’ll “give” to it.
Step 3. Show yourself to be a leader
Being a leader doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to be president of your senior class. Being a leader can look very different, but one rule generally applies: leaders set a good example.
Are leaders perfect? No.
Do good leaders reassess their actions when necessary and change course to improve? Yes! So show that you are a reflective person who isn’t afraid to reevaluate their actions and make appropriate changes.
Leading by example can pay dividends in the short term by making the community and culture of that institution stronger, and in the long-term as well by improving the standing of the organization via its ties to you.
Step 4. Demonstrate a growth mindset
Show your readers that you are committed to learning and improving yourself by demonstrating a growth mindset. As I explain in a different post on the importance of demonstrating a growth mindset, your readers don’t expect you to be perfect.
Your readers do want to see that you have the drive and determination necessary to push forward even when things aren’t going your way.
Step 5. Make ’em proud
Hopefully, your future alma mater (e.g. the school to which you are currently applying) will want to show off the fact that you attended their institution. Hopefully they’ll be proud of you in the long term because of what you’ll accomplish.
So think of yourself as a kind of funnel. Knowledge, experience, expense, and energy will be “poured” into you—or “spent” on investing in you—while you are a student at a particular institution, but it doesn’t stop there. As a result of that experience, you will then be able to “pour forth”—or “make”—a greater contribution.
That return on investment will look very different for different applicants. Maybe you plan to be in a leadership position through which you’ll be able to do more good? Maybe you’ll be working with people who will benefit from your global perspective? Whatever you propose, be direct and specific.
You’ve worked hard to get to this point, but don’t rest on your laurels.
Show your readers that you’re going to create a return on the investment you’re asking them to make in you!
Have you written a Personal Statement lately, or are you working on one now? What challenges did you come across? Post a question in the comments and I’ll answer it!