You in 750 Words: Crafting a Compelling Personal Statement

student_writingYou’ve earned good grades in your classes. You’ve taken all the required standardized tests. You know you want to go to graduate school and where you want to study. Yes, you’ve got to write a personal statement, but that shouldn’t be a problem. After all, you’ve spent the last four years writing papers, including some in-depth research projects. How hard could one two-page essay be?

Very. The personal statement, or statement of purpose, is one of the most challenging documents you will ever compose. After all, you have to explore your intellectual or professional interests, describe your qualifications, and explain your interest in a particular program. That’s a lot to convey in 600-800 words! In addition, the essay should showcase your best writing: succinct, clear prose with no grammatical, spelling, or punctuation errors. Finally, you will have to adapt your statement to particular schools and programs; in some cases, you may have to revise it completely.

This may sound daunting, but don’t be discouraged – even if writing is not your forte. If you’re a good student with a strong interest in your field, you have a compelling story to tell. Follow this plan to construct an effective personal statement.

1.) Start Early. By early, I mean months before your application materials are due. This will give you ample opportunity to revise your essay and proofread it multiple times before the deadline. (Bear in mind that the due date is the last possible moment you can submit your application. By procrastinating, you leave yourself open to all sorts of last-minute emergencies, including illness, computer glitches, and busy recommenders. Be smart and make sure all components of your application – recommendations, test scores, personal statement, writing samples – are in at least a couple weeks ahead of the deadline.)

2.) Address the Entire Prompt. Most graduate programs ask applicants to discuss their scholarly interests, their relevant academic, personal, and professional experience, and their reasons for choosing that particular department. Read the entire prompt carefully and respond to every part of it. Some departments may not specify what they want you to explore; they may merely require a biographical sketch or statement of purpose. In that instance, compose an essay that describes all of the above.

3.) Be Specific. People who study literature love to read. Biology majors like science. Aspiring social workers want to help others. None of this is surprising – and that’s why you shouldn’t include it in a personal statement. The admissions committee already assumes you have a general interest in the field. Your job, as an applicant, is to persuade them of the depth of your commitment. Discuss the scholarly research you want to pursue in graduate school or the contributions you hope to make in your career. For example, an MA candidate in history might explore the effect of the Civil War on the New England fishing industry while a graduate student in physical therapy might have a particular interest in working with stroke patients.

Once you’ve described your academic and professional goals, connect them to the program in question. Discuss how its faculty, courses, and research opportunities relate to your interests. By addressing how your interests align with the department’s strengths, you establish yourself as a serious candidate who has carefully researched the program.

What you don’t want to do is bring up personal reasons for selecting that institution. For example, you should not say, “I am interested in the Master’s program in Geology at the University of Wyoming because my boyfriend goes there” or “I am applying to the University of California at Santa-Barbara because I have always wanted to live in California.” This may be true, but strive to find other factors – specific faculty, courses, or research institutes – that attract you to that program. Only mention personal motives if they are relevant to your goals. For example, you might write that you are applying to the University of Vermont Medical School because you have a strong interest in providing primary care to Vermont communities.

4.) Be Professional. Think of a personal statement as an interview on paper. (Some programs also require in-person or phone interviews.) You want to present yourself as a serious student who can work with others, assumes responsibility, and generally acts like an adult. Thus, your essay should discuss relevant experiences – research projects, jobs, internships, and volunteer work – that demonstrates these qualities and the depth of your interest in the field.

In some cases, your essay may have to address a weakness – either because the prompt requires it or because your transcript contains some poor grades. This can be tricky: you don’t want to put yourself down, but neither do you want to appear whiny or childish. (“Yes, I earned a C- in Organic Chemistry, but that’s because science is hard for me/I do not like science/ my teacher was disorganized/ I had a lot going on that semester.”) Here’s what to do: admit a weakness (“I struggled with writing or math/I had a bad semester.”). Then briefly describe the steps you took to rectify that problem. (“I sought tutoring/I became a more focused student/ I learned how to manage time.”) Your goal is to acknowledge the problem, show how you resolved it, and then move on. This allows you to present your weakness as a strength, an example of your resilience and determination.

5.) Get Help. You’re not in this alone. Castleton boasts many resources to help you prepare for graduate school. Make appointments to have faculty members review your essay; you should also meet with Career Services Director Renée Beaupre-White, Writing Specialist Bill Wiles, and/or a Writing Clinic tutor. Meet with them well in advance of your deadline to allow yourself time to revise your essay. Also, bear in mind that staff and faculty have busy schedules; you may have to wait a week or two for a meeting.

6.) Proofread. And proofread. And proofread. Read your essay forward and backward. Walk away from it for a couple days and then look at it again. Finally, have at least two other people – preferably faculty or staff – review it for you. Many graduate programs are highly selective, and you don’t want a careless error to stand between you and admission.

The personal statement is your chance to distinguish yourself from other applicants. That’s why it’s essential you take it seriously. Give yourself the time you need and the essay the attention it deserves, and you will be on your way to crafting a compelling and impressive piece of writing.

-Dorothy A. Dahm


From Refugee Camp to Citizen Scholar: TRIO Star Adan Osman

Some students’ paths to college are a little rockier than others. Adan Osman’s journey to Castleton began in Kakuma, a town turned refugee camp in Northern Kenya. His parents had fled there to escape civil war in their native Somalia.

At four, Adan started his education. But his first day of school was also his last. Violence greeted him and the other students on their way to the camp’s school. “I didn’t want to go to school to get beaten,” he recalls. “Some kids would go to school and never come back. So I stayed home and helped my mother.”

When Adan was nine, his family immigrated to Utica, New York. But being in the United States didn’t mean his battles were over. At his new school, Adan’s teachers placed him in a TV room where he watched movies during the day. “I saw The Lion King,” he chuckles. “It was my first American movie. I loved it. But it didn’t help me learn English.”

Two years later, Adan’s family moved to Burlington, Vermont. There, Adan finally received the intensive English language instruction he craved. Adan worked hard, and after graduating from Burlington High School, he was accepted at Castleton.

Starting college meant confronting a new set of challenges. “It was a whole new world; there was nothing familiar,” says Adan. He worried his English wouldn’t be good enough. And small, rural Castleton seemed isolated after vibrant, diverse Burlington. And it was far from his family.

One of Adan’s high school teachers urged him to sign up for Castleton’s TRIO program, saying it would provide him with the support he needed to finish his degree. Adan was skeptical, but he enrolled anyway.

Today, Adan has nothing but praise for Castleton’s TRIO program and the Academic Support Center’s staff. “They understand people from different cultures, and that’s the most beautiful thing,” he says. “Without them, I wouldn’t be here ready to graduate.” He is particularly grateful to Academic Counselor Becky Eno. “She has helped me a lot with my writing,” he says. “She sat down and showed me exactly what I needed to do. My papers have gone from C+ to A+.”

Adan’s writing skills have helped him succeed outside of the classroom. As a part-time employee at the Park Street Program, a residential treatment program for juvenile offenders, Adan must prepare reports about his work with clients. “I’m proud of my writing as a social worker,” he says.

Perhaps because of his bumpy beginning, Adan has a strong desire to help others thrive. In addition to his job at Park Street, he and some friends from Burlington are founding Building Blocks to Success, a multicultural mentoring program for young men. He is working with education professor Emily Gleason to plan a course for educators who will be working with Syrian refugees. And between classes and work, Adan spends lots of time at the gym, where he informally mentors those new to exercise. He thinks of starting a fitness bootcamp to help others get in shape. He sees clear parallels between himself and the young people he helps. “When you grow up on your own, not having someone there for you, you do things on your own,” he says quietly. “No one is there to build and help you up. I want to give back and help others who haven’t had the same opportunities I’ve had.”

In May, Adan will graduate with a Bachelor’s in Social Work degree. After graduation, he and a friend hope to open a Somali restaurant in downtown Burlington. He is excited about introducing Vermonters to Somali food, which fuses Middle Eastern, East African, West African, and Egyptian influences. “I’ll be using my degree in a different way to make a difference in my community,” he muses. “Food brings people together, and it’s an opportunity to teach people about the culture.”

Becky Eno has high praise for Adan. “He is a TRIO Star because he turns his adversity into strength,” she says. “He has transformed himself from a freshman (and sophomore) who doubted that he should even be in college into a successful senior. He encourages other students to realize their own best potential.”

-Dorothy A. Dahm





Testing: One, Two, Three, Breathe

stressed studentEver since you can remember, you knew you wanted to be a teacher. You simply can’t envision yourself in any other career. But before you can even start student teaching, you have to pass PRAXIS I, and you hate standardized tests. Although you were a strong student in high school, your SAT scores were on the lower end of mediocre. You just don’t test well: you freeze and forget everything you know about grammar and geometry. People keep telling you not to worry, but so much depends on this test: your career, your livelihood, and your happiness.

Like it or not, standardized tests are a fact of American life. To enter graduate school or certain professions, you may have to take one: the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, MCAT, PRAXIS, or a licensing exam. Many students find these timed exams intimidating. They dislike working under pressure, and they believe their entire future hangs upon their performance on the test.

Fortunately, you can improve your performance on standardized tests – even if you suffer from test anxiety. Follow this formula for success and peace of mind:

1.) Start Early. By early, we mean weeks, even months, in advance. The sooner you begin studying, the more prepared and more confident you’ll be on test day. This might mean scheduling your test months in advance. (Usually, you can do this online.)

2.) Practice, Practice, Practice. No, practice doesn’t always make a perfect score, but it can help you achieve a higher one. Take an up-to-date practice test long before your testing date. (You should be able to find one at Academic Support, Career Services, the library, your academic department, or on the test’s website.) Find a quiet place to work, and give yourself the same amount of time you would have on test day. Afterward, when you score your practice test, you’ll have a better idea of the concepts and skills you’ll need to review before the real exam.

3.) Focus Your Study Sessions. Concentrate on the content that’s most challenging to you. For example, if writing is your strong suit, you may not need to review grammar and vocabulary before you take the GRE or PRAXIS. However, if you’ve forgotten all the algebra you’ve ever learned, you may want to spend some time brushing up on it before the test.

4.) Get Help. Don’t suffer in silence. If you are having trouble preparing for a test, stop by Academic Support in Babcock. Whether you need help with math, want to practice writing timed essays, or simply get some study tips, we can help. Your professors may also be able to give you test-specific advice.

5.) Take Care of Yourself. That means pacing yourself in study sessions, getting enough sleep the night before the exam, and eating balanced meals on test day. If you’re sleep deprived or your blood sugar is low, you won’t do your best work.

6.) Take a Deep Breath. Yes, the test looms large, and yes, you want to do as well as possible. But the worst case scenario isn’t the end of your dreams: if you don’t do as well as you’d like on the test, you can take it again. Graduate schools only pay attention to your highest score.

7.) Reward Yourself. Give yourself something to look forward to after the test: a nice lunch, a favorite movie, an outing with a friend or family member. You’ve worked hard to get where you are, and you deserve a treat. This strategy can also help reduce anxiety about the test as it reminds you that life goes on – even after the dreaded exam!

Although you may not enjoy standardized tests, following these steps can make them much less daunting. The same skills that help you succeed in the classroom – time management, planning, self-care – can also boost your scores. The test looming in your future is just one step on the path to the life you want.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Dealing with Distractions


You’re ready to write a short paper for your English class. It’s only a two-page response to a novel you’ve been reading, so it shouldn’t take long. You sit down with your laptop. Before you start typing, you decide to check Facebook quickly. You comment on a friend’s post. Then you see that another friend has posted a funny cat video. You click on it, of course. You Tube recommends more cat videos; you watch two more before you start typing your essay.

Three hours, ten texts, three e-mails, and one conversation with your roommate later, you finish the essay and hit save. You don’t have time to proofread: you have history class, dinner, and a pickleball meeting ahead of you. Then, after pickleball, you need to study for that big biology test tomorrow.

You spent three hours doing what you could have done in an hour or less. And you didn’t even do it very well.

Sound familiar? Modern life is filled with distractions — and not just for students. Parents, faculty, and staff find their heads spinning between various screens and obligations. But to be productive, all of us have to put down our devices, prioritize our workload, and focus on the task at hand.

No one is saying you have to give up social media, texting, extracurricular activities, or your social life. We also know that some students have jobs and family responsibilities. However, if you’re a full-time student, college is your full-time position. As with any job, you should arrange your life around your studies, not your studies around your life.

Here are some tips to keep you grounded and focused as you navigate college life.

1.) Find Your Place. You need a space where you can concentrate on your work with a minimum of distractions. This may not be your dorm room or apartment! Consider studying in the library or Academic Support Center. When you really need to focus, check out the study carrels on the library’s second floor. You can get a key to one at the library’s circulation desk.

2.) Turn It Off! Turn off your music, phone, TV, and other devices while you study. If you’re working on a computer or tablet, resist the urge to keep multiple windows open. Tell yourself you’ll look at Instagram after you finish the paper. Some students insist they need background noise in order to concentrate. If this sounds like you, try listening to soft music during study sessions. However, don’t try to combine socializing, web surfing, or television with academics. They don’t mix.

3.) Schedule It. Fill out a Weekly Schedule. In addition to your classes, work, practices, and other commitments, make sure you block off time to study. Dedicate a few hours to studying most days of the week. For example, if you know that you’ll be working on assignments from 2-5 every Thursday, you’ll be able to reserve the evening for food, fun, and sleep.

4.) Remember Why You’re Here. You chose to attend college because you had a dream: you wanted to become an expert in something or prepare for a particular career. Everything else is secondary, including extracurricular activities, entertainment, and your social life. Remind yourself of your goals whenever any distraction tempts you.

5.) Focus on Fun. Heard about work-life balance? It’s hard to achieve when your work and study times blend. Imagine if you didn’t have to do your chemistry homework and catch up with friends simultaneously. You’d do a better job on the assignment – and you could relax and enjoy your friends’ company.

Imagine seeing your grades improve and having more time for yourself. Imagine being less stressed about your classes and doing better work than ever. Eliminating distractions and focusing on your studies can help you become more effective in all areas of your life. Here’s the best part of it: you don’t need to buy anything to achieve this balance. You have all the tools you need to become the best student you can be.

-Dorothy A. Dahm