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Personal Statement

General Advice

Think of the personal statement as a chance for you to introduce yourself – your background, experiences, knowledge of the field, goals and personality – to the selection committee.  It also affords you the opportunity to explain any irregularities or shortcomings of your candidacy. The personal statement can mean the difference between rejection and acceptance.  A well-crafted statement can tip the admission scale in your favor; a poorly written one can leave you out of the running.

Some programs will ask you to write one statement covering a number of areas.  Others require a brief response to a series of essay questions. Your best writing comes when you have an actual audience in mind and specific questions.

Advice for writing the personal statement:

  • Start by writing a statement for your first choice or first deadline program
    • It might be tempting to write a generic statement, but it actually creates more work for you as each school will have different requirements for their statement
    • On the other hand, once you have some major sections written for one program, they can be borrowed for other programs that ask the same question.
  • Take care to answer each question in the prompt
  • Show your strengths by telling stories of your life that are appropriate to the prompt
  • Be sure to include some sense of why that particular program will be a good place for you to be, whether that is because they have a research focus that matches yours, a particular member of the faculty that you would want to work with, or because of resources available at the institution or nearby.



by Carla Trujillo, Ph.D., Director, Graduate Opportunity Program, University of California Berkeley

  1. Remember that they read between the lines: motivation, competence, potential as a graduate student, knowledge of the field or subfield and fit with the department should all be apparent.
  2. Emphasize everything from a positive perspective and write in an active, not a passive, voice.
  3. Tailor your response to the particular question being asked, the specific department and program.  Avoid sending generic statements.
  4. Demonstrate everything by example. Don’t say directly, for example, that you’re a persistent person; you must demonstrate it.
  5. You don’t want to make excuses, but you can talk about the mistakes you’ve made as a learning experience.
  6. If there is something important that happened which affected your grades (poverty, illness, excessive work, etc.) go ahead and state it, but write it affirmatively, that is, in a way that shows your perseverance.
  7. Write with authority like a fellow colleague.
  8. Stick to the word limit guidelines.
  9. Single space statement, unless told otherwise.
  10. Understand that writing an effective, flawless statement takes considerable time and several sets of eyes.


How you arrange your statement and what you include ultimately will be up to you.  The following outline, based on one written by Carla Trujilo, provides a clear sense of the kinds of things to cover and a logical means of organizing that information.

Part 1: Introduction

This is where you tell them what you want to study.  For example, “I wish to pursue an MS degree in Mechanical Engineering with an emphasis in controls”.  Some applicants begin with a personal story.  Make your opening sufficiently interesting, enticing the committee to read on.  One Augsburg student applying to grad school in physics started his statement, “When I first enrolled in college I wanted to study Asian religions.”   This path is probably atypical for doctoral candidates in physics and thus draws the reader in.  Another began, “I was eighteen years old when I saw my first computer.  Five years later I am applying to the doctoral program in Computer Science at….”  These lines astound the reader while opening the door for the student to talk about being an immigrant, how his interest and aptitude in computer science developed and what goals he has for the future.

Part 2: Summarize what you did as an undergraduate

  1. Important class or classes you took which stimulated your desire for graduate study, such as a specific project for a class.  Maybe conversations with a professor or a study abroad experience piqued your interest for graduate study.
  2. Research you might have done.  Indicate with whom, the title of the project, what your responsibilities were, the outcome and any poster or oral presentations you might have given.  Again, it’s important not to simply list what you did but the impact it had on you:  what you learned about the field, yourself or the research process, how the experience shaped your decision to pursue graduate work in this particular field, etc.  Write technically; professors are the people who read these statements.
  3. Work experience if it relates to your field of study or more generally, demonstrates preparation for graduate school.  Tutoring or classroom teaching experience, for example, is often relevant, since it shows a more firm grasp of subject matter, and that you might be a good candidate for a teaching assistantship.  Similarly, describe any kind of responsibility you’ve had for testing, designing, researching, extensive writing, etc.

Part 3

If you graduated and worked for a while and are returning to grad school, indicate what you’ve been doing while working: company, work/design team, responsibilities, what you learned.  You can also indicate here how this helped you focus your intent to do graduate studies.

Part 4

Here you indicate what you want to study in graduate school in greater detail.  This is a greater elaboration of your opening paragraph.

  1. Indicate area of interest, then state questions you might have which are associated with the topic, i.e., what you might be interested in studying or researching.  You should have an area of emphasis selected before you write the statement.  If you have no idea, talk to a professor about possible areas of interest or current questions in the field.
  2. Look on the web for information about the professors and their research.  Are there professors whose interests match yours?  If so, indicate this, as it shows that you have done your homework and are highly motivated.  (Be sincere, however; don’t make up something bogus just to impress people.)  Ideally you have read some of the professors’ work and have been in contact with them prior to making application and can make reference to that exchange.  Having a faculty member pulling for you from the inside is a winning strategy.
  3. Talk about what draws you to this particular program.  Show that you are familiar with the unique features, focus, field experiences, or faculty, etc. of this program.
  4. End your statement in a positive and confident manner with a readiness for the challenges of graduate study.


by Dal Liddle, Augsburg University English Department

Everything that follows is an elaboration of this one main issue: graduate school is specific career training and apprenticeship for the the profession of academic teaching and scholarship. If you are the sort of person who should be a professional academic. and can say honestly and clearly how you know that your essay will probably succeed. If you aren’t your essay will probably reveal that-saving you and your readers much wasted time and needless sorrow. either way, everybody wins.

  1. Although the application process seems cold and impersonal, the human readers who pick up your essay and read it will probably feel hopeful, not hostile, as they start to read. Their goal is to build a good graduate class out of the stack of apps before them, and to bring in students who will enrich their own intellectual lives and lives of their classmates. Despite its high-stakes nature, the, the personal statements should be written sincerely and openly, not defensively.
  2. While a personal statement is written to an admissions committee-a group of future colleagues who ideally will like you and want to meet you-it is not really written for the committee. The committee should never have the sense that you are saying what you think they want to hear. The writing should therefore start with the most specified information that you can nail down about yourself, your reason to believe that your vocation and fitness lie in this area, and your choice of this particular school.
  3. The personal statement should show the reader/committee four things that are unique to you. These are your individual:
    1. Qualifications (of intellect, will, and intestinal fortitude)
    2. Commitment (motivation and sense of vocation-this is really what you want to do)
    3. Personality and Backstory (those part relevant to this choice of career)
    4. Comprehension (of what grad school is and does; what the life and duties of a grad student are; what this particular school-teachers, library-offers you.)
  4. The statements need not do any of these four things exhaustively-it can suggest some while developing others. It need not separate them in the arbitrary way I have, or invoke them in my arbitrary order. But none of them can e obviously missing of inadequate.
  5. Despite their optimism, grad admissions readers know very well what can (and very often does) go wrong in grad school, and the following questions will be inescapably present to them. Every essay implicitly offers an answer too them, for better or worse:
    1. “Should this person be in grad school at all (or has he/she perhaps been placed on this earth for some other good and noble purpose)?”
    2. “Has this person chosen the right grad school for the right reasons? Do we have what he she wants-not just reputation, but resources? A bad fit to our program will drop out,transfer,or be miserable and spread misery.”
    3. “Will this person be an asset to our program-will he/she add diversity, collegiality, and intelligent ideas to our classes? Will he/she finish course work on time, write a good dissertation, get a good job, and ass to our reputation in the profession and among our peer colleges?”
    4. “Will this person be interesting and enjoyable to work with and even mentor?”
  6. Finally, every admissions reader watches for  “red flags” that signal an unqualified candidate, such as:
    1. Lack of basic necessary skill to succeed in the field (to write coherently, to do research)
    2. Lack of sophistication in the specialty field
    3. Mainly negative rather than positive motives for choosing grad school (e.g., wanting to escape the “real world” or an unpleasant job, wanting to stay in college)
    4. Emotional instability and/or security



Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) for general writing guidelines and advice

MIT Communication Lab for statement of purpose guidelines

Writing the Personal Statement/Statement of Purpose by Dixie Shafer, Director of URGO


How to Write a Winning Personal Statement for Graduate and Professional School

by Richard J. Stelzer

Graduate Admissions Essays:  Write Your Way Into the Graduate School of Your Choice

by Donald Asher