The Personal History Statement (sometimes called the Personal Statement) can be a description of what makes you unique, but it is NOT a place to share the intimate details of your life nor is it a place to go into lengthy explanations about your decisions. This can be an especially hard essay to write for some applicants with lived experience in foster care. There is often an inclination to share the difficulties you faced in your early life or as an independent young adult and how it has impacted your education. There is a place to describe your background in this essay but it must be written carefully. And although your experience in foster care has probably hindered your educational aspirations up to this point, your statements about your experience in foster care are now, believe it or not, an ASSET. Resiliency and self-determination are key character traits necessary for graduate school. In addition, many graduate schools are seeking a diverse group of students and your foster care experience places you in that milieu. Writing about yourself just needs to be done with care.
UC Berkeley calls this statement a Personal Statement as do other schools and programs and it can get a little confusing. If you are asked to write just a Personal Statement, then please go to the section for the Personal Statement. If you are asked to write a Statement of Purpose AND a Personal Statement then you should follow the guidelines for the Personal History Statement that are described here.
So what should you put in the Personal History Statement? UC Berkeley has an excellent description of what should go in this statement so start with this overview. Basically you want to provide a picture of who you are outside the more narrow focus of your research and career interests. Of great importance is also a description of your achievements despite great challenges whether they are cultural, familial or economic.
One good way to insure that you are communicating what you want to say is to have at least one or even two or three people read your statement and provide feedback or even help with the editing. Most good writing is written and re-written and incorporates comments from other people, so don’t hesitate to include the ideas of others, as long as you think they express your thoughts as well.
The Personal History Statement can be written in a variety of ways and has a less predictable structure than the Statement of Purpose. Reading these statements can provide you with some ideas, styles and narrative themes that you can appropriate and apply to your own situation. Below are links to essays from successful applicants. Analytical comments that describe the narrative trajectory accompany each essay.
AH Personal History: The writer turns the foster care experience into ‘lessons for life.’ After a brief description she demonstrates how she faced the challenges she encountered and how it has helped her grow as a person.
KH Personal History: This writer ensures that the reader understands that his varied work experience is a product of his career explorations and that it has always been motivated by his desire to serve. He explains his experience as a peer mentor in the EOP program and how this led to work as a teacher after graduation.
MR Personal History: In this narrative, the writer connects her vulnerability as an abandoned child to her environmental advocacy for disadvantaged communities and her interest in public health. Concerned that her GRE scores would not be adequate, she also indicates a reason why her grades are a better indicator of her ability to succeed in graduate school. In addition, she broadens the readers understanding of her background by tying in a trip abroad to visit extended family members and how this has provided even more encouragement to pursue graduate studies.
RP Personal History: This narrative explains how the writer developed a strong work ethic based on his mother’s own approach to life. He also explains his break in academic studies at UC Berkeley because of a desire to reconnect to an absent father. The writer is able to incorporate how he has always loved to teach and how this contributes to his long-term goal of becoming a professor.
VA Personal History: The narrative details leadership roles the writer took as an undergraduate, her athletic participation and travel abroad, as well as subsequent work experience she has had since completing her undergraduate degree.
The Personal History statement is often used to award fellowships, especially within the UC system. You may also be asked to write a separate Diversity statement that will be used to consider funding for both incoming and continuing students. These are usually merit based awards that are general in scope. The intention of these awards is to create a diverse group of graduate students and increase the number of underrepresented students in higher education.
There are also awards that have a very specific focus. For example, UCLA provides general Graduate Opportunity Fellowships, but also has funding for a student working in Armenian Studies, a student from Sweden and a student who is experiencing cancer. A list of these fellowships is generally available and if your circumstances make you eligible, then you will want to tailor your statement to address the nature of the funding.
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