grad cap with green background

Thinking About Grad School? Do Some Cartography!

Written by Colleen Coleman

Most grad schools require applicants to submit a Personal Statement. The Personal Statement is your opportunity to explain why you want to attend a particular graduate program and detail the specific educational and work-related experiences which have prepared you for the program. Writing a personal statement may be the most difficult part of the application process for graduate school. Like any essay that is worth reading, a winning personal statement employs lucid expression to support reasonable claims with convincing evidence. It won’t be enough for you simply to tell (make statements), you will also have to show (demonstrate the truth of your statements).

If you are thinking about going to graduate school, or are preparing to apply, one of the most fruitful things you can do is engage in a pre-writing stage. Think of yourself in this pre-writing stage as a cartographer. You want to map your collegiate experience. You are trying to explain how you made your way from Point A—as a senior in high school applying to Hillsdale College—to point B—as a senior at Hillsdale College preparing to apply to graduate school. Go back and retrace your steps from point A to point B. Recall why you decided to attend Hillsdale. Reflect on the educational experiences you have had here thus far: Which classes have been your favorite, and why? Who are your favorite professors, and why? What was the topic of the most interesting paper you have written? What made you decide to declare a major in _____? Reflect on your work-related experiences (either as an employee or a volunteer): What job(s) have you most enjoyed, and why? What made you decide to apply for these job(s)? What did you learn, what did you gain, while you were there? What did you give? Each academic or work-related experience is a destination on your map. At each destination: stop, reflect, and put your pen to the paper. Look for and describe the people, the moments, the conversations that have given you a sense of direction—the signs or landmarks which told you to go one direction instead of another, and the signs or landmarks which are pointing you in the direction of this particular graduate program. (For more specific questions to help you map and pre-write, see Chapter 5 of Graduate Admissions Essays: Write Your Way into the Graduate School of Your Choice by Don Asher). Think about how you might capture these ‘landmark’ relationships, moments, and conversations with a short story that you could then share with someone were they to ask you “Why do you want this grad school to be the next destination on your map?”

Having done some cartography and mapped your collegiate experience, you will be well prepared to draft your personal statement. You will have what graduate-admissions expert Don Asher calls “a pool of data” from which you can draw “inspiration and details.” You will have a better sense of direction and more momentum. To move from the pre-writing stage to the drafting stage, research carefully the specific essay topics of each graduate school to which you are applying. Keep in mind that while you may use the same ideas and refer to the same experiences, conversations, and/or relationships in your essays, you will need to write a separate essay for each application. (See Chapter 7 of Don Asher’s book).

Even if grad school is in the somewhat distant future – perhaps you are a freshman at Hillsdale – it’s not too early to start pre-writing. You do not need to have a specific graduate school or program in mind. Simply keep a journal in which you write brief reflections on work and academic-related experiences. If you have a major epiphany, a moment or experience which suddenly makes you realize what type of graduate education you want to pursue, great. Write about it. The very act of writing, which requires you to reflect on your experience and give voice to your thoughts, might itself provide you with the opportunity for such an epiphany.