Writing Personal Statements for Graduate School
Do your research on the program
Make sure you know the program you’re applying to, so you can tailor your personal statement to their priorities. Places to look:
- Department/School website: What are priorities of this particular school? Strengths?
- Faculty webpages: Look for recent research and publications, areas of interest, Google faculty names (particularly for PhD programs)
Know what they’re asking
Is it a general prompt (e.g. "Tell us about yourself" or "Include a personal statement with your application") or specific questions (e.g. "Why do you want to study at University of X?")? Respond to what is being asked.
General Structure of a Personal Statement
One great way to approach a personal statement is to think of it as containing three main sections:
- A personal story or “aha!” moment: In this section, you can write a story about when and how you realized your career goals. This section can include personal experiences and/or challenges, stories of overcoming adversity (either personally or academically), and/or an account of what motivates you. Importantly, this personal narrative should lead to a realization of your career goals (e.g. “That is how I realized I wanted to be a lawyer”), which then poses the question of how to achieve those goals.
- A statement of the preparation you have accomplished: In this section, you should elaborate on the preparation you have already done to ready yourself for graduate school. This section can include jobs, internships, academic successes, leadership experience, research experience, and other evidence of motivation, skills, and character.
- An explanation of why this particular field and program are right for you: In this section, you should explain why your chosen graduate field (and the particular program to which you are applying) is the only way you can achieve your career goals. This section should make a clear case that your skills and experiences make you a good fit for the field/program, and should also detail how this field/program will help you achieve your career goals.
Avoid Overstatement & Exaggeration
The people who will be reading your personal statement are very smart! When you exaggerate your abilities or hardships, they can tell. Be sure to always tell the truth.
Show Instead of Tell
No matter which field you are interested in pursuing, providing evidence for claims is always foundational. Lawyers do not ask juries to just believe what they say - they provide evidence. Medical doctors decide how to diagnose a patient based not on what they believe, but based on what evidence they have available to them. And writers and philosophers must always justify their claims about the world we live in based on evidence. So be sure in your personal statement to show the reader what you want them to see (i.e. by providing evidence), rather than just telling them.
For example, instead of telling the reader, "I have been academically successful at York," you could show them, "I have received a 4.0 average every semester at York, and have been an active member of X honor society."