How to start writing a personal statement

Northwestern University

Step by step process of how to start the process of writing a personal statement for Public Health Graduate School, by Wing Yu Tang

Personal statements can be very tricky for a variety of reasons, both in terms of content and style. A common issue that I’ve seen among students is that many are so overwhelmed by the whole process that they do not know where to begin. Below are some of my suggestions to jump start ideas, and perhaps help tailor your thinking to the program you are applying for:

1) For those of you who are early in your timeline in applying, a great idea is to use a blog to keep track of the experiences and ideas during the course of your studies, work, research, or volunteer activities. This doesn’t have to be anything formal; rather, it helps in both documenting your ideas and allow you to write under minimal pressure. As the stress of applying only builds with closing deadlines, you don’t want lose valuable time trying to remember and articulate under stress.

Another very important thing to keep in mind is that the blog does not have to tailor to a certain graduate program--it is perfectly find to explore and discover new and different fields. Writing just adds another dimension, another mirror if you will, that you can then reflect to see the type of career you want. Graduate programs are looking for candidates that have taken a careful and deep looks into their past--and using that to branch out to a career that both matches the student and their program.

2) Once you have determined a specialization (Biology, Chemistry, Public Health, etc.) then it would be a good idea to look into the specifics of these graduate schools, and the concentrations in which they provide. Public Health, for example, has five major areas of concentration: Epidemiology, Biostatistics, Health Services Administration, Behavioral Sciences/Health Education, and Environmental Health Sciences. Each accredited school has to offer these ranges of concentrations, though some schools specialize in certain aspects of these core (i.e. Yale has a chronic disease epidemiology program that is unique to its school of public health). Look at many programs to get to know the general academic requirements, but also pay close attention to experience. Columbia, for example, requires entering students to

Population and Family Health to have at least 2 years of full time experience. It would be extreme negligence on the applicants part to bypass this strict criteria.

As you browse through the schools, make sure to take note of programs that you see are suited to your interest. For example, I was very interested in cancer and cardio epidemiology research, both which were heavily founded by the professors affiliated with Yale’s School of Public Health. Hence, research and knowing your vocabulary among these concentrations is important as well.

3) Don’t rule out personal experiences! Many people might believe that their personal experiences should not be considered, but I believe that adding it in healthy amounts can set you apart. Since diversity is a major key, especially if you are applying to a program like global health, being from a certain area automatically sets you apart from the pool. For me, my families had to deal with many healthcare related issues, and I utilized my take from a patient’s perspective in my essay. 

Of course, do not overdo this. The last thing you want to do is to come off arrogant, or, even worse, unappreciative. This component should enhance whatever you already have.

4) So what should the personal statement include? How formal should it be? What types of formats are acceptable, if any?

A personal statement should be about you. I’ve seen too many students try to tailor or even “fudge” their writing in ways to fit what they think the readers (admissions committee) want to hear. When the piece starts becoming more about them rather than yourself, the piece loses its meaning and its ability to communicate effectively. I will elaborate more on this in a later entry, but this is important to keep in mind that your audience will know if you are only writing to please them.

That being said, your personal statement should be written extremely well. You should definitely have multiple editors, and, if possible, some professors, or professionals, from the field in which you are applying into. Take advantage of both the Writing Place and Writing Program, both of which provide excellent services and/or technical advice on your pieces. Students, if you are comfortable enough, would be another resource, though more for fluidity and content check only.


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