How to write a personal statement for graduate school

When you apply to graduate school, along with your resume, transcripts and recommendation letters,  you’ll probably also have 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?

This article guides you through some winning strategies to build a strong, well-structured personal statement. You can download the full examples below.

Urban Planning Psychology History

Getting started with your personal statement

Before you start writing, the first step is to understand exactly what’s expected of you. If the application gives you a question or prompt for your personal statement, the most important thing is to respond to it directly.

For example, you might be asked to focus on the development of your personal identity; challenges you have faced in your life; or your career motivations. This will shape your focus and emphasis—but you still need to find your own unique approach to answering it.

There’s no universal template for a personal statement; it’s your chance to be creative and let your own voice shine through. But there are strategies you can use to build a compelling, well-structured story.

The introduction: Start with an attention-grabbing opening

The first paragraph of your personal statement should set the tone and lead smoothly into the story you want to tell.

Strategy 1: Open with a concrete scene

An effective way to catch the reader’s attention is to set up a scene that illustrates something about your character and interests. If you’re stuck, try thinking about:

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

To write an effective scene, try to go beyond straightforward description; start with an intriguing sentence that pulls the reader in, and give concrete details to create a convincing atmosphere.

Example
Every day on the bus home from work, we pass by a row of abandoned houses. Their windows are boarded up, the paintwork on the front doors is faded and peeling, and the front yards are overgrown with weeds. It always seems faintly tragic to me: a lonely, desolate scene of wasted potential. I think of the people who must have lived in those houses once, and the people who still could if the right approach were taken.

Strategy 2: Open with your motivations

To emphasize your enthusiasm and commitment, you can start by explaining your interest in the subject you want to study or the career path you want to follow.

Just stating that it interests you isn’t enough: first, you need to figure out why you’re interested in this field:

  • Is it a longstanding passion or a recent discovery?
  • Does it come naturally or have you had to work hard at it?
  • How does it fit into the rest of your life?
  • What do you think it contributes to society?
    Example
    The mind fascinates me: The way it develops, how it shapes reality, how the interactions of tiny cells in the brain shape the course of our whole lives. I have always taken an interest in what was going on inside other people’s heads, but as I’ve come to understand more about psychology, what fascinates me the most is how blind we can be to the dynamics playing out in our minds every day.

    Tips for the introduction

    • Don’t start on a cliche: avoid phrases like “Ever since I was a child…” or “For as long as I can remember…”
    • Do save the introduction for last. If you’re struggling to come up with a strong opening, leave it aside, and note down any interesting ideas that occur to you as you write the rest of the personal statement.

    The main body: Craft your narrative

    Once you’ve set up the main themes of your personal statement, you’ll delve into more detail about your experiences and motivations.

    To structure the body of your personal statement, there are various strategies you can use.

    Strategy 1: Describe your development over time

    One of the simplest strategies is to give a chronological overview of key experiences that have led you to apply for graduate school.

    • What first sparked your interest in the field?
    • 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?

    Don’t try to include absolutely everything you’ve done—pick out highlights that are relevant to your application. Aim to craft a compelling narrative that shows how you’ve changed and actively developed yourself.

    Example of describing your development over time

    My interest in psychology was first sparked early in my high school career. Though somewhat scientifically inclined, I found that what interested me most was not the equations we learned about in physics and chemistry, but the motivations and perceptions of my fellow students, and the subtle social dynamics that I observed inside and outside the classroom. I wanted to learn how our identities, beliefs, and behaviours are shaped through our interactions with others, so I decided to major in Social Psychology. My undergraduate studies deepened my understanding of, and fascination with, the interplay between an individual mind and its social context.During my studies, I acquired a solid foundation of knowledge about concepts like social influence and group dynamics, but I also took classes on various topics not strictly related to my major. I was particularly interested in how other fields intersect with psychology—the classes I took on media studies, biology, and literature all enhanced my understanding of psychological concepts by providing different lenses through which to look at the issues involved.

    Strategy 2: Own your challenges and obstacles

    If your path to graduate school hasn’t been easy or straightforward, you can turn this into a strength, and structure your personal statement as a story of overcoming obstacles.

    • 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.

    Example of owning your challenges and obstacles

    Growing up working class, urban decay becomes depressingly familiar. The sight of a row of abandoned houses does not surprise me, but it continues to bother me. Since high school, I have been determined to pursue a career in urban planning. While people of my background experience the consequences of urban planning decisions first-hand, we are underrepresented in the field itself. Ironically, given my motivation, my economic background has made my studies challenging. I was fortunate enough to be awarded a scholarship for my undergraduate studies, but after graduation I took jobs in unrelated fields to help support my parents. In the three years since, I have not lost my ambition. Now I am keen to resume my studies, and I believe I can bring an invaluable perspective to the table: that of the people most impacted by the decisions of urban planners.

    Strategy 3: Demonstrate your knowledge of the field

    Especially if you’re applying for a PhD or another research-focused program, it’s a good idea to show your familiarity with the subject and the department. Your personal statement can focus on the area you want to specialize in and reflect on why it matters to you.

    • Reflect on the topics or themes that you’ve focused on in your studies. What draws you to them?
    • Discuss any academic achievements, influential teachers, or other highlights of your education.
    • Talk about the questions you’d like to explore in your research and why you think they’re important.

    The personal statement isn’t a research proposal, so don’t go overboard on detail—but it’s a great opportunity to show your enthusiasm for the field and your capacity for original thinking.

    Example of demonstrating your knowledge

    In applying for this research program, my intention is to build on the multidisciplinary approach I have taken in my studies so far, combining knowledge from disparate fields of study to better understand psychological concepts and issues. The Media Psychology program stands out to me as the perfect environment for this kind of research, given its researchers’ openness to collaboration across diverse fields. I am impressed by the department’s innovative interdisciplinary projects that focus on the shifting landscape of media and technology, and I hope that my own work can follow a similarly trailblazing approach. More specifically, I want to develop my understanding of the intersection of psychology and media studies, and explore how media psychology theories and methods might be applied to neurodivergent minds. I am interested not only in media psychology but also in psychological disorders, and how the two interact. This is something I touched on during my undergraduate studies and that I’m excited to delve into further.

    Strategy 4: Discuss your professional ambitions

    Especially if you’re applying for a more professionally-oriented program (such as an MBA), it’s a good idea to focus on concrete goals and how the program will help you achieve them.

    • If your career is just getting started, show how your character is suited to the field, and explain how graduate school will help you develop your talents.
    • If you have already worked in the profession, show what you’ve achieved so far, and explain 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.

    Don’t just state the position you want to achieve. You 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 discussing your professional ambitions

    One thing that fascinated me about the field during my undergraduate studies was the sheer number of different elements whose interactions constitute a person’s experience of an urban environment. Any number of factors could transform the scene I described at the beginning: What if there were no bus route? Better community outreach in the neighborhood? Worse law enforcement? More or fewer jobs available in the area? Some of these factors are out of the hands of an urban planner, but without taking them all into consideration, the planner has an incomplete picture of their task. Through further study I hope to develop my understanding of how these disparate elements combine and interact to create the urban environment. I am interested in the social, psychological and political effects our surroundings have on our lives. My studies will allow me to work on projects directly affecting the kinds of working-class urban communities I know well. I believe I can bring my own experiences, as well as my education, to bear upon the problem of improving infrastructure and quality of life in these communities.

    Tips for the main body

    • Don’t rehash your resume by trying to summarize everything you’ve done so far; the personal statement isn’t about listing your academic or professional experience, but about reflecting, evaluating, and relating it to broader themes.
    • Do make your statements into 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.

    The conclusion: Look ahead

    Your conclusion should bring the focus back to the program and what you hope to get out of it, whether that’s developing practical skills, exploring intellectual questions, or both.

    Emphasize the fit with your specific interests, showing why this program would be the best way to achieve your aims.

    Strategy 1: What do you want to know?

    If you’re applying for a more academic or research-focused program, end on a note of curiosity: what do you hope to learn, and why do you think this is the best place to learn it?

    If there are specific classes or faculty members that you’re excited to learn from, this is the place to express your enthusiasm.

    Example
    In the course of this research program and beyond, I hope to pursue research into the relationship between media consumption and conditions like ADHD and autism. The work of Bernard Luskin on media psychology has been a major influence on my own research interests and was what first drew my attention to the faculty; the prospect of working among researchers committed to interdisciplinarity is highly attractive to me. I believe that the novel methods being developed in this department are crucial in illuminating how our minds adapt to a world of mass media, and my ambition is to contribute to advancing knowledge in this field.

    Strategy 2: What do you want to do?

    If you’re applying for a program that focuses more on professional training, your conclusion can look to your career aspirations: what role do you want to play in society, and why is this program the best choice to help you get there?

    Example
    My ambition as an urban planner is to work with impoverished urban communities. I want to draw on my own and others’ experience of these spaces rather than impose a prefabricated plan from above. I believe that by taking cues from the people affected, urban planning can more conscientiously shape the future of our cities. This master’s degree is my path toward that goal.

    Tips for the conclusion

    • Don’t summarize what you’ve already said. You have limited space in a personal statement, so use it wisely!
    • Do think bigger than yourself: try to express how your individual aspirations relate to your local community, your academic field, or society more broadly. It’s not just about what you’ll get out of graduate school, but about what you’ll be able to give back.

    Revising, editing, and proofreading your personal statement

    You’ll be expected to do a lot of writing in graduate school, so make a good first impression: leave yourself plenty of time to revise and polish the text.

    Your style doesn’t have to be as formal as other kinds of academic writing, but it should be clear, direct and coherent. Make sure that each paragraph flows smoothly from the last, using topic sentences and transitions to create clear connections between each part.

    Don’t be afraid to rewrite and restructure as much as necessary. Since you have a lot of freedom in the structure of a personal statement, you can experiment and move information around to see what works best.

    Finally, it’s essential to carefully proofread your personal statement and fix any language errors. Before you submit your application, consider investing in professional personal statement editing. For $30–40 dollars, you have the peace of mind that your personal statement is grammatically correct and free of awkward mistakes.

    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.

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    Shona McCombes

    Shona has a bachelor's and two master's degrees, so she's an expert at writing a great thesis. She has also worked as an editor and teacher, working with students at all different levels to improve their academic writing.

    1 comment

    Diann Fletcher Jones
    February 17, 2020 at 3:48 PM

    Thank you so much for the generosity of what you share

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