Personal Statement and Statement of Purpose

Writing a statement of purpose or a personal statement is usually the part of the grad school application process that most students dread.  In fact, just thinking about writing this section inspires that sickening feel in the bottom of my stomach. I HATE writing statements of purpose and personal statements.  What are they really?  A big sappy story about how something inspired you to want to get this degree from this awesome university and save the world.  Ugh.  Like most people, I find it difficult to write about myself and I think that this is why potential grad students find the task of writing a statement so daunting.  I cannot make it easier for you to write about yourself, but I can help alleviate the perplexity concerning personal statements and statements of purpose.  

To begin, we need a clarification of terminology.  Personal statements and statements of purpose are not the same thing.  To add to the confusion and inspire panic, many advice blogs and websites use the two terms interchangeably.  I think that this blog  does a nice job succinctly explaining the difference. The authors state that a personal statement is an explanation of why you are applying to a program – what is driving your decision to apply to grad school. A statement of purpose is less broad, in their opinion.  A statement of purpose should explain your experiences, your research interests and a discussion on the professors you would like to work with at that university, and/or resources offered by the university that appeal to you. I like to think of the personal statement as a way to present insight into who you are as a person:  your passions and your motivations. Conversely, I see the statement of purpose as more of an objective (less emotional) explanation of why you want to attend that university – what you have to offer to them and what the university has to offer you.   

Most programs list very specific criteria for the statement of purpose or personal statement.  In my experience, I find that most programs expect the statement to be 1-2 pages long, double spaced, usually with a header that states your last name and the program to which you are applying. They typically want to see why you are interested in studying what you want to study, what type of experiences you have in this field/related field, why you want to study at that university, and lastly, what makes you the ideal candidate, regardless if they technically require a personal statement or statement of purpose. Sometimes the program will have specific questions that you need to address in your statement.  Because most of the programs to which I applied gave such detailed criteria for the statement I concerned myself less with what it was called – personal statement or statement of purpose – and focused instead on meeting their criteria. This is what I noticed when I applied to grad school and I include these observations so that you do not walk into your grad applications ill-informed. However, I am sure that these expectations are not the case for all programs, so please read and follow your program’s requirements!

Here is a basic outline:  

Paragraph One:  Introduce Yourself.  Catchy reason for why you are interested in pursuing this field.  Did you visit China and see the Great Wall of China and that’s what inspired you study Chinese history?  Did you read Molly’s American Girl stories growing up and that’s why you are interested in American women’s roles during WWII?  There must be a very good reason why you are going to devote the rest of your life to this field, you just need to articulate it in a way that is understandable and inspiring.   

Paragraph Two:  Briefly talk about your education.  Briefly!  Your space is limited.  If you have any relevant research, volunteer, internship, or work experience, include this here.  No relevant experiences?  If you worked full-time at a cafe to support yourself through college, talk about the skills you gained from that.  Working and going to school means that you know how to juggle multiple demands on your time.  It also means you are one determined and self-driven person!  These are skills you are definitely going to need in grad school.  Go you!  Some other words of advice: If you are writing a personal statement focus more on paragraph one unless your program’s requirements state otherwise.  Also, do not copy and paste from your resume or CV!  The faculty reading your application will have to read your resume or CV and you don’t want to bore them with redundant information. Instead, focus on writing about skills or experiences that cannot be easily explained on a resume or CV. Much like the working and going to college example above, use your education and work history as a way to explain your personality and motivations.  

Paragraph Three:  Why are you applying to this program?  Talk here about professors that interest you.  This is the section that you can swap out and customize for each of the programs that you apply to.  This is also where you say what it is that you are exactly interested in studying in graduate school.  You are applying to study Chinese history?  Specify!!  Relate what you want to study to the strengths and research interests of the professors that you want to work with in that program. This paragraph is essential to statements of purpose!  

Finally:  You are the ideal candidate for this program because….  Sum things up and say why you are the most awesomest person for this program!  

Universities know that students apply to many programs but do not make your statement sound like you copied and pasted into each of your applications. Tailor your statement to the university.  Yes, this is time-consuming but it is necessary.  Remember how you felt when you contacted professors and they sent you an obvious copy and paste reply? You probably felt like you didn’t matter because the professor couldn’t be bothered to write you a real reply. That is certainly not how you want make your dream grad school to feel like, so keep that in mind when you write your statements.    

If your university offers a writing center, make an appointment to get feedback on your statement.  I don’t want to say that your whole application is riding on one, two-page paper…but your personal statement or statement of purpose is a reflection of who you are as a person, a summation of your academic achievements, and an indication of your ability to write effectively.  Put time and effort into your statement and get help from as many people as possible – send your drafts to your advisor, friends, and your super awesome older sister whom you should thank by buying her coffee, *cough cough* lots of coffee. The fancy kind.   


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