Here, you will find tips to help you compose a range of statements for graduate and national award applications. This advice falls into three categories: the statement of intent (or grant statement); the personal statement; and a hybrid category.
(1) Strategies and Structures for the Statement of Intent (most academic graduate programs)
The structure of the Statement of Intent is a relatively established genre with a predictable with a series of “moves” and “steps” that have been well documented in the research examining representative samples of such statements in a range of fields (Samraj & Monk, 2008). What follows is a template developed in light of this research. Note that many of these moves are relevant to applying for other grants, such as the NSF REU grants. In this case, the third section related to the program would be about the research opportunity rather than the school/program of choice.
- Set the Stage: In the first paragraph, you want to clearly state and animate the problem or issue that compels your academic study and research plans. This helps contextualize your objectives even as it gets the readers on board for what is to come. Conclude the first paragraph with a concise statement about how your background (majors in X and Y, internships in A and B, research in C and D) prepares you for the specific opportunity at hand (a degree program in X field at Y university). Think of this as a “thesis,” a map and mirror, for the statement as a whole. Note, the goal here is to bring your grounding research question to life, offering a glimpse into who you are as a professional and scholar and what motivates your pursuit of an advanced degree. In that sense, the opening should be more professional than personal.
- Your Qualifications: The next section (1-2 paragraphs) should address your academic and professional qualifications. This might include key academic coursework, research experiences, publications or presentations in press or pending, leadership roles, and community engagement activities as relevant. Concisely introduce each relevant element here with an eye towards the skills and qualifications it provided. You might also reflect on how this experience contributed to your scholarly growth and development. Organize this section strategically: a paragraph on academics and research, for example, and another on relevant outreach or internships.
- Your Graduate Plan: The next 1-2 paragraphs should demonstrate your familiarity with the school, program, course structure, research opportunities, and possible mentors. The transition here is quite predictable: given your [summary of background] X program at Y school is a great choice. Begin most broadly with relevant reputation of the school. Then note any unique aspects of the program that drew you to it. Then chart your progress through that program (specific coursework that is most compelling, including compulsory and optional coursework). Finally, note a few faculty with whom you might want to work. If you are applying for a Ph.D. in the US, it makes sense to spend a substantial paragraph on your research interests. Indeed, in some programs, you will be expected to have already reached out to potential research mentors and to have a very clear research plan.
- Other Stuff: besides the school’s reputation and the aptness of the program, what else draws you to this program and makes you uniquely qualified You might note opportunities for community engagement, club participation, etc. Here, you might also address any more personal concerns that need to be explained, or that simply didn’t come through earlier. If you’re a first-generation college student who has worked your way through college, that might be relevant. If a health issue caused a precipitous drop in grades sophomore year, you might mention that as well. If you are under-represented or have a commitment to your field that is more personal, this is where you might bring that in. The statement of intent is not a “personal essay.” But occasionally offer brief personal background when relevant can enhance the application.
- Conclusion: As you work your way toward the conclusion, plan to make meaningful gestures toward future, post-grad plans. The more specific you can be here, the better. The goal is to pitch this opportunity as this key experience connecting your past with your future. That trajectory absolutely needs to be there. And don’t just say you want to be a professor. That’s a job, not a true vocation. Your future career plans should be animated by the kinds of questions in your field that you hope to answer and engage as you teach, write, collaborate and mentor others.
(2) Strategies & Structures for Personal Statements (Medical, Law, and any context where the “personal” is separated from the “academic”). Note that many applications ask for “personal” statements, but the prompts clearly asks for something more academic.
While there is no cookie-cutter template that will work for any given personal statement, there is a general pattern to how many of these essays unfold. Here is a rough sketch:
- World, Me:First, you want to zoom in and situate the reader in the midst of a dynamic thought or action that suggests some of the essay’s (and therefore some of your) grounding values. This is where your character comes to life, this is where you “show” rather than “tell.”
- Frame it Out: Next–and this might come at the end of the first paragraph or it might consume its own paragraph–you need to contextualize the opening move. The key is to answer this question: how does the opening anecdote fit into your story of growth and development, both literally (in time and space) and developmentally? How did you arrive at that point? If it’s not already clear from the anecdote itself, what did you learn? This is a key move that essentially transitions from an opening set-piece to the rest of the essay. This is where you make a subtle case for how the values suggested in your opening serves as a sort of guide for the rest of your narrative.
- Paragraphing Experiences:the main body of the essay will most likely focus on a set of experiences from your college career and give substance to, in some form, the value or values suggested in the opening paragraph. This is where the character you introduce in the opening becomes more complete and complex, more fully “you.” Think of each experience as a potential paragraph, and think of transitions between those paragraphs as bridges not simply between boxes of text, but between key aspects of your story. Transitions show how you get from the lab to campus, from campus to the broader Charleston community, and from Charleston to the wider world, from a rough patch to a recovery. Transitions are the engine for the growth and development that drives your story.
- Making your Exit:Where have you been? And where are you going? In the conclusion, you will reflect briefly on the past, which you sketched above, and project into the future. You might return to the opening scene, or clarify the narrative of growth you’ve presented. Beyond that reflection, you will want to project the narrative’s grounding values meaningful towards specific future actions, plans, and goals.
Note: When isolated from an academic or grant statement, the personal statement reveals growth and development rather than skills and qualifications.
Although the Category 1 guide works well for graduate applications seeking information on your skills and qualifications, and the Category 2 guide works well for those opportunities seeking a more personal essay about your growth and development, many statements you might be asked to write might not fall very clearly into these categories. But if you can grasp the conventions that comprise these two relative extremes, you will be better able to read various prompts and anticipate the kind of information being sought. The Fulbright Grant Statement, for example, asks you to describe how you might engage the host community. This will fall under the “other stuff” category, and likely occupy a paragraph of its own (the second-to-last). For professional graduate opportunities, the statement of intent for law school is a hybrid category as well, while that for medical school is more firmly in Category 2. How you navigate these choices is always informed by an awareness of our audience and what their generic expectations might be. .
In these statements, don’t lecture or confess. Don’t tell us how passionate you are, or “how fortunate you were to have been” this or that. Instead, use the templates above to to give shape to relevant experiences that reveal your skills, qualifications, and growth; your graduate plans; and your future goals.