cases) or to kill your chances of admission with the personal statement. What's most important to me is for the candidate to make a compelling case for himself or herself. 1 want to be persuaded that 1 should admit this person. Good writing is important in this regard. Secondly. I look for the person's sense of what our program is all about and why it makes sense in terms of his or her career plans. We ask for two essays. One is a personal statement of motivation—why you want to come. It's supposed to be about 1.000 words (as is the public policy memorandum we also require). I want to get a sense of what the applicant is all about. First, they should tell me where they're coming from—what it is in their background that leads them to apply to a program like ours. Second, they should tell me what it is they want to get out of our program. Third, 1 want to know where they hope our program will eventually take them in their career. We want to get a sense of the person's commitment to the world of public affairs, whether they're interested in housing in the inner city or development in the Third World. It's important for us to know that an applicant is not simply motivated by making large sums of money. They may end up doing that, but we want to see some kind of commitment to making the world a better place. Now that's a really corny thing to say, but that is the underlying philosophy.
"I was a foreign service brat and grew up all over the world and that's what made me interested in international affairs" might be part of the personal part of someone's essay. But 1 don't need to know about " their relationship with their brother. (There are cases, though, in which the applicant's personal life has a very direct bearing on why he or she wants to come to the Woodrow Wilson School.)
There are two common mistakes applicants make. An applicant will do a standard essay for half a dozen schools on a word processor and adapt it slightly for each school. But then one may forget to change one of the school names. There is nothing more irritating than reading a long essay that concludes with "And that's why Í warn to go to the Kennedy School at Harvard"—and you're sitting here on the Woodrow Wilson School admissions committee! The other mistake people make is .talkingja.bout s o m e t hi ngt heyJ<now nothing about. They'll say, "1 want to do something in international relations," without indicating that they have any idea of what that means. Or, "1 want to go and cure the problems in the Middle East" or, "1 want to go and work for the United Nations"—those kinds of grandiose statements that indicate to me that the person really doesn't know the realities of career opportunities in this field; they might just as well tell me they want to be Secretary- General of the United Nations. This is a very common mistake and the younger the applicant, the more likely he or she is to make it. 1 also don't like to get a sense that the applicant has dashed off the statement in 20 minutes and hasn't given much thought to it. Ours is a very, very competitive admissions situation—we get about 600 applications and make only about 80 offers of admission—and the personal essay is the one opportunity to tell the admissions committee why you want to come and why we should accept you over the next person who is equally well qualified academically. r You have to distinguish yourself in some way. And you really have to let the admissions committee know what it is about this program in particular (< ¿,, ( u, that interests you. For example, you could mention that you like that r..i , . ^ there is a small core of required analytical courses here at the Woodrow i' Wilson School and that then you're free to select a field of concentra- 1 ' tion and build up a substantive background in that field. Now if 1 read something like that. I would know that the applicant had read our catalog and understood what our curriculum was about and what was distinctive about our program. You need to write well, and check grammar, spelling, and punctuation. You alsQ.definitely need to type or do the application on a word processor. The days of handwritten career statements are over. The only way 1 would even want to accept something like that would be if the applicant is in the Peace Corps in Zaire and doesn't have access to a typewriter or word processor. But 1 get very annoyed with a handwritten career statement in any other circumstance. Also, avoid cuteness; we've had people who have done career statements in the form of a miniplay, for example. You want to sound like a professional, even though we know you're not in many cases. It's a really different process from applying to undergraduate college. You don't want to sound naive; that doesn't mean you don't want to sound idealistic, because many of the people who write to us impress us with their commitment and sense of dedication.
As director of graduate admissions, I read all of the statements, and 1 screen out about half of them. One other person reads those I've screened out just to double-check me. So the applicant's file may be read by as few as two people. If you are admitted, your file will have been read by a minimum of 6 people and could be read by as many as 14 (everyone on the admissions committee).
Professor Stephen Yenser
Vice Chair of Graduate Studies/English UCLA
I THINK THE FIRST THING that strikes me is the hardest to define, and that is style. I look for a certain turn of phrase, a certain wit, the unexpected and pleasing, and this can be arrived at in many different ways. What 1 look for in any distinguished writing is energy, imagination, originality, a gift for figure, for trope.
Next is the candidate's view of his or her career, especially these days, when the job market is so tight and diminishing. I want to know that the student is really committed to studying English literature and is aware of the possibility that there will not be a job available at the end of the line. So 1 want a sense of commitment, a sense of discipline, and a sense specifically of what the student wants to do. 1 don't think it's advisable for anyone to write that he or she just loves English literature and wants to read and write. People have to know what field they want or are most likely to work in, or what specific kinds of projects they want to pursue in a field—maybe even what the topic of the. dissertation would be.
If I sense that a candidate is just filling out half a page cursorily—just doing the personal statement pro forma—and has not put much time or imagination into it, that's the kiss of death. Usually a straight autobiography should be avoided, although interesting and pertinent autobiographical facts should doubtless be included. But the statement should be more future-oriented than past-oriented. 1 don't really want the story of a student's life (although there are exceptions)
Applicants should try to find a way to enjoy writing the statement. They should get interested in the statement; they should want to write it.
but rather plans for and a vision of the future.
Applicants should try to find a way to enjoy writing the statement. They should get interested in the statement; they should want to write it. Write the statement and then run it beneath the cold gaze of someone who is familiar with this genre and can offer suggestions for revision (a former professor, in most cases). Ask for a rigorous critique, listen to what the professor has to say, and then revise it accordingly. It doesn't do any good to show it to a friend or a parent; it's got be somebody who is used to this genre and who has been impressed—and bored—by such statements before.
It sometimes helps for the student to have done some research on the university being applied to. If, for example, a student is applying to UCLA and really wants to come here because of our connections with the Clark Library and its resources, it's good for us to know this. Now one can also identify pretty readily somebody whose acquaintance 'with the special resources at UCLA comes simply by way of the brochure we send to all interested applicants. So it should be in-depth and true knowledge of the resources rather than a superficial knowledge.
We have three readers. We have a graduate committee of about seven, now broken down into about three subcommittees.
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