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Creating Effective Personal Statements


For most graduate school applications, you'll be required to write a personal statement (also known as a statement of purpose). This is an essay in which you explain why you want to attend the graduate program, and why you'd be a good fit for it. It's also your writing sample for the graduate program.

Your personal statement is a very important part of your application materials. It can be a major factor in the admissions decision. It will be evaluated for quality of writing and clarity of professional goals. For help with it, connect with your college career office or the U of M Writing Center. You should also consider getting feedback from professors in your field.

For an overview of personal statements, watch this 10-minute online presentation, or attend our free Personal Statements Workshop.


HOW TO PREPARE TO WRITE IT:

Conduct self-reflection
  • What are your motivations for pursuing graduate/professional school?
  • What are your interests, skills, and goals? How do they relate to the graduate program?
  • How do your personal goals match with the institutions and programs you're considering?
  • What makes you a strong candidate for the graduate program?
  • What about this kind of program makes it a good fit for you? (For example, why law school instead of public policy?)
Research the programs
  • Check out the websites of every graduate program that interests you. If you don't find what you need online, contact the grad programs directly to request additional information.
  • Questions to consider as you assess graduate programs include:
    • What's the criteria for acceptance?
    • What are the values of the program and the institution?
    • What are some of the themes or trends you notice with this program. What do students and staff say? Does what they say make you think the school would be a good fit for you?
  • If possible, visit the institution and talk to students, faculty, and admissions committee members.
  • Research the program faculty. Get to know their areas of expertise and background.

HOW TO WRITE YOUR STATEMENT:
Use the information you compiled through your research and self-reflection. Explain how this program fits you and your long-term goals.

Follow directions on each specific application
  • Read the instructions very carefully. Follow the required format, and the required word count or page limits.
  • Read each question carefully, and be sure you answer each one.
  • If no specific questions are provided, consider your experiences, motivations, and goals that relate to the program.
  • If creating statements for multiple schools, customize each one to reflect your research and interest in that program.
  • Avoid writing vague or generic-sounding personal statements. They're ineffective.
Mention your research about the program or school
  • You view this program as a good match for you. Explain why.
  • What opportunities does this program offer? What is it known for? Discuss this and why it matters to you.
  • What faculty do you hope to work with and why?
Shape how you describe yourself
  • Use anecdotes from your life to tell them who you are. Tell stories about yourself, and relate them to the program and your long-term career plans.
  • Emphasize what's unique about you. (For example: classes you've taken, professors you've worked with, or events you've attended. You can also highlight projects, volunteer positions, jobs, or internships that relate to your goals.)
  • Demonstrate that you have a realistic sense of the field and the training required. Provide examples of how you've prepared yourself for this field. (For example, how you did research, volunteer work, or related personal experiences.)
  • Don't explain the field or program. The reader of your personal statement will already be an expert.
  • Use your personal statement to highlight information not covered in other parts of your application.
  • Draw the reader in with a strong opening statement and strong first paragraph. Your application is one of many, and this will help you stand out in the applicant pool.
  • Say what the program will gain by accepting you.
  • Keep it positive. Do not use your personal statement to explain shortcomings in your background or application, or poor grades. That would highlight negatives, which you want to avoid.
  • If there was a short period during which you did poorly in school or withdrew from classes, and this was due to extenuating life circumstances, you could address that in an addendum. (For example, if you were ill or there was a death in your family.) An addendum is a separate document from your personal statement, and it shouldn't be longer than one page. Make an appointment with a professional career counselor for guidance about addendums.
Don't forget tone and writing style
  • Come across as genuine, realistic, unique, and excited.
  • Show your enthusiasm for the program.
  • Avoid romanticizing your plans. Talk about realistic ways you expect to contribute to the field.
  • Balance your enthusiasm, anecdotes and self-marketing with practical information.
  • Avoid meaningless cliches such as "I've always wanted to…" or "I like to help people."

AFTER YOU HAVE A DRAFT READY:

Get it critiqued!
  • Edit and proofread it. Are you communicating exactly what you want to say?
  • Does it look professional and well written? Look at grammar, font size, aesthetics, spelling, and format. Don't forget your personal statement is also a writing sample.
  • Include your name as a header on each page.
  • Get feedback from a professor or advisor.
  • Take it to the Center for Writing for feedback and editing tips. (See the 'Student Writing Support' section.)
  • CLA students: To get your draft reviewed by a CLA career counselor, schedule an appointment. Call us at 612-624-7577 and request a personal statement appointment. You must send us a draft at least 24 hours before your appointment. You can also take our Personal Statements workshop.

BEFORE YOU SEND IT WITH YOUR APPLICATION:

Proofread it again.
Have someone else proofread the final version for typos or errors. Then send it with your application materials and congratulate yourself on a project well done!