The Ultimate Guide to Writing a Killer Personal Statement for Graduate School
How to Write a Personal Statement That Stands Out: The Key Elements Admissions Committees Are Looking For
You’re organizing and preparing to go to graduate school, you’ve narrowed down your list, and now it’s time to tackle your personal statement (sometimes referred to as a letter of intent, personal essay, or statement of purpose). Writing a strong personal statement is essential for your graduate school application and will reflect your passion and potential, but also will show the admissions committee or faculty what sets you apart from other applicants. While students commonly assume their grades or test scores are the most important elements of their applications, the personal statement and recommendation letters often play an equally important role in your admission decision.
Here are 10 tips to help you think about creating a compelling personal statement that increases your chances of acceptance:
1. Research your intended program in order to demonstrate fit.
It will be important for you to familiarize yourself with the graduate programs to which you are applying and then articulate in each statement why you’re a good fit for each individual program. In whatever ways are helpful to you, create an organizational tool in order to track each institution's requirements, noting any particular questions or prompts you must address. Understand your intended program's strengths, the types of students the program is looking for, and familiarize yourself with faculty members, research opportunities, and unique features. Show how your interests and experiences align with the program’s offerings, what you can add to the program, and how that program will help you achieve your career goals.
2. Follow the guidelines and understand any prompts or questions.
The more you know about your intended graduate program and school, the more you you can showcase what makes you stand out as a candidate. However, there may be specific things asked of you in certain letter requirements, while other schools may be more open-ended. Carefully read and adhere to the application guidelines for each program. Pay attention to word or page limits, formatting requirements, and any specific questions or prompts you need to address.
Important tip: If you do not need to address specific prompts and all of your programs just ask you to write a personal statement or letter of intent describing your interests and career goals, write individual letters for each program! It will certainly save you time to write one letter, but make sure you at least adjust parts of your letter to include the correct school name and program and address any specific aspects of the program that are relevant to you. For example, if your intended graduate program doesn’t offer research opportunities, but your letter describes your love of research and intentions to conduct research in your graduate program, faculty and admissions representatives may perceive that you did not take the time to understand the curriculum and program outcomes and react unfavorably to your candidacy.
Even if you’re a stellar student and qualified candidate, most graduate programs want students that are going to be successful and their intentions are appropriately aligned with the program. If the faculty or admissions committee reading your essay feel like your goals aren’t aligned with the program, you’ll hurt your chances of being admitted. The more you can show the reader that you did your due diligence and that you know the program outcomes well, the better you’ll help the folks admitting you see that you’re a great fit.
And though it may go without saying, make sure you’re addressing the correct school and program in your statement. An incorrect school or program name may signal a lack of attention to detail and impact your chances of being admitted.
3. Start early and stay organized.
It’s often said that if you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail. You can never be too early with your own organization, especially when many graduate schools have deadlines and tight timelines. Give yourself plenty of time to write and revise your personal statement. Starting early allows you to brainstorm, reflect on your experiences, craft a well-structured statement, and have it reviewed and edited. This way, you can keep on track for your deadlines and have your letters of intent ready to go.
4. Highlight your motivations and showcase your experiences.
Graduate programs, and particularly graduate faculty, want to consider students who are excited about the program that they offer. Discuss your passion for your intended program, what motivates you to apply, and how you believe the program aligns with your future career goals. Share relevant experiences such as research projects, internships, work, or extracurricular activities, that demonstrate your commitment and accomplishments in the field. Some institutional prompts will guide you in including some of these details; however, you’ll want to show application readers why your experience, goals, and motivations make you a great fit for their program.
5. Be specific and concrete.
When you’re thinking about your accomplishments and strengths, use specific examples and anecdotes to illustrate your points. Avoid vague statements and provide evidence to support your claims. There is a big difference between:
“I have demonstrated my leadership skills through various clubs and activities on campus.”
“As the president of the university’s Sustainability Club, I organized and led multiple community cleanups on campus and in the surrounding towns, recruited over 100 volunteers, and successfully collected over 3,000 pounds of recyclable materials. Additionally, I initiated a sustainability awareness campaign on campus throughout the residence halls and dining halls, which resulted in a 20% reduction in single-use plastic consumption within six months.”
6. Discuss your strengths and how they pertain to your intended program.
It goes without saying, but your personal statement gives you a chance to showcase how awesome you are. Emphasize your unique strengths and skills that set you apart from other applicants. Use examples to demonstrate how you’ve utilized these qualities to achieve success. Show the faculty or admissions committee why they should choose you, particularly if your intended graduate program only admits a limited number of applicants.
Before you apply, consider contacting the admissions office, speaking with faculty, or connecting with student ambassadors at your target graduate programs to learn what traits are most important for successful applicants. Most schools can share what types of students do well in their programs and what faculty are looking for as they admit students. Aligning your strengths with the right programs will help you have the highest likelihood for admission.
7. Address weaknesses thoughtfully.
Surprisingly, your personal statement may be your only opportunity to address your weaknesses, and you may consider doing so if you feel it’s appropriate. If you have any academic or professional weaknesses, address them honestly and explain how you have learned from these experiences and grown as a result. While this may not apply to everyone, your personal statement may be your only chance to provide an explanation for academic deficiencies to the admissions team or faculty members reading your essay.
Were you a student in the COVID-19 pandemic and your grades only really faltered in the semester or two you were fully online? Did you struggle in your academic studies as a science major, switch to a new program, and then flourish in your new classes? Did you do have a low GPA when you were a student but you’ve had a successful 20-year career with many accomplishments you can highlight?
Your reader can usually infer these circumstances looking at your transcript and other materials, but you may consider addressing them directly since you may not get the opportunity to have an interview, particularly if you’re applying to schools and programs that have hundreds of applicants. While you may choose not to address weaknesses in your personal statement, it certainly is something to consider.
8. Know your “why,” but avoid an autobiography.
Some self-reflection may be helpful before you start to work through your personal statement. The faculty or admissions committee will want to know your “why” and this could naturally come out through your career goals, but it is worth really thinking about what is driving you to go to graduate school. It can be helpful to do some introspecting and identify your academic and career aspirations as you start to work through your materials and prepare to apply.
Clearly articulate your passion for the field and what drives you to pursue graduate studies and your intended program. However, avoid an autobiography. You may be bound by the word or page limits anyway, but don’t miss the opportunity to share a bit about you personally. Did you experience something growing up in your community that drove you to pursue a certain major or internship? Are you working in a job now that you love (or don’t) and this opportunity will allow you to grow or switch to a new path? Carefully and thoughtfully share your motivations, passions, and drive.
9. Be genuine and authentic.
In a world of digital opportunities at our fingertips, it's easy to take shortcuts while writing your personal statement. Use your statement as an opportunity to sincerely and authentically let your personality and enthusiasm for your graduate program shine through. Avoid using artificial intelligence (A.I). or having anyone else write your letter for you. Faculty and admissions committees can easily identify when letters of recommendation or personal statements are not authentic. If you prepare and stay organized ahead of time, this should be a relatively simple piece of your application that is true to you.
10. Edit, revise, and get feedback.
Write multiple drafts and write beyond the limits, and then edit your essay thoroughly. Don’t worry too much about staying within page or wordcount guidelines. Instead, write freely and then revise and edit down to the page or word limit from there. You'll have a much easier time writing your personal statement if you freely write your thoughts and ideas out on paper to start.
Once you have a draft of your personal statement ready, ask trusted friends, family members, or mentors to review it and provide constructive feedback. Consider their suggestions to refine your statement further. Read your draft to yourself to help eliminate grammatical errors and ensure that your words flow smoothly. Your statement should have a logical sequence and tell a linear story, and be careful not to repeat similar information throughout your statement.
After you've refined your statement and reviewed it with others, submit it to your intended graduate programs and take a breath!
Remember, your personal statement provides an opportunity to present yourself holistically to the admissions committee by showcasing your unique qualities, aspirations, and potential contributions to the graduate program. Be authentic, sincere, and persuasive, and use your statement to share your unique story and academic and career aspirations with the graduate programs to which you are applying. A strong personal statement will show the faculty or admissions reader why you are an undeniable fit for their programs.
If you have questions about preparing your letter or would like an opportunity to review your draft with a member of our admissions team, please reach out to the Roger Williams University Office of Graduate Admission at email@example.com.RWU Grad Blog