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Personal Statements for International Students

Over the past few years, I’ve had many international students contact me for help editing and revising their personal statements. The US college personal statement is a unique beast.

liberal arts skills laptop techincal us college personal statementIn the US, colleges are not only interested in students with good scores, but also students with unique personalities and solid writing skills. Therefore:

Your personal statement should…
  1. Stand out

    Admissions representatives read thousands upon thousands of personal statements. As a result, the message that “I’m smart and I want to go here” is nothing new to them. So, try and dig a little deeper.

    Tips

    • Tell a story. 

      A good way to catch the reader’s attention is to use one or two paragraphs to introduce yourself with a fun (or funny!) anecdote.

    • Have an attention-grabbing first line.

      Really, anything other than “I am a student at [insert high school here]” is already an improvement over most applicants.

    • Talk about something you love.

      Whether it’s a hobby, a family member, or your dog, passion has a way of showing itself through your writing.

  2. Show off your ability to write

    This is an opportunity to prove that you are capable of handling classes in English. To prove yourself, your personal statement should be flawless– grammatically perfect and easy to read.

    Tips

    • Beware of false friends.

      Realize means to think of, not to create.

    • Use your time wisely.

      Honestly, you generally have several months to work on an application before it is due. Using that time to revise your work to perfection will show that you are a responsible student.

    • Get your work reviewed by a native English speaker.

      Choose somebody with solid writing skills. You can even ask me to review your US college personal statement.

  3. Show your interest in the program

    This is perhaps the hardest thing to do in a personal statement. That’s because just saying “I’m interested” doesn’t really show interest. Of course, this is especially important for Master’s students and Ph.D. students… and anyone applying to a program where “undecided” is not an acceptable major.

    Tips
    • Use your hobbies and volunteer experiences.

      Explaining that you have done something voluntarily is a good argument that you are truly interested in it. For example, if you volunteer every Saturday at the animal shelter then it’s pretty obvious that you are interested in animals.

    • Tell them about your college research.

      Maybe you haven’t actually studied genetics before, but you have stayed up late at night comparing different genetics programs. If so, say that!

    • Explain what you know about the topic of your studies.

      Don’t be afraid to include a little technical jargon in your statement– just be sure that you truly know what you’re talking about.

 

Read more of my blogs about College Admissions topics.
The Five-Point Resume Check
Five Ways to De-Stress before a College Interview
Sciences Po: 4 Tips for Writing Your Motivation Letter
The Argument for the Gap Year 

…more

Sciences Po Application Questions and Answers

Bénédicte, a Political Economy student at King’s College London,  sent me these questions about his Sciences Po application and letter of motivation:

1. What would you say really made your letter of motivation stand out from other applications?

All of the students at Sciences Po have great resumes. It would be a mistake to think that you are a shoo-in just because you speak multiple languages, are student body president, or volunteer with the homeless. Basically every student at Sciences Po has a similar, equally impressive story.
Your letter of motivation is your opportunity to explain how all your incredible resume lines fit together in a coherent way… and how they lead to Sciences Po as a logical next step.

Why have you decided to get a master’s degree?
How will this help you to develop your academic persona and future career?
What makes Sciences Po, as opposed to another school, the logical choice for pursuing your degree?

q&a question marks

I think that my letter of motivation stood out because I was able to clearly show that logical connection. I would stay away from telling Sciences Po why you think their program is awesome (they already know it is) and focus more on that logical aspect– why it is awesome for you.

Still not sure how to make that happen? Maybe I can help.

2. Still concerning the application, I feel like the committee seeks a personality to stand out more than an academic. Would you say that you focused more on showcasing your personality and your future goals, rather than proving your interest in the modules of the master etc?

Why choose?
First of all, you’re writing a letter. With that said, how you can “prove” your interest in the modules of any degree? By saying that you really, really, reaaaaally love economic development? I’m not even sure what that would mean. A professor once told me never to use the words “love” or “passion” in an application– they just don’t mean anything.
Rather, by explaining the things you have done or choices you have made and why (your thought process/rationale for doing them) you can both showcase both your personality as well as your academic drive in a way that makes the reader understand how Sciences Po fits in your future.

Example: Instead of saying that you think food security is super interesting, tell the story about how you visited a farm in Ethiopia and listened to a farmer talk about the issues facing his family. Then tell about how you got there and how the conversation affected you– that gives us not only a feel for your personality, but also a better understanding of why you’re interested in food issues.

3. I am not 100% sure as to what I would like to do after this master. I just know that International development is the path in which I am the most interested in. Would you suggest to be honest and admit to my uncertainty? I feel like it would not make me stand out as someone who is confident and who would do well on this master. Though I know it is the right fit for me, I still feel like not being sure in which organization or which precise career path I’d like to go in is a liability.

Nobody at PSIA knows the precise career path they want or the exact organization they plan to work for. If they did, they probably wouldn’t bother with a master’s degree! If you want to work in International Development, you don’t really “need” a degree… unless you plan to teach. The great thing about this masters is that it will give you the guidance and tools to better understand what is needed on the development front, thereby helping you to understand where you can fit in. It will also give you some practical experience to help you get a foot in the door for your first job.

So, while it’s quite normal to be a bit unsure about your future path, there is no need to “admit to” any uncertainty– they already know that you are uncertain (and even if you weren’t, they know that your plans may likely change over the next two years). So don’t waste your breath (or word count). For what it’s worth, I didn’t mention any specific organizations in my motivation letter at all. Instead, I focused on explaining how my trajectory so far has led me to the doors of Sciences Po.

That said, if you want to give a sentence pointing towards a vague career trajectory, go for it. You don’t need to be very specific.

Example: I want to work for an international organization that manages development projects abroad or I want to work for an NGO helping with food security in Africa is plenty good enough.

And of course, if you change your mind about anything you write, nobody will ever hold it against you.

4. Finally, how would you describe your experience in the lectures and seminars at PSIA so far? Because from the syllabus it looks incredible.

It is incredible!
Don’t be fooled though… Sciences Po has a serious problem with course sign-up and you never end up with all the classes that you want. In fact, you usually end up with one class per semester that you really didn’t want. Sometimes it ends up being a pleasant surprise though!

As for the lectures, well… like at any school, sometimes you get professors that know how to teach, other times you get a professor who can barely keep your interest for 10 minutes, let alone 2 hours. I’ve only had one lecture per semester throughout my two years though (3 boring ones and one great one– a military General who lectured while walking around, really keeping us on our toes).
The seminars in general tend to be quite interactive and fun. There are a lot of group projects, presentations, and even group essay writing. Coming from the US, that was quite a change!

 

Feel free to send me more questions, leave comments/questions in the comments, or read more of my posts about Sciences Po! If you’re applying to Sciences Po and would like your application (CV or letter of motivation) reviewed, why not learn more about my services?

Interested in having your CV or letter of motivation reviewed by me? Click here!

Sciences Po: 4 Tips for Writing your Motivation Letter

Many students have asked me to look over their Sciences Po motivation letters and give advice. I am a native English speaker, a certified English teacher and a current Sciences Po student. I’m currently finishing up the Master in International Development program at PSIA (the Paris School of International Affairs at Sciences Po). I can review your individual CV or letter of motivation for Sciences Po – but before that, you may want to check out these general tips for writing your motivation letter:

Not sure you want to be at Sciences Po? See some pros and cons

Here are some general tips for writing your motivation letter that will help make for a winning Sciences Po application:

1. Be clear about what you want to do.
Do not write that you aren’t sure about your decision to apply or that you’re still hesitant as to whether this is the right degree for you. Even if you have some doubts (and don’t worry, everyone does), you need to sound like you are sure about what you want to do.Of course that doesn’t mean that you know exactly what organization you want to work for later on or exactly what job you plan to apply for after graduation.

It’s good to have at least one sentence that clearly states:
“My career objective is ________.”

But you can fill in that blank with a well-educated guess or a vague explanation of the type of position or organization you imagine yourself with. Keep it short though– nobody wants to read a whole paragraph to figure out what you want to do with your education. In all likelihood your plans will probably change before graduation anyways.

2. Talk about your past.
If you’re applying for a master’s degree, you ought to have more to talk about than why you love Sciences Po or how you made good grades. Take a look at your CV and ask yourself which experiences are worth elaborating on.

How did you feel when working with those refugees?
Why was your internship abroad unique?
What did you learn about project management during that poorly organized summer camp?

Sciences Po — and especially PSIA — values unique individuals with experiences they’ll be able to use to contribute to classroom conversation and student life.

3. Make it sound like an obvious fit.
The goal is to make the reader say:

“Oh, of course Sciences Po is her next step!”

If you sound like you’re begging to be let in or like you think Sciences Po is your only chance of becoming the next great UN advisor, you’ve got work to do. Sciences Po is an elite school. They want students who look like they’re already geared up to do great things. So, studying at Sciences Po should be the perfect support for your amazing future plans, not the reason for those plans.

4. Double-check your English.
Misspelled words and grammar won’t help you. Obviously.

Still working on your application for Sciences Po?
I can review your letter of motivation!

Feel free to post questions in the comments 🙂 Good luck!

Other posts about Sciences Po:
Sciences Po: Pros and Cons (PSIA)
Sciences Po: When will I know about the Boutmy Scholarship?Sciences Po Student Starves to Death (fictional post pointing out real issues with opening a bank in Paris)