What is Personal Statement
Overview of the Personal Statement
Personal statements are sometimes also called "application essays" or
"statements of purpose." Whatever they are called, they are essentially
essays which are written in response to a question or questions on a
graduate or professional school application form which asks for some
sort of sustained response.
Some applications ask more specific questions than
others. There is no set formula to follow in shaping your response, only
choices for you to make, such as whether you should write an essay that
is more autobiographically focused or one that is more professionally
From application to application, requested personal
statements also vary widely in length, ranging from a couple of
paragraphs to a series of essays of a page or so each.
Personal statements are most important when you are
applying to an extremely competitive program, where all the applicants
have high test scores and GPA's, and when you are a marginal candidate
and need the essay to compensate for low test scores or a low GPA.
How are personal statements read, and by whom? It's most likely that
your personal statement will be read by professors who serve on an
admissions committee in the department to which you are applying. It is
important in developing your personal statement to carefully consider
this audience. What are the areas of specialty of this department, and
what might it be looking for in a graduate student?
Additionally, since personal statements will most
often be read as part of your "package," they offer an opportunity to
show aspects of yourself that will not be developed in other areas of
your application. Obviously, it is important that personal statements
are not simply prose formulations of material contained elsewhere in the
It may be helpful to think of the statement as the
single opportunity in your package to allow the admissions committee to
hear your voice. Often times, committees are sorting through large
numbers of applications and essays, perhaps doing an initial quick sort
to find the best applicants and then later reading some of the personal
statements more thoroughly. Given that information, you will want your
statement to readily engage the readers, and to clearly demonstrate what
makes you a unique candidate--apart from the rest of the stack.
:: One Process
for Writing the Personal Statement
1. Analyze the question(s) asked on a specific application.
2. Research the school and/or program to which you
3. Take a personal inventory (see below). Write out
a 2-3 sentence response to each question.
4. Write your essay.
5. Revise your essay for form and content.
6. Ask someone else - preferably a faculty member in
your area - to read your essay and make suggestions for further
7. Revise again.
: What makes you unique, or at least different from, any other
: What attracts you to your chosen career? What do
you expect to get out of it?
: When did you initially become interested in this
career? How has this interest developed? When did you become certain
that this is what you wanted to do? What solidified your decision?
: What are your intellectual influences? What
writers, books, professors, concepts in college have shaped you?
: How has your undergraduate academic experience
prepared you for graduate/professional school?
: What are two or three of the academic
accomplishments which have most prepared you?
: What research have you conducted? What did you
learn from it?
: What non-academic experiences contributed to your
choice of school and/or career? (work, volunteer, family)
: Do you have specific career plans? How does
graduate or professional school pertain to them?
: How much more education are you interested in?
: What's the most important thing the admissions
committee should know about you?
: Think of a professor in your field that you've had
already and that you like and respect. If this person were reading your
application essay, what would most impress him or her?
Do . . .
: Answer all the questions asked.
If you are applying to more than one program, you may find that each
application asks a different question or setof questions, and that you
don't really feel like writing a bunch of different responses. However,
you should avoid the temptation to submit the same essay for different
questions—it's far better to tailor your response to each question and
If you do find yourself short on time and must
tailor one basic essay to fit a number of different questions from a
number of different schools, target your essay to your first-choice
school, and keep in mind that the less your essay is suited to an
application's particular questions, the more you may be jeopardizing
your chances of being admitted to that school.
: Be honest and confident in your statements.
Use positive emphasis. Do not try to hide, make
excuses for, or lie about your weaknesses. In some cases, a
student needs to explain a weak component of his or her application, but
in other cases it may be best not to mention those weaknesses at all.
Rather, write an essay that focuses on your strengths.
: Write a coherent and interesting essay.
Make your first paragraph the best paragraph in your essay.
: Develop a thesis about yourself early in the essay
and argue it throughout.
Each piece of information you give about yourself in the essay should
somehow support your thesis.
: Pick two to four main topics for a one-page essay.
Don't summarize your entire life. Don't include needless details that
take space away from a discussion of your professionalism, maturity, and
ability to do intellectual work in your chosen field.
: Use the personal statement as a form of
Think of the essay as not only an answer to a specific question but as
an opportunity to introduce yourself, especially if your program doesn't
: Ask yourself the following questions as you edit
: Are my goals well articulated?
: Do I explain why I have selected this school and/or program in
: Do I demonstrate knowledge of this school or program?
: Do I include interesting details that prove my claims about
: Is my tone confident?
: Make sure your essay is absolutely perfect
: Use technical terminology and such techniques as
passive voice where appropriate.
You should write clearly and interestingly, yet also speak in a voice
appropriate to your field.
Don't . . .
: Write what you think the admissions committee wants to hear.
You are probably wrong, and such a response is likely to make you blend
into the crowd rather than stand out from it.
: Use empty, vague, over-used words like meaningful,
beautiful, challenging, invaluable, or rewarding
: Overwrite or belabor a minor point about yourself.
: Repeat information directly from the application
form itself unless you use it to illustrate a point or want to develop
: Emphasize the negative. Again, the admissions
committee already knows your GPA and test scores, and they probably are
not interested in reading about how a list of events in your personal
life caused you to perform poorly. Explain what you feel you need to,
but emphasize the positive.
: Try to be funny. You don't want to take the risk
they won't get the joke.
: Get too personal about religion, politics, or your
lack of education (avoid emotional catharsis).
: Include footnotes, quotations from dead people, or
long-winded and slow introductions.
: Use statements like "I've always wanted to be a. .
." or any other hackneyed phrases.
: Use gimmicks—too big of a risk on an application
to a graduate or professional program.
: Allow any superficial errors in spelling,
mechanics, grammar, punctuation, format, or printing to creep under your