Written by Thaimi Fina

So if you’re like me, you couldn’t help but let out an overly enthusiastic girlish squeal last Wednesday during the Season 3 premiere of everyone’s favorite dysfunctional bunch: Modern Family. Whether you’re tuning in just to check out what hilarious fight Cam and Mitchell are a-brewing, or what Colombian miscommunications Gloria’s gotten herself into again, you always manage to pick up some witty life lessons along the way. Now what if I told you that your favorite Modern Family characters could also offer you some valuable advice about writing the most effective personal statement for graduate school? Skeptical? Understandably so. But, have the Toppel Peers ever steered you wrong before??? (Quick: The answer is no.) Follow along as we reminisce about our favorite Modern Family quotes, while learning how they could help you successfully stand out in a pool of graduate school applicants.

PHIL DUNPHY: I’m the cool dad. That’s my thang. I’m hip. I surf the Web. I text. LOL: laughing out loud. OMG: Oh my God. WTF: Why the face? Um you know, I know all the dances to High School Musical so…

Now there’s no denying that Phil is easily the most unintentionally hilarious dad on the block… but the cool dad? Let’s not get crazy. Phil is constantly trying to prove to his wife, children, and us viewers that he’s hip and “in the know.” But even all the High School Musical dance moves in the world couldn’t convince Alex and Haley that their dad is indeed “the cool dad.” How does this fit in with the dreaded essay that determines the next 2-5 years of your life, you say? Excellent question! Avoid writing what you think admissions committees want to hear, and instead write what comes natural to you. Admissions committee members have heard it all before and can spot a cliché a million miles away. For instance, if you’re applying to med school avoid stating that you want to become a doctor in order to “help people and save lives.” A basic rule of thumb I always communicate to students is: if you think it’ll be in someone else’s personal statement too, get rid of it. Be genuine and original. Let the admissions committee members get to know the real you, not the “OMG, LOL, Why The Face” you.

And on that note…

CAMERON TUCKER: We’re a very traditional family.
MITCHELL PRITCHETT: That’s what the disabled lesbian shaman who blessed Lily’s room said, too.

Were you born into an adopted family of loving gay parents and instantly blessed by a “disabled lesbian shaman?” Awesome. Don’t be afraid to stress what makes you unique! Admissions committees get tired of hearing the same old stories over and over again. Capture their interest by letting them see who you are, what your story is, where you’re coming from, and what makes you unique. (Keep in mind that what makes you unique doesn’t have to be tied to culture or upbringing, it could be a unique volunteer experience, work experience, or educational background that sets you apart). Have there been any particularly meaningful experiences in your life that have significantly shaped who you are or the career you want to pursue? Have you or someone close to you gone through an experience that few others have the chance to share? Write about it! Don’t let your personal statement read like a resume. Instead, color it with descriptive narratives that enable admissions committees to understand your story and discover the unique perspective you bring to the table.

PHIL DUNPHY: You can insult a lot of things about me – my hair, my voice, my balance-board exercises – but don’t insult my selling. That crosses a line. What line? Oh, you don’t see it? That’s because I just sold it!

Follow Phil’s example and don’t be afraid to highlight your accomplishments. This is your time to focus on you: what you’ve learned, the skills you’ve acquired, and the characteristics you possess that make you an excellent candidate for a particular graduate program. Don’t just describe how your interest in a specific career or field was piqued. Emphasize significant experiences and accomplishments that have cemented your interest in the field and prepared you to be successful in graduate school and in your profession of choice. For medical school, these accomplishments might include acquiring unique research experiences, learning to build rapport with diverse patients through community service, and developing foreign language proficiency. For law school, these accomplishments might include earning public speaking awards, honing critical thinking abilities through research, and publications demonstrating strong written communication skills. No matter what the program, think of the skills that are necessary to be successful in that field and demonstrate these abilities by incorporating specific and compelling examples in your essay. In other words, bring out your inner Phil Dunphy and don’t be afraid to sell yourself as a competitive candidate to admissions committees.

GLORIA: He scared the baby cheeses out of me!

Baby Cheeses Clip

HALEY: If you do this you’ll be a social piranha.
ALEX: Yes, I’ll be an Amazonian carnivorous fish.

Gloria and Haley are notorious for their hilarious communication blunders. While these make for great television, there is no room for them in your personal statement. And that’s where Toppel and The Writing Center come in handy. Stop by during walk-in hours anytime Monday-Thursday 10:00 am-4:30 pm for an individualized critique of your personal statement to ensure that there are no typos or grammatical errors in your document. The Writing Center can also help you to organize your thoughts and improve your transitions between ideas in your personal statement. Take advantage of these resources so that admissions committees can focus on the amazing content you’ve laid out for them, rather than fall out of their chair laughing at your baby cheeses reference.


PHIL DUNPHY: Cheerleading in my college was cool. The football players were so jealous, they wouldn’t even let me and my buddies, Trevor, Scotty, and Ling, go to their parties.

Turn everything into a positive! Football players didn’t invite you to their parties? It’s obviously because male cheerleaders have reached an intimidating level of cool! Even the most negative of experiences can result in growth, wisdom, and insight. If you choose to discuss difficult life circumstances in your personal statement, avoid harping on the negative. Always demonstrate what you learned from these experiences and how they made you stronger, more passionate, or how they taught you specific skills that will help you succeed in your profession. Also, avoid blaming others for past mistakes or challenges. For instance, don’t attribute your C in biology to your “terrible professor.” Take ownership of your mistakes; demonstrate what you learned from those experiences and how you are putting that knowledge into practice to avoid repeating the same mistakes again. Admissions committees are looking for maturity, ability to overcome obstacles, and strength of character. Follow Phil’s glass-half-full attitude and you will be sure to market yourself in the best possible light.

Not sure if you’re on the right track? Check out our Personal Statement Guide. Once you’ve created a rough draft, stop by The Toppel Career Center during walk-in hours (M-TH 10-4:30) to review your personal statement with a Graduate Assistant.