How to Write a Great Personal Statement for Graduate School

Lindsay Rayner
Lindsay Rayner
Middle school principal; M.A. in Educational Leadership
Young women taking notes while sitting at a desk.

For some, graduate school is the next logical step in their career progression. For others, it is the beginning of a journey on an entirely different career path. Some application processes are competitive and arduous, while others are as straightforward as filling out an application and paying the bill. Regardless of the program, most graduate schools require a personal statement for admission. Here’s a guide to putting your best self forward.

What is a Personal Statement and Why is it Important?

You only get one chance to make a good first impression. The personal statement is often that first impression. A personal statement is a short essay that gives graduate school admissions officers a chance to get to know you individually. Personal statements are what distinguish you from all the other applicants with similar applications and transcripts. As a graduate school applicant, it is important to distinguish yourself in a positive light.

Important Components of a Personal Statement

Popularly known as MAP, every personal statement should address three components: Motivation, Aspiration, and Perspiration.

  1. A great personal statement begins with explaining your reasons for wanting to be admitted into a particular program. This is a good place to show off background research about the school. Perhaps the program has a diverse faculty. Maybe it is home to a renowned research facility. Giving specific details that show you have a genuine interest in this program specifically will allow the admissions committee to see you as a serious candidate.
  2. This section of the personal statement explains what you plan to do once you have completed your graduate course of study. You should emphasize how the school’s graduate program will help you reach your future goals. Perhaps by completing this program, you plan to enter a new career field or advance in your chosen career. The program may be a way for you to improve in your current position, bringing new knowledge to your current work. Tie career aspirations to the specific attributes that motivated you to apply for the program.
  3. Graduate school admissions officers are looking for candidates who have a proven record of putting in the work required for success. This section of the personal statement is your opportunity to brag. Career and academic accomplishments should be highlighted here, with an emphasis on those that are directly related to the program and field of interest.

How to Make Your Personal Statement Stand Out

  1. Carefully read the prompt before getting started. Some programs ask for very specific information in a personal statement. While repurposing the same personal statement, or parts of a personal statement, for multiple programs can save time; before doing so, verify that you have addressed everything in the prompt.
  2. Plan the structure ahead of time. While a five-paragraph essay is standard, some programs may only ask for a short response. In either case, outline your statement ahead of time, so that it is easier to write and easy for the reader to follow.
  3. Stick to the plan. Once you have an outline, use it. It can be tempting to veer off-topic, especially when writing about oneself. Avoid the impulse and keep your statement tightly crafted.
  4. Know your audience. While you may not personally know your reader, know something about who reads these statements. It may be one person, who uses them as a screening tool. It may be an entire committee. By knowing something about the program, you probably know something about the selection committee. Tailor your response to your audience, avoiding religious or political subjects that may distract the reader from your qualifications. This is not the time to make a point to your audience.
  5. Tell an interesting, relevant story. A well-told story is a great way to convey your uniqueness without being preachy. Stories are easier to recall than facts, making them more likely to stick in your readers’ consciousness—a good thing when you want to remembered.
  6. Use subtle humor. Humor can be tricky, though. If it fits, use it, but don’t force it.
  7. Avoid clichés. Words like “passionate” and phrases like “hard worker” are trite at this point. Find other, more original ways to describe yourself.
  8. Be sincere. There’s a fine line between portraying the best version of yourself and telling an outright lie. By lying about yourself, you may find that you gain entrance to a program that is not suited to you at all. You’re not everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s okay. You’ll find a program that is right for you, even if it’s not this one.
  9. Seek feedback from someone else in your field who completed a similar program. They may have some insight into what to include in your statement.
  10. Proofread and revise. Then do it again.

Other Important Factors to Consider

  • Pay attention to submission instructions. Some statements are submitted with your application, while others might be submitted to a separate department.
  • Submit your statement on time.
  • Don’t hound the admissions office. If a timeline for acceptance is not stated upfront, ask when you should expect to hear whether you are accepted or not. Do not follow up until that date has passed.
  • Relax!

Writing a personal statement is often a necessity for graduate school admissions, but it can also be an opportunity to explore your motivation for applying to graduate school, plan your aspirations for using the education you’ll gain, and reflect on all your accomplishments along the way.

*Updated February 2021
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