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How to Write a Personal Statement for Graduate School

Ana-Marcela Lopez / Abound: Grad School »

What is a personal statement? 

A personal statement is an essential component of most graduate school applications. This short essay allows applicants to tell their unique stories. Most, if not all graduate school applicants are intelligent, successful, and ambitious, and they might even have nearly identical résumés! So how does the admissions committee choose between qualified applicants? In many cases, a well-written, compelling personal statement can make a candidate stand out as the ideal choice. 

Why is it important?

First, it’s important to know that it’s different from a statement of purpose (but if you are looking for insight on a statement of purpose, check this out!). As similar as they sound, they are actually quite different. Simply put, a statement of purpose is about what you want to do, while a personal statement is about who you are. A personal statement is your opportunity to let the admissions officers really get to know the person behind the résumé. Personal statements tend to be more informal since they are, well, personal. Admissions officers typically don’t offer rigid prompts since they want to know about your unique experiences. However, there are some components that every statement should have. 

Which topics should I write about?

Since a personal statement affords more flexibility than a statement of purpose, there aren’t specific topics that you have to write about. While this offers you greater freedom with what you write, there are a few questions you should ask yourself to help guide your writing:

  • What’s special, unique, and/or impressive about you or your life story? 
  • What details of your life (personal or family problems, history, people, or events that have shaped you or influenced your goals) might help the committee better understand you or help set you apart from other applicants?
  • When did you become interested in this field, and 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? Avoid clichés like wanting to be a doctor because of a desire to help others. While the sentiment is nice, it doesn’t make you unique. 
  • How have you learned about this field—through classes, readings, seminars, work or other experiences, or conversations with people already in the field? This is a wonderful opportunity to relate your experiences to specific components of the graduate program. It will demonstrate the sincerity of your interest. 
  • What are your career goals? 
  • Are there any discrepancies in your academic record that you should explain? This is not the time to tout off excuses or try and make admissions officers feel bad for you. Make sure you are contextualizing your shortcomings honestly and demonstrate what you’ve learned from them.
  • What personal characteristics (for example, integrity, compassion, and/or resilience) do you possess that would improve success in the field or profession? Is there a way to demonstrate that you have these characteristics? Think of events from your internship or research experiences where you have implemented these qualities.
  • What skills (for example, leadership, communicative, analytical) do you possess? How will you use these skills as a student at this particular institution? 

Brainstorm ideas for some of the common personal statement topics.

You don’t have to answer every single question in your letter. In fact, you shouldn’t. Rather than addressing every topic you can think of, put more energy to developing a few topics more fully. Weave them together to create an interesting narrative that will captivate the admissions committee. It will read like an authentic story instead of a transcribed interview. 

Draft your personal statement

As you begin to write your personal statement, remember that you’re telling a story. Every story needs structure to keep an audience interested and invested. Make sure your personal statement is focused, relevant, and original. 

FOCUS: Did you know that the world record for longest autobiography is likely held by Finnish author Kalle Päätalo? His not-so-brief, 26-volume series is considered the longest published autobiographical narrative in the world. Don’t be like Kalle Päätalo. As tempting as it is to include everything in your life from your birth to college graduation, admissions officers don’t have the time or, frankly, the patience to read through every milestone in your life. They understand you are a nuanced individual whose many experiences have shaped ideals, values, relationships, and goals. However, for the sake of efficiency and clarity, prioritize a clear direction in your writing. It’s also important to demonstrate your ability to follow directions. Be mindful of word or page limits and adhere to them.

RELEVANCE: When you find your focus, make sure the examples and experiences you are discussing are relevant to your goals. Although this is more personal, admissions officers still want to know about your goals as they relate to the program. Draw connections between your experiences, aspirations, and inspiration to specific parts of the program. How do your goals and values align with those of the institution or specific professors? 

ORIGINALITY: Again, a personal statement is more flexible than most grad school application requirements, but that doesn’t mean you should submit the same one over and over again. First, there might be different requirements for each one. No matter how compelling your statement is, failure to address a component of the prompt is a great way to get your entire application tossed. Make sure you’re addressing the prompt fully and originally. Second, an admissions committee wants a sincere statement, not one that you’ve recycled. It demonstrates a lack of sincerity and motivation.

Ask trusted confidantes to review your work.

Once you have written your statement, carefully check it for relevance, tone, grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Ask a trusted colleague or professor to read over it and give you suggestions. These confidantes can provide feedback on your writing and also suggest new or different directions. After all, they have witnessed firsthand your abilities and work ethic. Their insight can redirect and enrich your statement. 

Press submit.

This is the easiest part, but can also be the most nerve-wracking. You’ve put your heart and soul into this statement, and it can feel personal if you’re not accepted. Take a deep breath and trust that you’ve done everything to prove that you are the ideal candidate. A personal statement is a great way to give an admissions committee a holistic look into who you are. You are more than your résumé, and they want to know what makes you special. With proper planning and execution, a personal statement can make all the difference in your chances of admission. 

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