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Personal Statements

The personal statement is an essay of varying length that may be requested when you are applying to a graduate or professional school, for an internship, or for a grant/fellowship.  With the statement, you are representing your best self: your academic background; your work experience; a narrative of your past, present, and future interests; and your personal commitment to the program or organization at in question.  The statement needs to demonstrate that you are well-informed about the program and that your background and interests match well with the program's mission.

Planning Ahead

  • Familiarize yourself with the program or organization to which you are applying, and contact a program representative with any questions you may have.  Be sure to identify particular features of the program or organization that interest you most.
  • Take time to do some reflection.  Identify your goals, find meaning in your past experiences, and take stock of your investment in the program or organization to which you are applying.  The more familiar you are with these, the better equipped you will be to write about them and represent them accurately.
  • Give yourself plenty of time to write multiple drafts (the more, the better!).  Seek feedback from advisors, professors, those familiar with the program or organization to which you are applying, and even those who have simply written a personal statement in the past.
  • Bring the application and your statement draft to the Writing Center for feedback.
  • After revising the draft for content, edit your draft for grammar and mechanics, conciseness, “flow”, and style.

What to Include in a Personal Statement

  • When, how, and why did you become interested in this area of study or work?  
    Be specific! Here, you want to distinguish yourself.  You want to demonstrate how well you know your interests.
  • Why are you interested in this particular program or organization?
    • What you hope to gain
      Tailor your statement to your readers and be prepared to name specific features about the program or organization including people, courses, or available resources. How will this specific program help you further your personal or professional goals?
    • What you have to offer
      Consider how your knowledge and experience makes you a valuable addition to the program.
  • What makes you an exceptional and ideal candidate?  Describe specific experiences that set you apart from other applicants.  Detail recent and pertinent examples; unless you have a very good reason, do not include high school experiences.  Here are a few possible topics to discuss if relevant:
    • Coursework
    • Community Service and Other Extracurricular Activities
    • Leadership Positions
    • Internship and Work Experiences
  • What are your accomplishments, particularly ones that make you stand out as a successful candidate?  Elaborate on major accomplishments mentioned briefly in other parts of the application and/or take this opportunity to write about accomplishments not yet mentioned. Describe accomplishments that best illustrate your strengths.
  • Have you had any profound experiences or obstacles that affect your application?  Only mention controversial topics if they are critical to your application.
  • What are some of your goals or future plans going into this area of study or work?  Show that you have a sense of direction and purpose by giving your reader an idea of your long-term goals and how acceptance into the program or organization to which you are applying will help you accomplish them.

Things to Avoid

  • Try not to go overboard with when including biographical narrative.  The focus is more on the ways in which your experiences have shaped your interests, goals, and thinking, rather than on the events themselves.
  • Try not to “preach” to your reader.  If you have strong sentiments or opinions pertaining to a particular issue or interest, express them in such a way that they do not come across as overly fanatical or extreme.
  • Where possible, try not to mention things covered elsewhere in your application.  If you feel that something previously listed in your application merits elaboration, carefully evaluate how to include it without its inclusion being redundant.
  • In trying to bring your “voice” into the personal statement, try to keep away from doing anything too extravagant or “gimmicky”.  While the objective is to give the reader a sense of who you are, being too flashy may give them the impression that you are trying more too hard to appear a fitting candidate, rather than simply explaining what makes you so.

Additional Resources on Personal Statements

  • Stelzer, Richard.  How to Write a Winning Personal Statement for Graduate and Professional School.  3rd ed. Princeton, NJ: Peterson's Guides 1997.
  • Steward, Mark Alan.  Perfect Personal Statements.  2nd ed.  Lawrenceville, NJ: Thompson/Peterson's, 2002.
  • “Writing the Personal Statement.”  Purdue Online Writing Lab.  Purdue University, 25 Apr. 2010.  Web. 30 July 2010.  <http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/642/01/>

 

[Compiled by Natasha Azank, Michelle Deal, Jessica Oulette, and Stefana Soitos. Revised by Sean Coffill Nov. 19, 2010.]