What’s in a Personal Statement?

Admissions, Yale Divinity School

With less than one month to go before our Feb. 1st application deadline, I wanted to share a revised post from ISM alum and former Assistant Dean of Admissions at Yale Divinity School, Sean McAvoy (M.A.R. ’10), who takes readers through all of the necessary information you will need to craft the perfect Personal Statement! Above all, we want to get to know YOU in your personal statement–who you are, what you’ve done, and what you hope to accomplish at Yale.  So fear not–armed with this information, you’re one step closer to checking the personal statement off of your list!  (Originally posted on the Yale Divinity Admissions Blog, 409 Prospect, with revisions and edits by Katharine Luce.) 


If there is one single part of the application that causes the most consternation, the most worry, and the most speculation, it’s most likely the Personal Statement.

The directions for the Institute of Sacred Music Personal Statement are as follows:

A personal statement not to exceed 700 words explaining reasons for your interest in theological study at the Institute and the Divinity School. Include your preparation for or interest in the academic programs in liturgical studies, in religion and the arts, or in preaching, and/or interest in and preparation for the ministry in common formation with musicians.

The Personal Statement directions for Yale Divinity School are thus:

Please upload a personal statement no more than two pages, double-spaced, and at least 10 pt font. The personal statement will help the Admissions Committee evaluate your application to Yale Divinity School and should address your academic and vocational goals; how a Yale Divinity School education can assist you in meeting those goals; and what gifts and experiences you feel you can contribute to your theological education at Yale. STM applicants should indicate their proposed academic field of study and the professor with whom they would like to work.

Do not be mistaken: The Personal Statement is by far the most important part of your application.  It is your chance to introduce yourself to the admissions committee, tell us why you want to come here, and what coming here will do for you.

Do not be afraid:  The Personal Statement is the way to make your application shine.  It’s a great opportunity to make your case for graduate theological education in general, and studying at the ISM in particular.

The Statement is only 700 words long.  This is not a lot of words.  If you go overboard, and feel you have said everything you should and made it as tight as possible, do not despair.  You will be fine.  We want a well-written Statement, and some stories take a little longer to tell.  If your Statement stretches to three pages or more, you should edit further.  Remember Rule 13 of Strunk & White’s seminal The Elements of Style: “Omit needless words.”

(More links to help you with the writing process appear at the bottom of this page!)

No matter the degree you are applying for, your Personal Statement should tell the Admissions Committee three things:

–       Who you are.

–       What you want to do.

–       How studying at the ISM and YDS will help you to do it.

Who you are is not meant to be an existential exercise in self-examination.  Rather, we simply want to know what brings you to graduate theological education.  It can be as simple as “Ever since I could read I have been fascinated with the Bible”, or something more complex, such as a personal situation that made you consider ministry or advanced study in religion and the arts.  This section provides the context for your application to the ISM– why you’re wanting to attend in the first place.

What you want to do is the course of study you want to conduct.  We do not mean by this a roadmap for the next two or three years – we do not expect you to have every class plotted in advance (this is why our application does not require a plan of study).  But we do expect you to have more than a vague idea of what you’ll do when you get here.  If you’re really gung-ho for ordination in your denomination, say that.  If all you want is to study philosophical theology with John Hare, say that.  If the New Testament is your thing, and you also want to learn practical ministerial skills, say that.

Even if none of the above apply to you, and all you have are certain questions about God, theology, or what discipleship and ministry look like in the modern age, that’s okay too, but say that in your essay.  We like people who have questions, but we want to know what those questions are, and you should know them, too.  This section provides the action for your time at YDS – what you’ll do when you get here.

How the ISM and YDS will help you to do it are the reasons why this is the right program for you.*  This involves a little research on your behalf; what does the ISM offer that appeals to you?  Is it our ecumenical environment?  Or perhaps our sense of community?  Maybe our world-class academics & faculty?  Our artistic, literary, and musical resources? The way the ISM and the Div School integrate with the rest of Yale?  Our practical training for ministry?  The Berkeley Divinity School?  Our many Joint-Degree Programs?  Perhaps it’s something else–but be sure to tell us!

No matter what the reasons are (and they can be many), this is where you get to tell us how the ISM is a perfect fit for you, and why YDS is the best environment for your gifts and talents.  To put it another way, here you explain how our programs in religion and the arts will serve your abilities and ambitions.  It is the section where you provide the resolution to the rest of your Statement, marrying your context for study with the action you’ll take when you get to our unique institution.

For each degree program, the Statement should be a little different.

For Master of Divinity applicants, your Statement should explain why you want to go into ministry, and how music, liturgy, and the arts will function within your ministry.  This is by nature a little more contextual/autobiographical than the others (caution: Do not write a purely autobiographical Statement), and you should describe the steps in your life that brought you to apply to the ISM.  Call-language is especially appropriate here.

“Ministry” itself takes a variety of forms.  We know that you may feel called to an academic career, and see the MDIV as the best way to achieve that.  Please articulate your academic calling and how the MDIV fits into that process.  Likewise, if your goal is ordained or lay ministry, tell us how Yale’s MDIV will best prepare you for your goal.  If you simply feel called to ministry but aren’t sure what your ministry will look like, tell us why our program is the best place for you to explore those options.

For Master of Arts in Religion Concentrated applicants, your Statement should tell us what you want to study in the subject area to which you are applying.  This is a little more specific/action-oriented than the others (again, caution: Do not write a plan of study) and you should describe what it is about the subject that fascinates you, what kind of questions you have, and why you want to study it in greater depth, and what makes Yale the best place to do so.

You should know the faculty in your area (ex. Peter Hawkins for the Religion in Literature Concentration), some of the classes, and the greater University-wide climate for your project, such as the opportunity to take courses outside of the Divinity School (Concentration students will need to take advantage of this).  You should not simply give us a list of faculty and classes; the faculty in your Concentration will be reading your application, and they know what courses they teach.  Rather, tell them how they and their courses can help you achieve your goals.

For Master of Arts in Religion Comprehensive applicants, your Statement should tell us why you would benefit from a graduate theological education that includes a variety of different subjects and discipliens.  This can be a little more action-oriented; for instance, one of the best Statements I ever read for this degree described how the person wanted to pursue a career in religious journalism and needed a well-rounded graduate course of theological study to prepare for this.

The MAR Comprehensive is the ideal degree for someone who wants further education in theology but would feel constrained by a particular concentration.  You will graduate with an excellent working knowledge of the Bible, Christian history, its antecedents, theological implications for music, literature and the arts, the practice of its ministry, as well as exposure to a variety of other aspects of Christianity.  Tell us why this is for you.

For Master of Sacred Theology applicants, you Statement must be as specific as possible.  This is the most resolution-oriented of all the Statements.  You need to have a project to work on, and one or two faculty members to work with.  If you do not have both of those elements, your Statement needs to be rewritten.

The STM is the only degree we offer that requires a thesis, which itself requires great focus from the first day of school onwards.  Your Statement should reflect this focus, as well as a profound awareness of what YDS offers that will enable you to make the most of your year at Yale.

For everyone, the best advice I can give is this:  Your statement should tell us who you are, and communicate your passion.  There’s a reason you want to come to the ISM.  There may be several.  Tell us what they are!  We want (and the world needs) passionate, engaged students who have come alive, and will do so on our campus and beyond.  Your Personal Statement is where you can tell us what makes you come alive, and why YDS will help you do that.

And a final note: PLEASE PROOFREAD!

The following are immensely helpful.  They are all free, online resources (apologies if you find any of their rules broken in this post):

Strunk & White’s Elements of Style

George Orwell’s Five Rules for Effective Writing

George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” (from whence the above Five Rules derive)

The Purdue Online Writing Lab

Good luck! And happy writing!!

*We recognize that many of our applicants will be applying to more than one graduate school; your reasons for attending each school will be different.  Never use the exact same essay for multiple schools, swapping out only the institution’s name via Control + F (it’s also very embarrassing when this inevitably fails, and your YDS Statement ends with “…and that’s why Harvard Divinity School is the best place for me.”  This happens every year.).  We can spot a generic submission pretty quickly.  The ISM, YDS and its peers are different enough that you should be able to articulate to each of us why our unique programs are well-suited for you.