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  • Writer's pictureIsabelle Johnsen

Let's get personal! Personal Statements and Statements of Purpose

It's that time of the year again… application season. As I am in the middle of applying myself this year, I thought I would talk about the most essential parts of the graduate application: the statement of purpose or personal statement.

The statement of purpose, personal statement, and other short writing samples are opportunities to convince the admission committee that you are a good fit for the specific program. A personal statement is a short essay about your motivations for applying and how you developed your research. These relevant experiences impacted your decision to go to grad school and the challenges you faced.

Meanwhile, a statement of purpose showcases your academic background, goals, research interests, and strengths in your field. Both typically are around 1-3 pages, and occasionally schools will have a specific promoted question to answer in the statement. Suppose you are applying to schools in the UK. In that case, you will likely have to write a research proposal rather than a personal statement or statement of purpose. I will get into research proposals in a future blog! This one is about my experience writing personal statements and statements of purpose, as well as tips and tricks!

While writing my personal statements or statement of purpose, my self-confidence oscillates more than a pendulum. As you might know from personal experience, the entire graduate application process can affect your mental health. For me, it is these written prompts that have always brought out bouts of imposter syndrome. I can feel confident with one draft and imagine the committee being floored away by my statement. And the next draft, when I notice all those little errors I didn't see before, I am slammed with self-doubt and wonder if I even have the right to apply in the first place. The pressure, self-doubt, and scheming of writing these essays can be extremely mentally draining.

The last time I applied, I found myself beyond exhausted by this negative downward spiral and compared myself to all the other invisible applicants. This year what helped, beyond general growth in my academic self-confidence, I accepted that it is natural to let the processes get to you a little bit. Writing these repetitive "pitches'' as you try to get the school to invest in you and your project requires much self-reflection. It is only natural to get in your head about an application every once in a while. Still, the trick is pulling yourself back out of that mindset. This year, I have accepted that it's natural to doubt myself occasionally rather than just pretending I don't. Watching other people in my position also doubt themselves while writing these applications has convinced me that it is part of the process. Questioning your path and picking it anyway, despite your fear, will make you a stronger candidate. If you are currently writing your application essays and thinking, "I will never be accepted; I am not good enough," remember to forgive yourself and then find a way to pick yourself back up!

Below I have included some basic info and resources on personal statements and statements of purpose, as well as prompts to give you some inspiration to get writing!


What is a Personal Statement?

  • A personal statement is a short essay introducing the graduate candidate and their reasons for applying to the program (Writers 2018).

  • Personally, I like personal statements the best because they give you the best opportunity to show some of the challenges you have faced to get here and give you more room to convince the committee of your passion and commitment

  • They are usually short, ~500-700 words, and they need to be very carefully crafted to say a lot in a short amount of space

  • Tips:

    • Have as many people edit it as you can, and leave time to create several drafts

    • Every program wants something different for your personal statement, so you need to write a different one for every school (StudyPortal)

    • Some schools want you to end on a positive note, so be sure to end it in a sentence that talks about how excited you are to face the next challenge with that program/department

  • What to include (StudyPortals):

    • An explanation of why you want to study for the course

    • Prove you are suitable for the course

    • Talk about research-related extracurriculars

    • Mention what inspired you to apply

    • Your strengths as a candidate

  • Steps (StudyPortals):

  1. Research the program you want to apply to

    1. Ensure your research interests lines up with the faculty's interests

    2. Make sure they have the resources you need for your research project

    3. Check to see if your personal statement has a specific prompt on the department's website

  2. Write a personal introduction (Indeed)

    1. Write an intro that reflects you and your personality

    2. The short explanation of why you are interested in the degree and why you are qualified

  3. In the next section, share more about your relevant skills, interests, and experiences (Indeed)

    1. Your achievements and experiences

    2. Your relevant skills and talents

    3. What would you bring to the department

    4. Your professional and academic goals

  4. Write a solid and clear conclusion (Indeed)

    1. Extension of your professional goals and how this program will help you achieve them

    2. Brief summary of the main points of your personal statement


What is a Statement of Purpose?

  • A statement of purpose is an essential part of your application that tells schools what your academic interests are and how you’ll add value to the graduate school department/program you are applying to (Northeastern University Graduate Program)

  • It is typically between 1,000 to 2,000 words.

  • Make sure it is in the format the university wants

  • I feel like a statement of purpose gives you more room to talk about your proposed research project idea… connecting your research background to your project idea can lead to a smooth transition between the “where you have been” portion of the paper to the “where you are going” section

  • Tips

    • Emphasize everything from a positive perspective and write in an active, not passive, voice (Berkeley Graduate Division)

    • Demonstrate everything by example; don't just say it, show it (Berkeley Graduate Division)

    • Make sure everything is linked with continuity and focus (Berkeley Graduate Division)

    • Unless otherwise noted, this is an academically focused essay, not a personal one like the personal statement; you will have to add some personal details here and there, but keep the focus on your academic background and future potential (Cornell University Graduate School)

    • Have others edit in terms of context, style, and grammar (Cornell University Graduate School)

  • Steps to writing a statement of purpose (Northeastern University Graduate Programs)

  1. Brainstorm

    1. Why do you want the degree?

    2. What are your expectations?

    3. What about the program excites you the most?

    4. Where do you want this degree to take you? What would you want to do after you graduate?

    5. How will your past experiences and gained perspectives add value to the program?

  2. Develop an Outline

    1. Introduction

      1. A brief statement about why you are passionate about pursuing grad school

      2. Intro to yourself and your background as it relates to your motivation behind applying to grad school

    2. Your relevant experiences and accomplishments related to the field

    3. Professional goals as they relate to your program

    4. Why are you interested in the school

      1. Two specific advisors you want to work with

      2. Specific resources the school offers

    5. Conclusion

      1. Brief summary of the information you wrote, which emphasizes your qualifications and compatibility with the school

  3. Write a final draft

  4. Edit, edit, edit, and edit some more

    1. Make sure you follow all the directions available

    2. Proofread carefully

    3. Make sure your wording is concise

    4. Leave time to send it to everyone– the more drafts, the better!

Prompts to get thinking:

  1. Why is the program you are applying for the right one for you? (Studyportal)

  2. If you follow the program, how will you contribute to society/the field? (Studyportal)

  3. Why is this program the logical next step considering your personality and previous studies? (Studyportal)

  4. What are you good at? What skills have you developed up to the present, and what do you want to develop further? How will the program help you develop those new skills? (Studyportal)

  5. How does your training highlight your leadership skills? (Studyportal)

Works Cited

Berkeley Graduate Division. Writing the Statement of Purpose. Berkeley Graduate Division. Available at: [Accessed November 3, 2022].

Cornell University Graduate School. Writing Your Academic Statement of Purpose : Graduate School. Available at: [Accessed November 3, 2022]. How to Write a Powerful Personal Statement | Available at: [Accessed November 3, 2022].

Masters portal. Writing the Perfect Personal Statement for Your Master’s or Ph.D. Application - Available at: [Accessed November 2, 2022].

Northeastern University Graduate Programs. 2020. How to Write a Strong Statement of Purpose. Northeastern University Graduate Programs. Available at: [Accessed November 3, 2022].

Writers, S. 2018. How to Write a Winning Personal Statement for Grad School. Available at: [Accessed November 2, 2022].

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