How to Write a Personal Statement for Grad School

Three Parts:Researching the ProgramDrafting Your Personal StatementRevising the Personal Statement

The personal statement is a critical component of your application to graduate school. It is your only opportunity to persuade your future advisors and colleagues that you are a good fit for their program. It allows them to see you as an actual person behind your paper work. While you might think you can dash off a finished draft in one afternoon, it will be worth it for you to put time and effort into your personal statement.

Part 1
Researching the Program

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    Reflect on your reasons for applying. Before you write a word of your personal statement, you should truly explore why you want to attend this program.
    • On a piece of paper, write down the question "Why do I want to attend this program?" Then write a sentence that answers that question. Rewrite and revise that sentence again and again (at least 3-4 times) until you get a very clear, specific answer. You should use this sentence as inspiration for your broader statement.
    • If the program you are applying to is very prestigious or famous (like an Ivy League school), you need to write an answer that goes beyond "This is a good program." The admissions committee already knows it is a great program and they won't be able to learn very much about you if this is your only reason for applying.
    • Similarly, if you are applying to a program because of its desirable location (as in a major city or by the beach), you need to have an answer that avoids praising the program for its location. An admissions committee will also be able to see your true motivations very quickly and reject your application.
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    Research the faculty. As a graduate student, you will work much more closely with the faculty in the department than as an undergraduate student. Which faculty members would you like to work with in the department? Whose work do you admire? How will their research interests align with yours?
    • You should actually read articles and books by the faculty member and know what kinds of arguments they are making. Don't just look up their research interests on the faculty web page. Let the committee know you are truly interested in the research that is conducted at the program.
    • Make sure the faculty members you want to work with are listed as graduate faculty members. Most programs require that their graduate students work with tenured faculty. This means the faculty members you want to work with should have the title of Associate Professor or Professor.
    • If the faculty member you want to work with is listed as an Assistant Professor or Visiting Assistant Professor, then you should avoid naming them as a potential advisor in your statement. They do not have tenure and their future at the institution is uncertain.
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    Identify teaching opportunities. Will you be expected to teach undergraduates or lead a lab over the course of this program? How will you succeed at this? What can you offer to this program as a potential teacher?
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    Explore additional opportunities on campus. You want to make sure the entire campus is a good fit for you, not just the individual program. Does the university have useful archives or an excellent interdisciplinary research center? How will these additional resources help your research?

Part 2
Drafting Your Personal Statement

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    Give yourself time. Ideally, you should start to write your personal statement one month before the application is due. This will give you plenty of time to revise and get lots of feedback from other readers.
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    Design an outline. Most personal statements range from 2-3 pages. Since admissions committees will read through hundreds of statements, you need to grab their attention very early.[1]
    • First paragraph. Clearly define your purpose in pursuing graduate study in this program. Why are you a good fit for this program? Answer this question with a unique anecdote or fact about yourself.
    • Second paragraph. Expand on your thoughts from the first paragraph. Explain 1) which field you want to specialize in and 2) how you are prepared to specialize in this field. What has led you to this specialization? How do the research strengths of the program's faculty align with your own interests? Who would you want to work with in the program?
    • Third and fourth paragraphs. How do you plan to use your graduate study in your future career? Do you want to go into teaching, research or a non-academic field? Do you plan to use your graduate program to further a career you are already in?
    • Fifth and sixth paragraphs. Discuss any additional resources on campus you might be interested in using (such as a certificate program or an interdisciplinary research center). Close with a strong statement on how you can contribute to the program and how it will help you in your career goals.
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    Write an memorable opening. You should immediately convince the committee that you are committed to the research of their program. Is there a story in your background that you can use as an indication of your interest in the program? Was there a particular moment when you realized you wanted to study this subject in depth?
    • Avoid writing statements such as "I always knew I wanted to be a ___." These statements are overdone and, generally, they are also untrue. Did you really know, at five years old, that you wanted to be a mechanical engineer or the manager of a non-profit? Probably not. Be honest about what led you to this field of study.
    • Avoid cliches. Do not open with statements like "Webster's dictionary defines 'medicine' as..." You will also want to avoid opening with a quote from someone else. You need to make your own words shine here.
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    Draft the remaining body of your personal statement. Set aside 2-3 hours where you can just write. Don't worry about making it perfect yet. Just aim to get a full working draft on paper. Try not to edit yourself too much in this part of the writing process.

Part 3
Revising the Personal Statement

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    Take a break between writing and revising. And by break, we mean a real break (2-3 days). The writing process for these documents can be stressful. You need to give your brain a rest so you can come back to the statement with fresh eyes and a certain level of objectivity.
    • If you give yourself time, you will also be able to mull over new ideas and unique ways to phrase them in your statement.
    • Keep in mind that the revision process should take 2-3 times longer than the drafting process.
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    Improve the content of the statement. Have you given the committee a real, honest view of your interest in this field? Make sure that you have not just repeated everything included in your resume or CV.
    • You don't want your personal statement to read like a laundry list of accomplishments. Instead. give the committee a clear idea of who you are and why you want to pursue this program of study.
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    Revise your tone. Do you sound like yourself in this statement? Or do you sound like an awkward, robotic version of yourself? If it feels like the latter, then revise it so you sound more like a human. Don't throw around academic jargon just because you think it will sound impressive.
    • While you don't want to sound stuffy, you should avoid anything inappropriate (obviously, no profanity). This is also not the place for crude jokes. You want to sound approachable, but also serious about your studies.
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    Get outside feedback. After you have finished at least one thorough revision, get feedback from other readers (at least 2-3 people).
    • You might ask one of your current or former professors. They will likely have read many letters like this and they will be able to give you a sense of what an admissions committee is looking for.
    • Take it to your university's writing center and career center. These resources are generally free and the people who work there will be able to give you in-depth, objective feedback. They will have worked with hundreds of students who have successfully gone on to graduate school, so they will understand the best way to craft a personal statement.
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    Remove vague wording. Some words and phrases come up over and over again in personal statements. You should avoid these if you want to stand out from hundreds of other applicants:[2]
    • interesting
    • satisfying
    • significant
    • challenging
    • rewarding
    • gratifying
    • remarkable
    • valuable
    • I want to help others
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    Obsessively edit for mistakes in grammar, punctuation and spelling. When an admissions committee has to sift through hundreds of applications, they are looking for a reason to remove your application from the pile. Nothing will help them throw out your application faster than a typo.
    • Don't rely on the grammar or spell check function in your Word document to do this work for you. Check it yourself and have others help you check it as well.
    • Typos indicate a lack of attention to detail on your part. Multiple typos might cause your committee to question if you are lazy or imprecise in other parts of your work.
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    Adapt the statement for each program you are applying to. You might be using your personal statement as a template in your applications to multiple programs. But you should tailor your statement to the strengths of each program.
    • Make sure you adapt the statement to include the correct name of the university and its respective faculty members. If you start out writing that you are interested in the program at Alpha University but then finish by saying you'd be thrilled to be accepted to Beta University, your application will most likely be tossed by the committee.
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    Give your personal statement to your recommenders. Once you have a polished draft of your personal statement, you should provide a copy to the people writing your letters of recommendation for the program. This will give them a clear idea of your research interests and will help them write more detailed letters for you.[3]


  • Read sample personal statements. The writing center at your university should have examples on file and your local library will have guide books on applying to graduate school that should also have samples. Ask your friends and family who have gone to graduate school if you can view their statements as well.

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Categories: Applying for Tertiary Education