The personal statement, an integral component of most graduate or professional school applications, gives you an opportunity to tell your story to the admissions committee. A well-written, reflective personal statement can greatly enhance an application. It will not only demonstrate your writing skills but also explain why you are a qualified, dedicated, and suitable candidate for that program.
To begin your personal statement, read the prompt—and the entire application—carefully. Because terms are often used interchangeably (e.g. personal statement, statement of purpose, letter of intent, statement of interest), it is essential to first determine what is expected from you.
Some applications ask for a general personal statement. This prompt will typically be vague and open-ended.
Ex. General Personal Statement Prompt: Provide a statement of purpose that addresses your decision to pursue graduate studies.
Other applications may offer more guidance by providing specific questions to be answered. In this case, be sure that you clearly address each component of the question in your statement.
Ex. Personal Statement Prompt with Specific Parameters: Drawing on relevant coursework and professional experience, please discuss your academic interests, your motivations for applying to this program, and your career goals upon receiving your PhD.
In addition to a personal statement, it is common for applications to call for supplemental essays. If multiple essays are required, adapt your personal statement so that you don’t repeat information. Each essay should contribute something unique, and all of your essays should work together to form one cohesive application. For example, if asked to write about your research interests in a separate essay (often called an academic statement of purpose), don’t spend much time detailing these interests in your personal statement. Instead, use the personal statement as a space to discuss something else, such as a related personal characteristic, a challenge you’ve overcome, or a professional experience that suggests why you’re a good candidate.
Always be mindful of formatting and length requirements, as these vary widely.
Before you begin writing, brainstorm so that you have a clear idea of what you want to say. Don’t rely on writing what you think the admissions committee wants to hear. Because committees read hundreds of applications, they can recognize when a personal statement sounds dishonest or relies too much on general information or “fluff.” Also, leave yourself enough time to reflect on your statement: It will drastically improve your content.
Think about the following questions. Though specific responses will vary depending on the prompt, personal statements typically highlight these key pieces of information.
- Why do I want to pursue graduate studies or professional training?
- What aspect of this field is most compelling to me?
- How have I prepared myself (e.g. with jobs, internships, research) to succeed in this field?
- What are my academic interests and career goals?
- Have I faced any adversities that have impacted my studies? Are there any discrepancies in my academic or personal record that should be explained?
- What else can I say about myself to convince the committee that I am a serious candidate?
- Why have I chosen this particular school and program?
- How can my background, skills, or experiences contribute to the diversity of this program?
Research the programs that interest you so you can tailor your personal statement to each school. Doing so will demonstrate to the admissions committee that you are knowledgeable and that you can contribute to the work of their department. Departmental websites are valuable sources for finding admissions statistics, program strengths, and faculty expertise. If you hope to work with a particular professor, become familiar with his or her work. Consider sending an email to introduce yourself and discuss how his or her research aligns with your academic interests. Personal contact with faculty shows initiative and can help you better determine which programs suit you.
Writing Your Personal Statement
Because personal statements are relatively short, be sure that every component of your essay is necessary and serves a clear purpose. Be specific; it’s better to discuss one compelling experience than to summarize everything you’ve done. Giving concrete examples and details will help you avoid sounding vague or clichéd. When using adjectives like interesting or significant, follow up with something specific to demonstrate how or why these words are justified.
Ex. Too vague: I am highly motivated to study psychology.
Ex: Better: As my activities at Texas A&M demonstrate, I’m highly motivated to study psychology and have participated in initiatives beyond the required coursework for my degree. My interest in counseling psychology culminated in my work as an Undergraduate Research Fellow, where I studied how negative emotions affect decision-making. From this experience working under Dr. Juan Rivera, I learned…
The committee will already have your resume or curriculum vita, so don’t simply list things you’ve accomplished. Instead, analyze your experiences and discuss how they influenced your decision to pursue graduate studies. Reflect on the following questions:
- How did this experience change me?
- What did I learn from this experience and how can I apply it in the future?
- How does this experience relate to my academic or career goals?
- What do I want the admissions committee to learn about me from this experience?
Keep a confident tone throughout the statement. Use dynamic action verbs and positive adjectives to show enthusiasm. Even if you have to discuss something negative, such as a low GPA in your first semester of college, frame the experience in a positive, forward-looking manner.
Set the completed draft of your personal statement aside for a few days. Giving yourself time away from your statement can help you think of new ideas or details to add. It’s also easier to edit your own work after you’ve had some time away from it.
If possible, send your personal statement to those who will be writing your letters of recommendation or to other professors in your discipline for their comments. Faculty members can provide closer insight into your field, and they often have helpful tips for the admissions process.
Make good use of your resources at Texas A&M. The University Writing Center, the Office of Professional School Advising, and the Career Center all help students in the graduate and professional school processes. Each of these departments has advisors or consultants who can assist with personal statements.
If you have questions about the personal statement or the application in general, be sure to read the departmental website thoroughly, as most common questions are answered there. When in doubt, it’s fine to contact the program for clarification.
Finally, remember that the committee members reviewing your application will be reading a lot of statements. Make sure yours is memorable (in a good way!) and helps them to see you as an individual—ideally, an individual they would enjoy having in their program.
Doran, Jo, and Allen Brizee. Writing the Personal Statement. The Writing Lab and OWL at Purdue and Purdue University, 2008. Web. 17 December 2011.
Graduate School—Statement. UC Berkeley Career Center. Web. 19 December 2011.
Writing Personal Statements. Virginia Tech Department of English. Web. 20 December 2011.