University Admissions Blog
ANNOUNCEMENTS & ADVICE
Before I get into how to write a strong personal statement (PS), I would like to briefly outline the difference between a PS and a statement of purpose (SOP). I want to address this is because the two terms technically refer to different writing requirements, but it is common for schools to use them interchangeably. Or, in some instances, a university might require an applicant to complete both a PS and an SOP. Here are the general differences:
An SOP is similar to a cover letter. It is an opportunity to present your professional and academic accomplishments and to explain how they will support you in you pursuing your intellectual goals. An SOP will:
A PS is much wider in scope than a statement of purpose. You are required to discuss how your academic and career experiences are related to your field of study, but you should also expound upon your personal experiences. A personal statement affords the freedom to discuss how you are passionate about your field of study and how you stand out from your peers. A PS should:
Always make sure that you read each school’s requirements carefully. One school might ask for a PS, while the actual prompt is more in line with an SOP. One school might ask for a PS that requires very specific information. Or one school might ask for a PS with no additional guidelines. Whatever the case may be, failing to follow the directions will get your application immediately dismissed. Nothing says “I don’t actually care whether I’m admitted or not” more than ignoring the requirements. Unfortunately, this is a frequent problem in admissions - even more so from international students who most likely simply misunderstand what is being asked of them. If you have any doubts, ask for clarification.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, below are the steps to writing a strong PS:
STEP 1: Understand what university admissions officers want to see in an applicant.
There are, of course, overarching characteristics that admissions counselors want to see in an applicant. For example, universities are interested in students who:
But schools also want to know why you are interested in them specifically.
To do this, you must start by researching the school fully. Do your homework so that you can tailor your PS to the program you are interested in.
It is far more important that you “fit” a school and are enthusiastic about attending than have amazing test scores and grades. So long as you meet the minimum requirements, schools prefer to select students who are passionate about their institution and informed about the opportunities available to them. We’ll talk more about demonstrating this in step 3, but it is something to keep in mind as you conduct your school research.
STEP 2: Make connections with university faculty and current graduate students.
Connecting with faculty and current students will help you better understand the school, programs of study, culture, expectations, opportunities, etc. But beyond helping you make informed application decisions, preliminary “networking” can help you get admitted.
You want to make yourself known (a household name, if you will) so that when your application crosses the admissions officers’ desks, they go, “Oh, I remember X! They’re super passionate about researching Y!” You may even end up with faculty members pushing for admission on your behalf. So don’t be shy: reach out to faculty members.
Another important point: it’s very likely that you will be required to find a graduate supervisor before applying to a program.
STEP 3: Tailor your PS to the department.
Once you have completed steps one and two, you should have a good idea what admissions officers are looking for in an applicant, and you should have some connections with various university faculty and students. This will put you in a good position to write an individualized PS. In order to do this, you must:
STEP 4: Add YOU to your PS.
As I’ve already mentioned, the PS allows you freedom in your writing. You can include personal stories or anecdotes, and you should. The personal statement is about you as a person. In the United States, narrative is used to exemplify overarching characteristics, and it can be a powerful way to show off your passion and motivation. That said, focus on events that occurred after becoming an adult. Childhood and/or secondary school experiences should only be discussed in undergraduate application essays.
STEP 5: Remind the admissions committee that their school is your top pick.
Even if it isn’t, say so.
STEP 6: Make sure your writing fits American expectations.
Poetic or flowerey language is not used in the American academic / business world. Your writing needs to be clear and straightforward.
Along the same lines, avoid “academese”, or writing that is intentionally highbrow. Academese is increasingly seen as unnecessary and complicated.
STEP 7: Narrow your PS down so it fits the word limit.
Most universities will give you a word limit. You absolutely must stay under or at the limit. If you are given 400 words, write between 380 and 410 words. Concision is highly regarded in English, so you should aim to say what you want/need in as few words as possible. Again, do not use poetic or “fluffy” writing. You need to get to the point and stay there.
To help you accomplish this, use active verbs, and reduce adverbs and adjectives. Never use the words “really”, “very”, or “extremely”.
Here are just a few of the resources I give my clients to help with the personal statement writing process: