A personal statement or statement of purpose is a central part of any graduate admissions application.
Like a college application essay, it gives a graduate admissions committee (usually made up of program faculty and current graduate students) a chance to learn more about you beyond your grades or test scores.
Unlike a college essay, however, a personal statement or statement of purpose for graduate or professional school should highlight what interests you about the program AND what you will contribute to the program in terms of research, seminar discussions, conferences and other collaborative opportunities. It should answer two central questions:
- What interests and qualifications make you the ideal applicant for this program?
- Why are you pursuing a career in this field?
A personal statement tells a story of experiences that have shaped your interest in your intended field of study and made you who you are. A personal statement is typically 500-800 words, or one to two double-spaced pages.
A Personal Statement should:
- TELL A STORY: Engage the reader. Use a writing style that is fresh and active. Don’t be afraid to use dialogue and descriptive language. Back up statements with examples and details.
- HAVE AN ANGLE: Even if your life has been less than dramatic, you still have a story to tell. Find a theme or “through line” that can unify all your paragraphs.
- PAY SPECIAL ATTENTION TO THE “LEAD”: The first paragraph will either grab the reader's attention or lose it. Use the lead to set the tone and direction for the statement. The lead can but does not have to be an attention-grabbing story. By the end of the first paragraph, the reader should know who you are and what your goal is.
- What's special, unique, distinctive, or impressive about you or your life story?
- When did you become interested in this field? What have you learned about it - and about yourself - that has further stimulated your interest and reinforced your conviction that you are well suited to this field? What insights have you gained?
- How have you learned about this field? What classes, readings, seminars, work or volunteer experiences, or conversations with people in the field have significantly advanced your knowledge or inspired you to learn more?
- If you have worked during your college years, what have you learned (leadership or managerial skills, for example), and how has that work contributed to your growth?
- What are your career goals?
- Are there any gaps or discrepancies in your academic record that you should explain (great grades but mediocre GRE scores, for example, or a distinct upward pattern to your GPA if it was only average in the beginning)?
- Have you had to overcome any unusual obstacles or hardships (for example, economic, familial, or physical) in your life?
- What personal characteristics (for example, integrity, compassion, and/or persistence) do you possess that would improve your prospects for success in the field or profession? Is there a way to demonstrate or document that you have these characteristics?
- What skills (for example, leadership, communicative, analytical) do you possess?
- Why might you be a stronger candidate for graduate school – and more successful and effective in the profession or field – than other applicants?
- What are the most compelling reasons you can give for the admissions committee to be interested in you?
Tell a story
Think in terms of showing or demonstrating through concrete experience. If your statement is fresh, lively and different, you'll put yourself ahead of the pack. If you distinguish yourself through your story, you will make yourself memorable.
Your desire to become a lawyer, engineer or whatever should be logical – the result of specific experience that is described in your statement. Your application should emerge as the logical conclusion to your story.
Find an angle
If you're like most people, your life story lacks drama, so figuring out a way to make it interesting becomes the big challenge. Find an angle or "hook."
Concentrate on your opening paragraph
This paragraph is the most important. Grab the reader's attention.
Tell what you know
The middle section of your essay should detail your interest and experience in your field. Be specific in relating what you know about it and use the language professionals use. Refer to work experiences, research, classes, conversations with people in the field, books you’ve read, seminars you've attended, or any other source of information about the career you want and why you're suited to it. Your choices of what to include and what to leave out will indicate your overall judgment.
Leave out some subjects
Certain things are best left out of personal statements. For example, references to experiences or accomplishments in high school or earlier are generally not relevant. Don't mention potentially controversial subjects (for example, controversial religious or political views).
Do some research
Many schools want to know why you're applying there rather than elsewhere. Do some research to find out what sets your choice apart from other universities or programs. If the school setting would provide an important geographical or cultural change for you, this might be a factor to mention.
Be meticulous. Type and proofread your essay very carefully. Many admissions officers say that good writing skills are important. Express yourself clearly and concisely. Stick to the word limits.
Statement of Purpose
In contrast to a personal statement, a statement of purpose focuses on your reasons for applying. It should discuss your professional, intellectual and research interests and the expertise you have gained.
A Statement of Purpose should:
- SHOW THAT YOU KNOW SOMETHING: The main section explains what you know and who you are. Show knowledge of your field (e.g., a specific research focus) or your profession. Show how you will impact the field, or what has impacted you in the pursuit of your field.
- FOCUS ON YOUR SPECIFIC RESEARCH or PROFESSIONAL INTERESTS WITHIN YOUR FIELD: Detail how your academic and professional experiences have developed your research or professional interests and prepared you to pursue them at a higher academic level. Include courses, experts whose work you admire or whose work aligns with your interests, and factors such as internship opportunities or opportunities afforded by the school’s location.
- MATCH YOUR RESEARCH INTERESTS with the PROGRAM: Explain how your research interests can be pursued at this program and this institution.
General Guidelines for Both Personal Statements and Statements of Purpose
Whether you are writing a Personal Statement or Statement of Purpose:
- Answer the questions that are asked: Lots of schools may ask for similar information, but not all are the same. Use different statements for different schools, depending on the requirements.
- Leave out some topics: Accomplishments from high school are probably not relevant. Also, avoid controversial subjects. Your choice of content indicates your maturity and judgment.
- Avoid clichés: Saying “I like science” or “I want to help people” isn't specific enough to warrant pursuing a graduate or professional degree.
- Do your research: What sets this program apart? Why does this program attract you?
- Stay focused on what you can offer: What can you offer them?
- Edit and proofread: Be meticulous and thorough with your editing. Type and proofread your essay carefully. Many admissions officers say good writing skills are important. Express yourself clearly and concisely. Stick to the word limits.
- Watch out for "I" statements: Be careful not to begin every statement with “I.” One way to vary sentence beginnings is to focus on the program and the field.
- Don’t simply list or tell stories about all the points that can be found in your resume or CV.
- Avoid sounding defensive or self-pitying. Instead, take responsibility for challenging or difficult life circumstances and show how you have grown as a person and as a potential candidate.
- Don’t preach to your reader or tell them things they already know. For example, don’t summarize the research of a professor in the program you are applying to; they know this already.
- Avoid talking about money as a motivating factor in your decision process.
Some of this page content was adapted from "Writing Personal Statements" by the UCLA Undergraduate Writing Center.