How to write a successful personal statement for graduate school
Along with your resume, transcripts and recommendation letters, most graduate school applications also require you to submit a personal statement.
A personal statement is a short essay of around 500–1,000 words, in which you tell a compelling story about who you are, what drives you, and why you’re applying.
To write a successful personal statement for graduate school, don’t just summarize your experience; instead, craft a focused narrative in your own voice. Aim to demonstrate three things:
- Your personality: what are your interests, values, and motivations?
- Your talents: what can you bring to the program?
- Your goals: what do you hope the program will do for you?
What to include in your personal statement
There’s no universal template for a personal statement – the admissions committee wants to get a sense of who you are, not go through another box-ticking exercise.
But if you’re stuck, there are some common approaches that you can use as a starting point. Try combining a few of these strategies and make them your own.
1. Tell a personal story
To keep your personal statement focused and unique, you can structure it around a story that illustrates something about your character and motivations. For example:
- An encounter or event that changed your perspective
- A story from your family’s history
- A memorable class or learning experience
The story doesn’t have to be directly related to the program you’re applying for, but make sure you clearly show its relevance. Use it to frame a more general discussion of what you’ve done and what you want to do.
2. Build a narrative of development
A personal statement shouldn’t just tell your life story, but you can highlight some key experiences to show how you have developed over time. Ask yourself:
- What first sparked your interest in the field? Is it a longstanding passion or a recent discovery?
- How did you go about pursuing this interest? Which classes, people, and activities helped you develop your knowledge and skills?
- Where do you want to go next? How does this program fit into your future plans?
Don’t try to list everything important that you’ve done – pick out the most relevant and interesting highlights. Try to craft a compelling narrative that demonstrates your potential for growth.
3. Own your challenges and obstacles
If your path to graduate school hasn’t been easy or straightforward, you can turn this into a strength. For example:
- Is your social, cultural or economic background underrepresented in your field? Show how your experiences will contribute a unique perspective.
- Do you have gaps in your resume or lower-than-ideal grades? Explain the challenges you faced and how you dealt with them.
Don’t focus too heavily on negatives, but use them to highlight your positive qualities. Resilience, resourcefulness and perseverance make you a promising grad school candidate.
4. Demonstrate your knowledge
Make it clear that you’ve done your research. Explain what draws you to study in this field and why this program is the best place to do it.
- Reflect on a topic, issue, or question that you care about. Why is it important to you?
- Emphasize the program’s fit with your interests. Is the department known for its strength in your field, or are there specific faculty members you want to work with?
Avoid generic praise about the quality of the school – focus instead on what makes this particular program unique or exciting.
Revising and polishing your personal statement
The language of a personal statement is often less formal than other kinds of academic essay. But that doesn’t mean you can be sloppy in your writing – this text will also be used to assess your written communication skills. Make sure you write clearly and concisely.
As you revise, follow these five tips for a perfect personal statement:
1. Start with a strong opening
It’s worth spending extra time on your first sentence and paragraph, as it sets the tone for your whole text.
This is your opportunity to catch the committee’s attention, so don’t write a dry or cliched introduction. Try an intriguing scene, a question, or a bold statement that will make them want to read more.
2. Make your statements into stories
When you discuss your interests and motivations, give concrete examples with specific details. Turn plain statements into illustrative stories.
Instead of saying you’re hard-working and self-motivated, write about your internship where you took the initiative to start a new project. Instead of saying you’ve always loved reading, reflect on a novel or poem that changed your perspective.
3. Draw connections to create a narrative
Aim to show how your personal life, your academic or professional achievements, and your future aspirations all fit together.
4. Focus on what makes you unique
You want to stand out, not blend in. Avoid cliches and stock phrases (“Ever since I was a child…”).
If you’re not the most obvious candidate for the program, embrace it! Don’t just write what you think they want to hear – give them something unexpected and imaginative.
5. Polish your writing
You’ll be expected to do a lot of writing in graduate school, so make a good first impression. Your style doesn’t have to be as formal as other kinds of academic writing, but it should be clear, coherent, and free of errors.
After revising and redrafting your personal statement, consider investing in professional proofreading. For $30-40, you can have peace of mind that you haven’t missed any awkward language mistakes.
Example of a successful personal statement
The text below is a personal statement used to apply for a PhD program in History. It’s a good example of a tightly focused narrative, revolving around the author’s passion for her discipline and how it has evolved over time. Hover over the different parts to see how the author built a convincing story.
A railroad car changed my life. I was a senior in high school, visiting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. with my social studies class. We were walking through the museum in this slow, somber line. None of us were really speaking. I saw the railroad car and broke off from my group, wandering into the car's interior. I paused in the middle, looking to my left and to my right. I could almost hear the voices of the victims who had ridden to their deaths.
I remember shaking my head and stepping through to the other side of the car. My skin was crawling with goosebumps and my hands were shaking. I looked down and saw this pile of suitcases, stacked next to the exit. That luggage had belonged to someone's son. Someone's daughter. Someone who had possessed enough hope to pack an extra set of clothes for his or her trip east. For the first time in my short life, I realized that the things that had happened before I came into existence mattered. The people who had lived before me mattered. And they mattered profoundly.
Before that trip, history was simply one of many subjects I had to study in school, facts and dates to memorize for tests. But passing through the railroad car changed the way I thought about history. It changed the way I thought about the world. History became that stack of suitcases—the hopes and dreams and actions of people who may or may not have had a chance to tell their stories.
Several years and three majors in college would pass before I decided to dedicate my life to studying the subject. Even though I knew history mattered, making it my career choice seemed so impractical. But after two years as an undergraduate, floating from major to major, I signed up for a history class to fill out my schedule: "Germany since 1871". Something clicked for me during that class. All the uncertainty I had about my possible career paths melted away. I knew I wanted to be a historian. I wanted to be a teacher. History wasn't impractical—it was vital.
A few things have changed since I made that decision. I'm no longer specializing in European history. Now my research focuses on American history, specifically the modern South. The Holocaust and World War II Germany are still passions of mine, but I have found other stories which need to be told.I know that I want to spend the rest of my life telling those stories, and I've chosen to focus on the modern South because that is the world in which I grew up—I have a connection to this region and its past. I want to get my doctorate in history so I can deepen not only my understanding of the lives and events gone by, but deepen the understanding of others as well.
Perhaps what fascinates me the most is why the South seems at times to be a separate entity, set apart from the rest of the country. Why is this? Racism? Regionalism? Religion? And does this mythology reflect reality, or is the South more American than it likes to think? What does it mean to be southern? What does it mean to be American? How are the two connected? And how have the answers to these questions changed over time, especially since Reconstruction?
A more specific topic I’d like to pursue is reform movements and activism in the South. I think reactions to accepted norms can provide crucial insight into a broader social framework. My thesis touches on this topic: I am researching the development of offshore oil drilling in Alabama in the 1970s and the resulting environmental protests. Not exactly known for having an aggressive record of environmental protection, the state has historically prioritized jobs over conserving its natural resources—yet the process of approving offshore oil drilling took almost a decade. When Alabama finally authorized permits to drill in its waters, the state’s legislature had enacted what were considered the strictest regulations in the world at that time. How did that happen in Alabama?
The writing sample I have submitted is the genesis of my thesis, which is currently under revision. I wrote the paper for a Southern history seminar in 2006. The university’s archives house a tremendous collection of documents, dedicated largely to local history. The director of the archives pointed me to the Mobile Bay Audubon Society’s collection, and I spent a week going through nearly thirty boxes of material before I decided to focus on just one cause that the organization advocated.
Since that initial paper, I have worked to expand the scope and content of my research. I’ve traveled to Alabama’s state archives and tried to get a sense of the government’s reactions to the development of offshore oil drilling. I am also trying to place this opposition in the broader framework of Alabama history. Reform, when it has come in Alabama, has often been conservative. Was this environmental reaction similar to previous reform efforts? Or was it a departure? I have yet to come to a conclusive answer to these questions, but I hope that by continuing my research I can come closer to finding out.
Improving the personal statement example
This personal statement could have been made even stronger by:
- Discussing what the author learned from her experience of changing majors throughout college – more concrete details could turn this uncertainty into a strength.
- Stating why the specific program and department is a good fit for the research she wants to do – for example, access to local archival resources or the opportunity to work with specialists in this field.
- Mentioning personal characteristics that make her a strong candidate for the program and showing what she has to contribute – for example, that she would be an enthusiastic and engaging teacher, or that her personal connection to the research could help her with outreach and impact.
Frequently asked questions
- What’s the difference between a personal statement and a statement of purpose?
A statement of purpose is usually more formal, focusing on your academic or professional goals. It shouldn't include anything that isn’t directly relevant to the application.
A personal statement can often be more creative. It might tell a story that isn't directly related to the application, but that shows something about your personality, values, and motivations.
However, both types of document have the same overall goal: to demonstrate your potential as a graduate student and show why you're a great match for the program.
- How long is a personal statement?
The typical length of a personal statement for graduate school applications is between 500 and 1,000 words.
Different programs have different requirements, so always check if there's a minimum or maximum length and stick to the guidelines. If there is no recommended word count, aim for no more than 1-2 pages.
- Can I submit the same personal statement with every application?
If you're applying to multiple graduate school programs, you should tailor your personal statement to each application.
Some applications provide a prompt or question. In this case, you might have to write a new personal statement from scratch: the most important task is to respond to what you have been asked.
If there's no prompt or guidelines, you can re-use the same idea for your personal statement – but change the details wherever relevant, making sure to emphasize why you're applying to this specific program.
If the application also includes other essays, such as a statement of purpose, you might have to revise your personal statement to avoid repeating the same information.