Personal Statements for Graduate School

Personal Statements carry weight—they are often the first document admissions committees consider. To grab the attention of reviewers right away, then, you want to clearly express your purpose and personal investment in a specific program as soon as possible. Throughout your statement, you also want to express a clear understanding of where you are applying, who your audience is, and how you see yourself “fitting in” with the current program design.

Key Rhetorical Considerations

  • Audience. Who might be reading your personal statement? What will resonate with them? Do not be afraid to mention specific names and faculty research areas.
  • Purpose. Be unique and present a clear and specific angle—that is, what you want to study and why. Try to sum up the intersections at which you want to study.
  • Context. What type of program are you applying to? What research trends and ideas will immediately resonate with a particular school and program? With what larger research topics are you aligning yourself—what scholarly and professional conversations are you entering?
  • Tone. While you want to come across as a professional, you also want to express a collegial and passionate tone. Be personal, but make clear connections between your personal story and its relevance to your work.
  • Style. Fine-tune your sentences to make them more readable and concise. Demonstrate your voice (how you might talk in conversation) and individuality, but be as direct and engaging as possible. Also, change up the pace and structure of your sentences—e.g. consider posing a series of questions to get your reader thinking.
  • Organization. Your story matters, but as a rule of thumb do not take longer than two paragraphs to state your angle as a scholar. Your purpose for applying should guide your statement—don’t go on a tangent that cannot be connected back to your purpose.
  • Terminology. What do your readers need to know, especially if you want them to fully grasp the importance of your work? Define, as concisely as possible, key terms. You will likely not know everyone who's reading your document, so don't take for granted your audience's knowledge of terms and jargon.

Personal Statement "Do's"

  • Write in first-person—your statement should be about you!
  • Be specific—Depth over Breadth should be your general rule.
  • Follow the school’s instructions regarding length and subject matter. Stick to their questions.
  • Establish (with clarity) your career goals and your interest in attending graduate school.
  • Talk about your interests and research. Include any material, skills, or experiences that make you different. In other words, what about you stands out from the rest and how can you demonstrate that in your application?
  • Discuss the most important experiences that have prepared you for grad school.
  • Keep your tone positive; focus on the affirmative, rather than the negative.
  • Tell what you know about your field. Do research if necessary. Use the language of your field.
  • Write your statement to the particular school/program you’re applying to. Address the school/program’s unique qualities and opportunities that are of interest to you.
  • Be consistent across your application.
  • Use strong, vivid verbs whenever possible; avoid passive voice and "to be" verbs (be, is, am, was, were, been, being).
  • Polish your essay for grammar, spelling, and overall conciseness.

Personal Statement "Dont's"

  • Don’t just repeat what is in your resume. If you want to talk about an experience on your resume, be sure to go in depth.
  • Don’t assume you’re going to get into the school you’re applying to, or that your statement is better than others. Avoid hints of arrogance or elitism.
  • Don’t preach to your reader. You don’t want to come off as a know-it-all or fanatic. Avoid discussing controversial issues like religion and politics.
  • Don’t state conclusions about yourself or your knowledge without providing support.
  • Don’t use quotations from other sources or people.
  • Don't talk about high school unless it is highly relevant.
  • Don't use clichés or gimmicks.

Questions to Consider as You Develop Your Statement

  • What kind of program(s) are you applying to? What are you going to grad school for? What do you want to be studying?
  • What do you hope to get out of the program? What specifically is drawing you to the program you’re applying to?
  • What are your professional goals? How does getting your graduate degree work toward those goals?
  • Why have you chosen the field/interest you are pursuing? What experiences have you had to prepare you for grad school or this particular field?
  • What’s going to make you stand out? What’s unique, distinctive, or impressive about you or your story? What details about your life and experiences might help the program better understand you, or separate you from other applicants?
  • Do you know of / have you contacted someone in your prospective field regarding expectations for applicants? If so, what are some things you should keep in mind about personal statement writing based on your field?

Outline Example

Note: All schools are unique, and length requirements vary. This specific outline may not suit the expectations of your program. Adjust accordingly.

  • Paragraph 1: Clearly state your purpose and what inspired it.

“In the PhD program in Social Psychology at Miami University, I want to study at the intersection of X and Y. This interest stems from...”

  • Paragraphs 2-3 (or your first body paragraphs): Draw on specific scholarly work you’ve completed and be specific in detailing a project.

”In the Young Scholars program at (undergraduate institution), I conducted research on...”

  • Paragraph 4: Touch on scholarly and professional opportunities at the institution (to which you are applying) and how you can contribute to standing programs (e.g. working in a lab, the counseling center, a research institute, a teaching assistantship, etc.)

“I am drawn to professional development opportunities in your program, particularly the possibility of assisting with scholarly and administrative projects as a research fellow...”

  • Paragraph 5: Conclude with a specific project or research avenue you may want to explore, and (if appropriate) whom you would like to work with. Though your work is unique, make it clear how you can benefit this program and how the program can benefit you. Remember you will be an advocate for the program you will join, so demonstrate you care about it.

“I am excited at the possibility of working with (Professor X) and learning more about her commitment to (X area of study)...”