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March 16, 2008 9:13 PM   Subscribe

What tips can you give me when writing my personal statement for a graduate social work program?

I'm currently filling out graduate school applications for my MSW to become a therapist. It's taken me most of my 20's, but I've finally realized what I want to do. I've always had a passion for figuring out why people behave the way they do. I was somewhat obsessed with it as a child because I was on the receiving end of a lot of abuse. After time, distance, and a lot of therapy, I've come to accept certain things in my life and realized how fulfilling it would be to help others reach that kind of acceptance in their own lives.

I know that may sound cliche or corny, so how can I show this passion in a unique way? What should I avoid in my essay? I want to be as original with my statement as possible. Any advice would be helpful.
posted by anonymous to Education (6 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I graduated with an MSW in 2003, so hopefully my perspective can help you.

I think you should say pretty much what you did in your question. When I wrote my personal statement, I just wrote the facts, including some of the tough personal stuff, without overdramatizing or trying to be really "creative." Most social workers come to the field for reasons that are inextricably bound to their histories. I think the key part of writing the statement is to tie your history and insights clearly to your goals as a professional. Which it seems like you already know how to do.

Good luck with your application. Being a therapist is the hardest and most fulfilling thing I've ever done.
posted by missjenny at 9:26 PM on March 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

My personal statement focused on work experience; even though I was applying to social work schools straight out of college I had already put in a lot of time interning in social research positions, in mental health settings, in public school settings, etc. I was told to emphasize this experience by the PhD./DSW level social researchers I was interning with, because social work schools are very concerned about commitment and demonstrated dedication to cause. If you have some direct experience in a clinical setting, I would emphasize it. If you don't, you can certainly draw on your personal history to demonstrate why mental health is your mission, and why you feel you need to be a social worker (believe me, you won't be alone).
posted by The Straightener at 10:45 PM on March 16, 2008

Without knowing what your time frame is, I'll assume you have lots of it. :)

I've been reading and coaching students through these for many years. I've sat on committees where I've read dozens and dozens and dozens of personal statements. The number one mistake I see applicants make is that they don't take the time to get experienced readers to give them feedback.

Personal statements are an incredibly difficult genre. You want to convey a personal passion, you want to show you're qualified and invested in that passion, and you want to communicate why the specific program you're applying to is the right one to help you accomplish your goals. Those are three very difficult things to do in what is usually 1-2 pages.

The worst part of this is that you have to speak about yourself objectively but with sensitivity. Make no mistake about it. That's HARD.

Your best bet is to make several attempts at this and find some really good, expert readers who will take the time to give you critical feedback. By "expert readers" I mean people who have read these kinds of things many times and know what *not* to do.

Here's my general list of things you shouldn't do, along with some suggestions for how to do them better. But keep in mind that rules are meant to be broken. If you do it well, it can be done.

1. Try not to reveal *too much* personal information. The trend nowadays is to talk about deep, personal struggles. In other words, "I have ADD so the fact that I could make it through organic chemistry is evidence of me overcoming adversity." No. Instead, try "I noticed that the people I worked with were having trouble communicating with one another about X. Since I had some experience with X, I did Y to help us all communicate with one another better."

2. Try not to say outright that you're really, really passionate about something. Instead, tell me a story about how you applied that passion to something else. Here's where time is a major factor. It might take you a while to *remember* stories that are appropriate. I'd suggest you ask your friends to help you recall those situations. Often they remember them better than you do.

3. Above all, DO NOT SIMPLY RE-STATE YOUR RESUME or CV. I can read your credentials. Truth be told, everyone's credentials look good. I turn to the personal statement when your credentials fail to really separate you from the crowd. If your personal statement fails to do that, then I'll go with another candidate who can. At the same time, you don't want to ignore something that *you know* separates you from most applicants. I work in a media studies graduate program. I see many applications from folks who have studied filmmaking. I'd rather see an application from a student who builds robots. Do you build robots? Do you know that's different from what everyone else does? Then tell me about that instead of restating what I can see in another document in your file.

4. Revise, revise, revise. And by "revise" I don't mean re-edit. I mean "re-see" your statement. If you are truly passionate about doing this kind of work, you'll take the time to write several--and hopefully different--drafts.

5. I can't say this too many times: tell me stories about problems you've solved and how those *solutions* are different. Resist the urge to get fancy with describing unusual problems or situations. Instead, describe a *typical* problem and show me an *atypical* solution to it. That shows me so much more about you than telling me some interesting but nutty story.

6. Did I mention revision?

7. Imagine your audience. Imagine someone sitting there with boxes of files of applicants. That person (me) has maybe 5 hours in a week to sort through what may be more than 100 files. Each file is someone's life. That's a LOT of pressure and responsibility. Imagine me feeling bad that I don't have more time to make those decisions. Imagine me seeing a file that looks like all the others. Imagine me seeing a file that tells me nothing about who that person is. Imagine what that file looks like when I open it, when I study it, when I put it back in the stack.

8. If you're unsure about whether your statement is different enough without being over-the-top, go to a good bookstore and sit and read through as many books on this topic as you can. Look at those examples. Read as many as you can stand. Notice what's typical, what's not, etc. The idea is to give yourself a good idea of what your audience is seeing. That will help you get a better sense of what's different about you.

9. If you have access to a writing center at your current institution, use it. If you're no longer a student, ask around at the local colleges and universities in your town and see if they might give you 15 minutes. Chances are that if you can get someone who's seen enough of these to take a look at yours, those 15 minutes might make the difference between getting where you want to be.

10. If all of these pieces of advice seem like too much work or unrealistic, then re-consider your commitment. Getting in is the easy part. =)

Wishing you lots of hard work and good luck!
posted by alist at 8:00 AM on March 17, 2008 [6 favorites]

That's great advice for graduates applying to your type of program, but schools of social work have pretty specific ideas for what they want their personal statements to look like, which can be radically different from other types of programs. My personal statement for Columbia University's School of Social Work was 10 pages long (their page requirement). I believe other top programs want that kind of statement, that pretty exhaustively covers your experience and demonstrates why you're right for this kind of program. Upon arrival at social work school you're going to be thrust into your first year internship which if you don't have a background in social service can be totally mind blowing. You might work in a hardcore institutional setting like a mental health crisis center or a prison. You might work in close proximity with abused children. You might have clients with full blown AIDS. You're going to be tested mentally and emotionally from the start. They want to know in your statement why you want that and how you will thrive in this kind of environment. They want to be sure you're not going to bail after the first few weeks. They want to know that you want to do this for a long time, that it's not a whim or a consolation prize because you didn't get into a top psych grad program. These are all things you want to be thinking about while crafting your personal statement; it's a lot of ground to cover, that's why they give you so much space.
posted by The Straightener at 11:37 AM on March 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Do you need an editor? Because I would love to do it. I spent the better part of last fall proofreading entrance essays for high school seniors. A different caliber, I know, just offering. Message me if you're interested.
posted by easy_being_green at 2:29 PM on March 17, 2008

The Straightener makes a terrific point. S/he's exactly right. And finding out what the norms are in your field is a great way to get started. Thanks for the reminder!
posted by alist at 6:57 AM on March 19, 2008

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