How to Write a Successful Personal Statement for Graduate School

Strategies for Winning Over Admissions Committees

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A personal statement for graduate school is an opportunity to showcase what you will bring to the graduate program and to explain how the program fits into your larger career goals.

Some programs will ask you to write a single essay covering both your personal background and what you wish to study in graduate school. Others, however, will require both a personal statement and a statement of purpose. The personal statement should focus on you and your background, while the statement of purpose should focus on your research or what you plan to study in graduate school. Follow these strategies to craft a stellar personal statement that will stand out in admissions offices. 

Key Takeaways

  • The personal statement provides an opportunity for you to share information about yourself and your academic interests to graduate admissions committees.
  • The personal statement should discuss your academic background as well as relevant work and research experiences.
  • When talking about your previous experience, be sure to highlight the skills that you learned and how your past experiences have led you to be interested in graduate study.
  • Your first draft of your personal statement doesn’t need to be perfect. Give yourself time to revise and proofread your essay, and be sure to seek feedback on your draft from others.

Structuring a Personal Statement

Your personal statement should include an introduction and a summary of your previous experience (including your coursework, research experience, and relevant work experience). Additionally, if you’re not covering these topics in a separate statement of purpose, you should also discuss why you want to go to graduate school, what you wish to study as a graduate student, and why this particular graduate program is right for you.

Starting Your Essay

Personal statements can begin in a few different ways. Some students start their essay by discussing their personal background or sharing a compelling anecdote that explains why they are interested in graduate school. Other students simply begin their essay by talking plainly about their academic experiences and interest in graduate school. There’s no “one size fits all” answer here, so feel free to choose the introduction that works best for your essay.

Sometimes, the introduction of a personal statement is the toughest part to write. If you’re experiencing writer’s block, remember that you don’t have to start with the introduction. By the time you’ve finished writing the rest of the essay, you may have a much better idea of the type of introduction your essay needs.

Summarizing Your Previous Experience

In your personal statement, you’ll want to talk about your previous academic experience and how it has prepared you for graduate school. You can talk about courses you’ve enjoyed (especially any advanced coursework), research projects you may have worked on, or internships and work experience that are relevant for graduate school.

When describing your previous experience, be sure to not just write about what you did but also what you learned and how the experience contributed to your interest in graduate school. For example, if you gained research experience by assisting a graduate student with their research project, don’t just describe what the project was about. Instead, be as specific as possible about skills you picked up (for example, gaining experience using lab techniques or a particular academic database). Additionally, write about how your past experiences sparked your curiosity and helped you decide that graduate school is the right choice for you.

Remember that you can also talk about non-academic experiences such as volunteer work or part-time jobs. When you mention these experiences, highlight how they show transferable skills (i.e. skills that will also be valuable in your graduate program, such as communication skills or interpersonal skills). For example, if you supervised a group of students as a camp counselor, you might talk about how this experience helped you develop leadership skills. If you had a part-time job while in college, you might talk about challenges you resolved at work and how they demonstrate your problem-solving ability.

If you faced significant obstacles while in college, your personal statement can also be a place to discuss the experience (if you feel comfortable doing so) and its influence on you.

Writing About Why You Want to Attend Graduate School

In your personal statement, you should also talk about your future goals: what you want to study in graduate school, and how this ties into your larger goals for your future career. Graduate school is a big commitment, so professors will want to see that you have thought through your decision carefully and that graduate education is truly necessary for the career you want to pursue.

When talking about why you want to go to graduate school, it’s good to be as specific as possible about why the school you’re applying to would be a good match for your career goals. If you’re applying to a program that involves a significant amount of research (such as PhD programs and some Master’s programs), it’s important to talk about the research topics you’re most interested in studying while in graduate school. For programs involving research, it’s also a good idea to read the department’s website to learn about faculty members’ research topics and then customize your personal statement accordingly for each school. In your personal statement, you can mention several professors you might want to work with and explain how their research matches up with what you’d like to study.

Mistakes To Avoid

  1. Not proofreading. In graduate school, writing will be a big component of your academic career, especially if your program involves writing a Master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation. Taking the time to proofread shows professors that they can be confident in your writing ability. 
  2. Sharing overly personal information. While sharing a personal anecdote can help to illustrate your interest in graduate school, disclosing information that is too personal can backfire. In a survey of psychology graduate admissions committee chairs, some professors pointed out that sharing overly personal information can make applicants look unprofessional. And as Harvard’s Office of Career Services points out, interviewers may ask you follow-up questions about your personal statement in interviews. So if it’s not something you’d feel comfortable sharing in a face-to-face setting, it’s best left out of your personal statement.
  3. Writing too much. Keep your essay brief: if the essay prompt doesn’t give a specific word/page limit, 1-2 pages is generally a good length. (However, if the program you’re applying to specifies a different length, be sure to follow their instructions.)
  4. Vague language. Be as specific as possible about why you want to pursue graduate school and which topics you want to study. As UC Berkeley’s Career Center explains, you should avoid using words like “interesting” or “enjoyable” unless you elaborate on them further. For example, don’t just say that you find a topic interesting—share a compelling research finding you learned about or explain why you’d like to contribute to knowledge in this area as a graduate student.
  5. Not asking for help. You don’t need to write a perfect essay on the first draft. Seek out trusted mentors, such as professors and graduate students, and ask for feedback on your essay draft. You can also seek out on-campus resource centers at your college for additional personal statement feedback and support.

What A Successful Personal Statement Looks Like

Some of the most compelling admissions essays are ones in which students are able to draw a clear connection between their past experiences (coursework, jobs, or life experiences) and their motivation for attending graduate school. If you can show readers that you're both well-qualified and passionate about your proposed course of study, you’re far more likely to capture the attention of admissions committees.

If you’re looking for inspiration, read sample graduate admissions essays. In one sample essay, the writer talks about the shift in her academic interests—while she initially studied chemistry, she is now planning to go to law school. This essay is successful because the writer clearly explains why she is interested in switching fields and demonstrates her passion for studying law. In addition, the writer highlights transferable skills that will be relevant to the legal profession (such as explaining how working as a resident assistant in her college dorm helped her to develop interpersonal skills and gain experience resolving conflicts). This provides an important take-home lesson for writing a personal statement: you can talk about past experience that isn’t directly related to academics, as long as you explain how this experience has helped to prepare you for graduate study.

Writing a personal statement for graduate school can seem like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. By demonstrating your qualifications and enthusiasm and seeking feedback on drafts from professors and other on-campus resources, you can write a strong personal statement that shows who you are and why you’re a good candidate for graduate school.

Sources and Further Reading

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Hopper, Elizabeth. "How to Write a Successful Personal Statement for Graduate School." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Hopper, Elizabeth. (2020, August 27). How to Write a Successful Personal Statement for Graduate School. Retrieved from Hopper, Elizabeth. "How to Write a Successful Personal Statement for Graduate School." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).