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A personal statement and/or a statement of purpose is often required by graduate school applications. Sometimes these terms are used interchangeably, but sometimes they can have different meanings. For example, some schools might use the term personal statement to ask for more personal information, such as your personal history, to get an idea of who you are as a person. Other schools might ask for a statement of purpose to understand why you want to attend graduate school and a particular program, which might mean focusing more on academics than on your personal history. Some schools might label it one or the other and ask for a combination of both. For this reason, it’s important to carefully read the prompt to understand what is being asked of you.
Depending on the field and program, it’s possible that each school or program might have a slightly different prompt for these documents. Unless your program uses a common application, it’s highly recommended that you tailor your personal statement or your statement of purpose to fit the school or program you’re applying to.
There are as many ways to approach personal statements and statements of purpose as there are writers. Here are a few ways these documents are generally approached:
- Emphasize motivation and goals for attending graduate school
- Emphasize academic study and research interests
- Emphasize qualifications based on experience and potential professional contributions
- A combination of the above approaches
While the approach you take will depend on what you want to highlight, your experiences, the school/type of program you’re applying to, and your own writing style, there are a few things all statements should do:
- Answer the question(s) asked and respond fully to the prompt.
- Tell readers about yourself beyond what other materials (resume/CV, writing sample, transcript) show.
- Be forward-looking. For example, explain your contribution to the program, how it’s a good fit for you, and how it’ll help you achieve your goals.
- Be honest and confident.
- Focus on a few main topics that demonstrate your professionalism, intellectual maturity, and ability to do intellectual work in the field.
- Be tailored for individual programs/schools (unless you are in a field that uses a common application).
- Be as readable, clear, and organized as possible.
Remember, this is your statement and each school will want slightly different information, so this isn’t the only way to structure a personal statement or a statement of purpose, but it’s one way to get started:
- 1st paragraph: Introduce yourself (personal and/or academic/professional background), state what program you’re applying to, try to explain why you want to get into this program and your purpose for pursuing graduate school.
- 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc. paragraphs: Content paragraphs that will depend on your experiences, what you want to highlight, and what you’re being asked about and whether you’re being asked to write a personal statement or a statement of purpose.
- Last paragraph: Give readers a concise and strong reason for why you’re a good fit for the program and what you hope to achieve in the future based on this program. The content in this paragraph is traditionally tailored specifically for the school and program you’re applying to.
Depending on the program and the number of applicants, readers might skim your statement and focus their attention on the first and last sentences of each paragraph. It might be helpful to give those sentences a bit of extra attention.
Try answering the following questions to brainstorm ideas for your statement:
- When did you initially become interested in your chosen major or career?
- How did that interest develop?
- When did you become certain that this is what you want to do?
- What attracts you to this discipline or career?
- What kind of work or projects that are related to your interests and/or this discipline and/or career have you found rewarding?
- What do you expect to get out of this program/experience/degree?
- What life experiences have prepared you to succeed in this program or to pursue graduate education?
- What personality traits set you apart from others? Why and how?
- What life experiences have you had that are different from those of other potential applicants?
- Sometimes it’s helpful to think of quality over quantity. Don’t feel that you need to reach the word limit, and in some cases, those who read your applications may value conciseness.
- Think of the “bigger picture” when writing about your experiences. Rather than simply describing your experiences, also explain what you learned from them and why they motivate you to pursue graduate school.
- Demonstrate “fit” with the programs (e.g. faculty, program resources). Help the readers understand why the program will help you develop your professional/academic interests, and how you can contribute to the program and field.
Revising and Editing
Make sure your statement answers the question or prompt as fully as possible and revise it multiple times until it’s as clear as you can make it. One helpful way of doing this is to share it with multiple people. While each person will give you different feedback, they will also often give you ideas for revising and editing and a sense of how the committee will read it. You can ask any of the following to read your statement and provide you feedback (and it might make sense to have a combination of people from within and outside your field):
- Writers Workshop consultants
- Recent graduates from the program you’re applying to or from the discipline you hope to join
- Current and past mentors, such as professors or bosses
- Your letters of recommendation writers