Alongside the usual application materials - testing requirements, transcripts, CV, and recommendations - graduate and post-graduate programmes will always require you to include a ‘personal statement.’
Think of it as if you’re on trial, and the admissions committee is the jury. Except in this case, you’re not trying to prove your innocence to a crime. You’re simply trying to prove to that you should be admitted to their Master's or Ph.D programme. You write a short statement with concrete examples and evidence, all pointing to what kind of student you are as a student.
Here are some universities to apply to, all over the world:
Below we will outline general tips that will help you write and prepare your personal statement for your Master’s or Ph.D application.
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You will learn from the following topics:
- Allow yourself extra time
- Research the programme you're applying to
- Avoid useless cliches, junk, and details
- Only present your life-story if it enhances the statement
- Grab your reader's attention from the very beginning
- Don't use the same statement for 10 different applications
Allow yourself extra time
Although personal statements are generally short in length (approx. 700 words; 1-2 pages), you should take extra special care to make sure that it is written well and edited thoroughly for grammar, spelling, or punctuation errors. Every sentence should be carefully thought out, and every single word should contribute to your overall statement of purpose.
The previous 271 words leading up to this sentence only took me 15 minutes to compose; but your personal statement must be taken more seriously.
- Give yourself few weeks to think about what you want to say (and how you want to say it).
- You should also allow time to double- and triple-check your statement for any glaring mistakes. Send it to a colleague, your thesis mentor, a teaching assistant, or your friendly neighborhood copyeditor to have them look over it for clarity.
The personal statement is your opportunity to get, well...personal! This is an opportunity for you to reflect on what led you to apply for this programme. An encounter you had with a particular scholar, an inspiring course you took, a pivotal moment during your studies – there isn’t space for these kinds of things on your CV, but at least your personal statement gives the perfect space to share these things.
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Research the programme you are applying to
Part of doing post-graduate research (especially in a Ph.D) is proving that you understand the field you are entering; and there are ways for you to prove how familiar you are with the scholars who work in that subject.
- In your personal statement, show that you’ve given thought to the actual programme that you’re applying to. Don't tell them that you applied to their school because it is the highest-ranking school, or that it’s in a city you’d love to live in.
- Almost every university department website has details about each faculty member - what they specialise in and what they’ve published. Use this information to your advantage. Show that your interests align with those who already work in that department and that your research will find a comfortable home there. Then, include a sentence or two about it in the personal statement: ‘I have contacted Professor Xavier, who has agreed to oversee my research during my post-graduate studies’.
Avoid useless clichés, junk, and details
While your personal statement is an opportunity to express yourself, you shouldn’t waste the admission committee’s time.
Amateur writers fall into the trap of excessive, unnecessary preambles.It looks something like this:
‘Since the beginning of time, mankind has utilised principles of mathematics to measure objects in the world…’.
As a general rule for good writing, this kind of statement is, frankly, useless and annoying. Someone reading this sentence gets thinks you're either trying to fill space or just trying to show off. Committee members are just trying to find information about you that will let them decide your suitability for the programme. The last thing you want to do is bore them with unnecessary junk.
Only present your life-story if it enhances the statement
Students writing personal statements always feel tempted to present stories from their personal history. But, unless it is absolutely necessary to include in your statement, or if it really enhances the purpose that you’re presenting, you can leave this kind of information out.
For example, if you’re applying to a Master’s programme in English Literature, you can leave out the ‘I’ve been a bookworm from the time that I learned how to read’ section. This kind of statement doesn’t set you apart from other applicants.
Similarly, if you’re applying to a medical school, you needn’t include statements about how you’ve ‘always wanted to help people’ or that you ‘had a calling to be a doctor since age 7’.
However, there are aspects of your personal history that will be useful here.
- Talk about the time that you did an internship, and what experience that gave you.
- Talk about your own major research project and what you discovered about yourself.
- Talk about any publications, conference presentations, or assistantships you’ve done, and what they taught you.
Grab your reader’s attention from the very beginning
Quick! In two sentences explain what you’re interested in and how you became interested in it! In the next two sentences give an overview of your background in this field! Now conclude with what you intend to do with your graduate degree!
- This is your opening paragraph: grab the reader's attention and tell her exactly what she needs to know from the start.
- Think of it like your 'elevator pitch': you catch one of the committee members before getting into an elevator. You step into the elevator with them and, between the bottom floor and the floor where they are getting off, you must convince them to hire you for the position.
Your personal statement is basically the same thing.
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It would be good to introduce these details in the beginning (without too much detail) to direct the reader’s attention: 'In 2013, after joining a seminar on holistic nutrition, I realized that this is a more viable approach to health management, and I decided to devote my research to it'.
Don't use the same statement for 10 different applications
One mistake that applicants often make is thinking that, when they’re applying to more than one programme, they need only send the same details, written the same way, to 5 or 10 different universities. I’ve heard advisors and tutors recommend ‘writing one personal statement’ and ‘changing the name of the university’ for each one.
This is an enormous mistake.
For one thing, every programme has its own unique set of questions that they want answered in your personal statement.
- Some want extra-curricular activities you’ve participated in;
- Some want a clear proposal for your project;
- Some want you to just explain why are applying to their school;
- Some want to see what is unique about you and the research that you’re doing.
Another reason to avoid this technique is that it often this ends in embarrassing mistakes and errors in the personal statement. Probably every admissions officer can recall a time in the last application cycle when a student applying to Northwestern University said ‘it would be an honor to be admitted to UCLA this year.’ Errors like this come about when an applicant decides to use the same template for every school he or she is applying to. The easiest and most certain way to avoid such an egregious error would be to simply write a new statement for each school (hence our first piece of advice: allow yourself plenty of extra time).
Examples of Successful Statements
Below are samples of personal statements. You may also select "Sample Statement" in the Media Box above for a PDF sample.
My interest in science dates back to my years in high school, where I excelled in physics, chemistry, and math. When I was a senior, I took a first-year calculus course at a local college (such an advanced-level class was not available in high school) and earned an A. It seemed only logical that I pursue a career in electrical engineering.
When I began my undergraduate career, I had the opportunity to be exposed to the full range of engineering courses, all of which tended to reinforce and solidify my intense interest in engineering. I've also had the opportunity to study a number of subjects in the humanities and they have been both enjoyable and enlightening, providing me with a new and different perspective on the world in which we live.
In the realm of engineering, I have developed a special interest in the field of laser technology and have even been taking a graduate course in quantum electronics. Among the 25 or so students in the course, I am the sole undergraduate. Another particular interest of mine is electromagnetics, and last summer, when I was a technical assistant at a world-famous local lab, I learned about its many practical applications, especially in relation to microstrip and antenna design. Management at this lab was sufficiently impressed with my work to ask that I return when I graduate. Of course, my plans following completion of my current studies are to move directly into graduate work toward my master's in science. After I earn my master's degree, I intend to start work on my Ph.D. in electrical engineering. Later I would like to work in the area of research and development for private industry. It is in R & D that I believe I can make the greatest contribution, utilizing my theoretical background and creativity as a scientist.
I am highly aware of the superb reputation of your school, and my conversations with several of your alumni have served to deepen my interest in attending. I know that, in addition to your excellent faculty, your computer facilities are among the best in the state. I hope you will give me the privilege of continuing my studies at your fine institution.
(Stelzer pp. 38-39)
Having majored in literary studies (world literature) as an undergraduate, I would now like to concentrate on English and American literature.
I am especially interested in nineteenth-century literature, women's literature, Anglo-Saxon poetry, and folklore and folk literature. My personal literary projects have involved some combination of these subjects. For the oral section of my comprehensive exams, I specialized in nineteenth century novels by and about women. The relationship between "high" and folk literature became the subject for my honors essay, which examined Toni Morrison's use of classical, biblical, African, and Afro-American folk tradition in her novel. I plan to work further on this essay, treating Morrison's other novels and perhaps preparing a paper suitable for publication.
In my studies toward a doctoral degree, I hope to examine more closely the relationship between high and folk literature. My junior year and private studies of Anglo-Saxon language and literature have caused me to consider the question of where the divisions between folklore, folk literature, and high literature lie. Should I attend your school, I would like to resume my studies of Anglo-Saxon poetry, with special attention to its folk elements.
Writing poetry also figures prominently in my academic and professional goals. I have just begun submitting to the smaller journals with some success and am gradually building a working manuscript for a collection. The dominant theme of this collection relies on poems that draw from classical, biblical, and folk traditions, as well as everyday experience, in order to celebrate the process of giving and taking life, whether literal or figurative. My poetry draws from and influences my academic studies. Much of what I read and study finds a place in my creative work as subject. At the same time, I study the art of literature by taking part in the creative process, experimenting with the tools used by other authors in the past.
In terms of a career, I see myself teaching literature, writing criticism, and going into editing or publishing poetry. Doctoral studies would be valuable to me in several ways. First, your teaching assistant ship program would provide me with the practical teaching experience I am eager to acquire. Further, earning a Ph.D. in English and American literature would advance my other two career goals by adding to my skills, both critical and creative, in working with language. Ultimately, however, I see the Ph.D. as an end in itself, as well as a professional stepping stone; I enjoy studying literature for its own sake and would like to continue my studies on the level demanded by the Ph.D. program.
(Stelzer pp. 40-41)