Getting Into Grad School: Writing a Personal Statement

Graduate program applications can be daunting, but there's always help at hand.

As a first generation student, I had very little in the way of background knowledge when it came to applying to grad school. My chosen school, McGill’s Max Bell School of Public Policy, was highly competitive, and it took me months to build up the courage to begin my application. Once I started my application, I felt even more lost, and intimidated, by the process.

I needed help. So, I reached out to a community of other first generation students, a group called the Shoestring Initiative, and asked for somebody, anybody, to offer me whatever advice they could spare. Elaine Laberge, who went on to become my friend and mentor, kindly offered me her full support. Her support remains something for which I am deeply grateful.

I wrote more drafts of my personal statement than I can count, as I simultaneously worked to format my CV and to collect the needed reference letters. It was the statement, however, that I found the most challenging. How do you summarize your life in 1,000 words or less?

Elaine helped me. She offered words of support, and reviewed draft after draft of my letter. I submitted my application to the Max Bell School of Public Policy on the final day of applications, having wanted every last minute to edit my letter.

I got in. And, I received a scholarship, a much-needed relief after already having taken on debt for my undergrad.

In August of 2020, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, I started my studies at the Max Bell School of Public Policy. My first class was taken in my parent’s basement. In July of 2021, I graduated from Max Bell. I was the first of my family to receive a Bachelor’s degree, and in 2021, became the first with a Master’s degree as well.

However, without the support of my family, friends, and community, I don’t think I would have even been accepted, let alone have graduated. Without the generational knowledge of post-secondary institutions, grad school can be far more challenging than it otherwise would be. Even getting in can be needlessly difficult. And so, I want to share my experience in applying to grad school, as well as my actual personal statement, for any other first generation students, or anyone, really, who may be struggling. Below, please see the letter that got me into grad school, a letter that I could not have written without the support of of Elaine, and a letter that, I hope, can support other students. Please feel free to use my letter as a guide for what sort of information to include within your own unique personal statement, and as a framework for what formatting can look like.

Here it is:

Practical policy: On wanting to enact tangible change

In mid-October 2015, the political tensions were reverberating across Canada. I was just a few months too young to vote, and was taking my first ever class on Canadian politics. On October 20th, I went to class, where the historical event of the night before wasn’t even mentioned. No discussion on shifting political ideology, on voter turnout, or on the range of federal policies that would soon be implemented by our new government. When I walked out of that class that day, I decided that it was critical for me to learn more about the tangible ramifications of political theory, versus focusing purely on the abstract. I saw so many problems in the world around me, and desperately wanted to use what I learned in school to find solutions. For me, it was this desire that became the driving force of my university career.

At 19, I was becoming more engaged with activism, specifically around food policy. Eventually, I was hired to manage my campus food bank. I’ve always worked while being a student, and while running a food bank and being a full-time student was difficult, I enjoyed the challenge. While working on a shoestring budget, I fed up to 200 students a day, while also developing food security policy with the University of Victoria’s Student’s Society. It seemed ridiculous that here, in a well-off city, at a well-funded university, we had hundreds of students going hungry. Although I was not in a position to make structural changes, I learned the importance of in-the-meantime shifts and small-scale policy solutions. To further support students in a respectful and relational way (i.e., not shaped by a deficit-based premise or perpetuating stigmatization), I led over 10 workshops and events on topics ranging from preparing food while living with a disability, to supporting local food systems to navigating food labels.

At this point in my schooling, I was drawn to the broad-reaching ramifications of political insecurity, civic “disobedience,” and climate change on global food systems. Through an intersectional lens, coupled with my lived experiences of food insecurity, I directly applied this knowledge at work. For me, education was also meant to play a practical role, and I was privileged to hold a job where I could directly apply what I’d learned in class.

Although working full-time, carrying a full course, and honouring my familial obligations occasionally impacted my GPA, in my third year as an undergraduate, I was published for the first time. “She was asking for it: How Canadian media supports rape culture” (2018, p. 12) was written in the wake of the #MeToo movement. The article pays particular attention to the deeply biased reporting of sexualized violence committed against Indigenous women. Just as the grassroots #MeToo movement was sweeping the world, so too did the Victoria Women’s March sweep Victoria. I played a central role in organizing the event on the Songhees, Esquimalt and WSÁNEĆ peoples’ traditional territory, and galvanized city-wide engagement. Alongside a small but dedicated group of volunteers, the march was rounded out by speeches from Indigenous matriarchs, Tsastilqualus Nation representatives, and the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre. The classroom conversations we’d had on feminist theory suddenly felt a thousand times more relevant.

By graduation, three of my academic papers had been published, the food bank had a successful assortment of programs and policies, and I was more engaged with political action than ever. Around this time, I was volunteering with the British Columbia Council for International Cooperation, working on their program, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Youth Bootcamp. In July of 2019, myself and 19 other young people attended the United Nations High Level Political Forum on the SDGs in order to ensure youth voices were represented at the highest level of policy making. While there, we hosted an event on intergenerational equity at the Canadian consulate, and spoke to the fact that future generations must also be considered in policy making. Intergenerational equity remains a critical lense through which I view policy.

Also in the spring of 2019, just prior to my graduation, I represented the riding of Victoria at an event called Daughters of the Vote, for politically engaged young women, in the House of Commons. For the first time, I truly experienced politics in action. Upon my return, I immediately applied for a position with Alistair MacGregor, Cowichan — Malahat — Langford MP, NDP. Three days after my convocation, I began work at his constituency office, and later began working on his re-election campaign. I am thrilled to be engaged in learning to navigate the political side of daunting public and social policy issues such as food security, gender equity, and climate change; issues that were critical elements within the local debates, while also bringing sustainable development goals to life on both a deeply localized scale and at the national level. In short, in my current role, my interest in public and social policy continues to flourish. This is my passion.

My interest in the Max Bell Master of Public Policy (MPP) program is shaped by my dedication to addressing the concerns that have dominated my life and those of other marginalized individuals, families, communities, and nations: food security, gender equity, and social justice. Part of my values are a commitment to making meaningful and tangible differences to tackle systemic inequality and injustice. Second, the program combines theory with practical skills and effective policy implementation. Specifically, the program offers unparalleled opportunities to create accessible and applicable policies for real organizations within the Policy Lab. Third, I will learn from professors who are practitioners and learn alongside similarly motivated and engaged students. Finally, I firmly believe that I will find a home in the MPP teaching program. It is a place where I can build upon my five years of political and social advocacy and public policy work. Through the program, I will attain the knowledge and skills that I can apply in building a career in social and public policy.

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