The Looking Glass

The Looking Glass

The Department of Psychology


Dawn A. Kurtz and Renato G. Villacorte

The true study of human behavior does not stop with the earning of a Bachelor's degree. Careers in research, clinical work, and in academia require the earning of advanced degrees. This means applying to, entering, and completing GRADUATE SCHOOL! We cannot comment authoritatively on the last phase, completion, but we may have something to offer for the phase that affects you now, application.

Writing the personal statement or essay required in the graduate application package offers you a chance to express your individuality. We attempt to offer insight into this activity because of the dearth of published assistance in this endeavor. During our application process in '95, we could only find books on writing college essays in general. The essay concerning your career in psychology must demonstrate much more than general writing ability.

A personal statement typically describes what motivates you to pursue a career in psychology, including an explanation of your research and study interests and how those interests relate to your professional goals. Overall, your statement should capture your strengths and provide a balanced view of your weaknesses. In addition, your statement should address your undergraduate studies and how they relate to the interests you intend to pursue at the graduate level. How will the work you have done as an undergraduate serve as a foundation for your work in a doctoral program? Finally, your statement should indicate qualities and personal attributes that will make you a good graduate student, one in which the university will want to invest its time and money.

With that said, what the hell does it all mean? It means hours of painstaking, heart-wrenching writing, proofreading, and rewriting. Keep in mind that hundreds of other qualified applicants will strive for the same position as you, so do not vitiate your hard work by making unnecessary mistakes. Grammar and spelling errors obviously detract from your message and you must avoid them. Ultimately, your statement should provide a well written, concise, and accurate portrayal of the real you. Therefore, ALWAYS have someone critique your personal statement for you. A person that knows you well and who honestly criticizes and corrects you may save you from embarrassment and ultimate rejection.

Remember that all schools do not use the same format for personal statements. For example, Yale limits you to 300 words while the UC's expect 2-3 pages. You may end up writing several versions of your statement, with each one geared toward the specific question(s) of that institution. In each case you should demonstrate adequate familiarization with that institution and your interests should match the interests of someone within their department, which, incidentally, brings up our closing point.

Your success in the application process will depend largely on how you play the game. Yes, the game. Winning the game requires knowledge of the rules of play, the players involved, and the strategies that lead to victory. The rules of play become apparent after you have researched the players and the strategies known to win. This information comes from diligent, meticulous, and thorough research into every potential school or program. This effort will reveal insight into what the department looks for, what a specific professor looks for, or may lead to contact with current graduate students. Those individuals might reveal to you the strategies that led to their success in the application process. In the very least, your inquiries will demonstrate a sincere interest in their program.

We hope that these small, but useful, tips help you during your struggle. Always keep in mind that you comprise neither the first nor last of those who apply to graduate school. Seek counsel from those who went before you and curtail the headache (and heartache) that accompanies this stage of your career.


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