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Making Your Personal Statement Connect

I often work with international students who are applying to competitive programs at U.S. graduate schools. Many of them run into the same two difficulties: one, writing a strong personal statement in English (when that isn't their first language); and two, explaining something that Americans might interpret as a weakness in their school or work records.

A few years ago I worked with a client who faced both of these problems. He wanted to study international relations and was shooting for the very top schools – the Kennedy School at Harvard, Columbia, SAIS, Fletcher, and so on.

This client had an interesting background. He'd grown up and gone to school all over the place, and he had gained some great research experience since getting his first college degree. But he had some serious weaknesses as an applicant, too.

There was a logistical problem with getting adequate transcripts from the university he'd gone to in Europe. Unfortunately, he didn't have a GRE score that could offset that problem. His GRE scores were respectable, but on the low side for the schools he was targeting.

His main problem, though, was his writing. The content of his application essays was basically good, but his writing was very technical and hard to read. I wasn't sure an admissions committee would make the effort necessary to understand what he was using his essays to say.

The one serious flaw in his essay content was a big one: he did not use his essays to offer any insight into who he was or why he was hoping to pursue graduate study.

I worked extensively with him on three points. One was persuading him to write one of his essays about his GRE score and transcripts, to put those issues in proper perspective. The second was to get him to write in a more approachable, readable voice. The third was to get him to write something about himself and his personal interests and ambitions.

It paid off. He was accepted to his top choice school, Harvard, and several others as well. I'm quite sure that would not have been the case if he had submitted the applications he originally prepared.

– Contributed by Senior Consultant Heather MacNeill, former Assistant Director of Graduate Admission at Pacific University.

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