Personal statement for graduate school

In graduate school applications, the personal statement is your opportunity to show who you are and what drives you. Whether you’re applying for a PhD, a professional course or a scholarship program, your personal statement should:

  • Highlight your talents, interests and priorities
  • Demonstrate your enthusiasm for the program
  • Craft a narrative that shows your personality

Your resume and transcripts give a bullet-point summary of your experience. In the personal statement, you shouldn’t just repeat this information, but elaborate and enhance it. Aim to tell a compelling story that emphasizes your motivations and shows why you’re a good fit for the program.

See an example

Understanding the instructions

The first step in your application is to carefully read the instructions. Often you will be asked to write a personal statement in response to a specific question or prompt.

The prompt might ask you to emphasize a certain aspect of your experience—for example, your personal identity, challenges you have faced, or your career motivations. Make sure to give a relevant response, and don’t just submit the same document with every application.

Often, however, the prompt will be very broad, giving you the freedom to tell who you are, what you’ve done, and why you’re applying to the program.

Personal statement vs statement of purpose

You might have to submit a statement of purpose as well as (or instead of) a personal statement. It can be hard to work out the difference, and there’s some overlap between how these two terms are used.

Regardless of what the document is called, focus on responding to the prompt, which should give you a sense of the expected style and emphasis. If the application does not include a prompt, you can follow these guidelines.

 

Both statement of purpose and personal statementStatement of purposePersonal statement
  • Your academic or professional interests and aspirations
  • Your skills, experience and achievements
  • Your motivations for applying to this program
A statement of purpose is usually more formal and focused.

You should look ahead and discuss your research interests or professional plans. Avoid including information that isn’t directly relevant to the application.

A personal statement usually allows you to be more creative and show your personality.

You can look back and use personal stories to demonstrate your skills, values, and personal developmentbut make sure to connect them to the application.

The difference will be sharper if you are asked to submit both documents, as you’ll have to make sure they have different content. If you only have to submit a personal statement, you can treat it as a combination of these two approaches.

Strategies for starting your personal statement

There’s no universal template for a personal statementthe admissions committee wants to get a sense of who you are, not go through another box-ticking exercise. But there are various strategies you can use to structure your thoughts and find your focus. Try combining some of these approaches to build an effective narrative.

Tell a personal story

You can start with an anecdote that illustrates something about your character and motivations. This might be:

  • A personal experience that changed your perspective
  • A story from your family’s history
  • A memorable class or learning experience
  • An unusual or unexpected encounter

This 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 lead into a more general discussion of what you’ve done and what you want to do.

Sketch a narrative of development

One of the simplest strategies is to give a chronological overview of how you got here.

  • 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, assignments, classmates, internships, or other activities helped you develop your knowledge and skills?
  • Where do you want to go next? How does this program fit into your future plans?

Make sure you don’t simply repeat your resume by listing your experience, and don’t try to include absolutely everything you’ve donepick out highlights that are relevant to your application. Try to craft a compelling narrative that shows how you’ve changed and developed yourself over time.

Own your challenges and obstacles

If your path to graduate school hasn’t been easy or straightforward, you can turn this into a strength.

  • Is your social, cultural or economic background underrepresented in the 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 graduate school candidate.

Demonstrate your knowledge

If you’re applying for a PhD or another research-focused program, it’s a good idea to show your familiarity with the field and the department.

  • Reflect on a particular topic or area that really fascinates you. What draws you to it?
  • Talk about the questions you’d like to explore in your research. What do you want to know and why is it important?
  • Emphasize the program’s fit with your interests. Is the department known for its strength in your subfield, or are there specific faculty members you want to work with?

The personal statement isn’t a research proposal, but you can use it to show your enthusiasm for academia and your capacity for original thinking.

Emphasize your ambitions

If you’re applying for a more professionally-oriented program, focus on concrete goals and how the program will help you achieve them.

  • If you have already worked in this profession, show how the program will allow you to take the next step.
  • If you are planning a career change, explain what has driven this decision and how your existing experience will help you succeed in this field.
  • If your career is just getting started, show how this program will equip you with the skills to get where you want to be.

Don’t just state the position you want to achieveyou should demonstrate that you’ve put plenty of thought into your career plans and show why you’re well-suited to this profession.

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 collegemore 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 contributefor 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.

Tips for an effective 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 writingthe personal statement is also used to assess your written communication skills. Make sure you write clearly and concisely, and follow these tips to strengthen your text.

Concentrate on the opening paragraph

Don’t make your introduction a dry summarycatch the committee’s attention with an engaging opening. This might be a story, a question, or just a snappy statement that makes them want to read more.

Be specific

Don’t make vague general statements about your interests and motivationsgive concrete examples, and go into as much detail as possible.

Make your statements into storiesinstead 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.

Draw connections

Aim to show how your personal life, your academic and professional achievements, and your future aspirations all fit together. Your paragraphs shouldn’t be isolated chunks of informationthey should flow smoothly with clear transitions, and build up to a compelling story.

Avoid cliches

You want to stand out, not blend in. Don’t use stock phrases like “Ever since I was a child…” or vague statements about “helping people”. Both of these ideas can be better expressed by stories and examples. Show what makes you unique, not what you think they want to hear.

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, direct and coherent. After revising and redrafting your personal statement, why not make sure it’s perfect with Scribbr’s professional proofreading service?

Proofread my personal statement

 

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Shona McCombes

Shona has an MLitt in English Literature and an MA in Gender Studies, so she's an expert at writing a great master's thesis. She has also been an editor and teacher, working with students at all different levels to improve their academic writing.

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