A Personal Statement Manifesto for Older Graduate and Non-Traditional Students
One of the most common questions I get when I work with any student over the age of 24 is: “Will they think I’m a flake because I [dropped out of school] or [am changing paths] or [insert fear here].” Alas, despite great changes in the way most careers look today, we still seem to carry around this notion that a successful person is someone who knows what they want to do right out of college, settles down onto the steady, beaten career path, and never makes a move.
But all you need to do is take one look at LinkedIn to see just how few people work this way anymore. Most resumes list one year here, a couple of years there, and more job titles than I personally knew ever existed (Chief Happy Maker? Really?). While some career paths will undoubtedly require more consistency than others (particularly those that involve drilling into our teeth or making sure our bridges stay standing), most graduate programs and employers appreciate a candidate with a diverse background, just as long as it’s driven by passion, engagement, a few basic skill sets, and the willingness to work hard to fill in any gaps.
With these principles in mind, there are a few key strategies that any older or even not-so-old student returning to college or applying to graduate school can use to emphasize the positives.
1. Write it like the journey it is. It may feel to you like you bounced around from one thing to another, but for most candidates, that’s just not the case. Most likely you began your career by following one interest or passion, took note of the pros and cons and learned a whole bunch of life lessons, which then drove you into your next experience during which you took notes....etc. With each step, you’ve gotten a little bit closer to finding exactly what it is you want to do, and you’ve added new skills that help you contribute to each role along the way.
2. Find the thread. Once you’ve begun to embrace this idea of your experiences being a journey rather than a ping pong ball, find the thread that ties it all together. Let’s say, for instance, that you worked in the kitchen of a small boat after college, moved to Seattle to work as a barista in a coffee shop on Puget Sound, jumped into being a business analyst at a pharmaceutical company, and are now applying to marine biology programs. Well, the thread here is clearly the sea - being around it, studying it, observing it. With each step in your journey, you learned more about why you needed to be close to the sea...except for the business analyst role, which you can frame as giving you the nitty gritty, analytical skills you’ll need in this PhD program. Yes, even if it was for a pharmaceutical company, that counts. Tell your story like you’re the hero of a quest. What tools did you need to gather before you could reach your moment of truth?
3. Frame the present moment as the culminating point. Look, you and I know that in ten years you may change your mind and decide not to be what you’re applying to be now. But if you’re prepared to leave your job and put this much money into your education, if you’re going to suffer through the stress of the application process, you better be pretty passionate about the programs you’re applying to. Let that come through in your application, highlighting your application as the culminating point of your journey. Throughout all of your experiences, throughout all of your exploration, it’s all come down to this.
Your story is compelling and you do not seem like a flake. You just have to sit down and find the thread and passions that tie it all together so that we can see the connections just as well as you do.
Leah Kaminsky is the founder and head writing specialist at Just Start Applications. She’s been writing since before she was born (that’s right, it’s possible!) and has over a decade of experience helping students and business people tell their stories using their authentic voice. Check out her full bio here and contact us today for help getting into the college, graduate school or medical school of your choice. Cute photos of puppies running through meadows are also welcome.
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A Personal Statement Manifesto for Older Graduate and Non-Traditional Students How non-traditional students, returning students and older graduate students should approach the personal statement.
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