Writing the Personal Statement

A Statement of Purpose (SoP), or personal statement, is your opportunity to sell yourself in the application process: a concise essay about your career goals and how they will be achieved, as well as accomplishments made thus far.

It is frequently required for applicants to universities, graduate schools, and professional schools. Often, the SoP is used to assess the capabilities of a prospective student’s critical thinking, analytical abilities, interests, aims, and aspirations. It is a good way for an applicant to communicate with the admissions committee. Most admissions committees look for a short, crisp, and ideologically clear SoP.

The SoP is also known as a Graduate School Essay. Some universities call it a Letter of Intent, Letter of Intention, Statement of Intent, Statement of Intention, Statement of Interest, Goals Statement, Personal Statement, Personal Narrative, or Application Essay. Every university has its own regulations, but most of the time the SoP will be one to two pages. Limiting it to one page (750–850 words) will better ensure it will be read.

The Personal Statement: Two Categories

  1. The general, comprehensive personal statement: This allows you maximum freedom in terms of what you write.
  2. The response to very specific questions: Often, graduate school applications ask specific questions, and your statement should respond specifically to the question being asked. Some applications favor multiple essays, typically asking for responses to three or more questions.

Questions to Ponder Before You Write
  • What’s special, unique, distinctive, and/or impressive about you or your life story?
  • What details of your life (personal or family problems, history, people or events that have shaped you or influenced your goals) might help the committee better understand you or help set you apart from other applicants?
  • When did you become interested in this field and what have you learned about it (and about yourself) that has further stimulated your interest and reinforced your conviction that you are well suited to this field? What insights have you gained?
  • How have you learned about this field—through classes, readings, seminars, work, or other experiences, or conversations with people already in the field?
  • If you have worked during your college years, what have you learned (e.g., leadership or managerial skills), and how has that work contributed to your growth?
  • What are your career goals?
  • Are there any gaps or discrepancies in your academic record that you should explain (e.g., great grades but mediocre LSAT or GRE scores, or a distinct upward pattern to your GPA if it was only average in the beginning)?
  • Have you had to overcome any unusual obstacles or hardships (e.g., economic, familial, physical) in your life?
  • What personal characteristics do you possess (e.g., integrity. compassion, persistence) that would improve your prospects for success in the field or profession? Are you able to demonstrate or document that you have these characteristics?
  • What skills (e.g., leadership, communicative, analytical) do you possess?
  • Why might you be a stronger candidate for graduate school—and more successful and effective in the profession or field—than other applicants?
  • What are the most compelling reasons you can give for the admissions committee to be interested in you?

General Advice
  • Answer the questions that are asked. If you are applying to several schools, you may find questions in each application that are somewhat similar. Don't be tempted to use the same statement for all applications. Answer each question being asked and, if slightly different answers are needed, you should write separate statements. In every case, be sure your answer fits the question being asked.
  • Tell a story. Think in terms of showing or demonstrating through concrete experience. Don’t bore the admissions committee. If your statement is fresh, lively, and different, you put yourself ahead of the pack. If you distinguish yourself through your story, you will make yourself memorable.
  • Be specific. Your career objectives and plans should be logical, the result of specific experience described in your statement. Your application should emerge as the logical conclusion to your story.
  • Find an angle. If your life story lacks drama, figure out a way to make it interesting. Finding an angle, or a “hook,” is vital.
  • Concentrate on your opening paragraph. The lead or opening paragraph is generally the most important. It is here that you either grab or lose the reader’s attention. This paragraph becomes the framework for the rest of the statement.
  • Tell what you know. The middle section of your essay might detail your interest and experience and your knowledge of the field. Too many people graduate with little or no knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the profession or the field they hope to enter. Be as specific as you can relating what you know about the field and use the language professionals use in conveying this information. Refer to experiences (work, research, etc.), classes, conversations with people in the field, books you've read, seminars you've attended, or any other source of specific information about the career you want and why you’re suited to it. Since you will have to select what you include in your statement, the choices you make are often an indication of your judgment.
  • Don't include some subjects. Certain things are best left out of personal statements. For example, references to experiences or accomplishments in high school or earlier are generally not a good idea. Don't mention potentially controversial subjects (e.g., controversial religious or political issues).
  • Do some research, if needed. If a school wants to know why you’re applying there, rather than another school, do some research to find out what sets your choice apart from other universities or programs. If the school setting would provide an important geographical or cultural change for you, this might be a factor to mention.
  • Write well and correctly. Be meticulous. Type and proofread your essay very carefully. Many admissions officers say that good written skills and command of correct use of language are important to them as they read these statements. Express yourself clearly and concisely. Adhere to stated word limits.
  • Avoid clichés. A medical school applicant who writes that he is proficient at science and wants to help other people is not exactly expressing an original thought. Stay away from often-repeated or tired statements.

Writing the Personal Statement: Top 10 Rules
  1. Strive for depth rather than breadth: narrow focus to one or two key themes, ideas, or experiences.
  2. Try to tell the reader something that no other applicant will be able to say.
  3. Provide the reader with insight into what drives you.
  4. Be yourself, not the “ideal” applicant.
  5. Get creative and imaginative in the opening remarks, but make sure it’s something that no one else could write.
  6. Address the school’s unique features that interest you.
  7. Focus on the affirmative in the personal statement; consider an addendum to explain deficiencies or blemishes.
  8. Evaluate experiences, rather than describe them.
  9. Proofread carefully for grammar, syntax, punctuation, word usage, and style.
  10. Use readable fonts, typeface, and conventional spacing and margins.

Writing the Personal Statement: Top 10 Pitfalls
  1. Do not submit an expository resume; avoid repeating information found elsewhere on the application.
  2. Do not complain about the “system” or circumstances in your life.
  3. Do not preach to your reader. You can express opinions, but do not come across as fanatical or extreme.
  4. Do not talk about money as a motivator.
  5. Do not discuss your minority status or disadvantaged background unless you have a compelling and unique story that relates to it.
  6. Do not remind the school of its rankings or tell them how good they are.
  7. Do not use boring clichéd intros or conclusions.
    “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is . . .”
    “This question asks me to discuss . . .”
    “I would like to thank the admissions committee for considering my application.”
    “It is my sincere hope that you will grant me the opportunity to attend your fine school.”
    “In sum, there are three reasons why you should admit me . . .”
  8. Do not use unconventional and gimmicky formats and packages.
  9. Do not submit supplemental materials unless they are requested.
  10. Do not get the name of the school wrong.
  11. Do not incorporate technical language or very uncommon words.

Basic Format of the SoP
  • Three to five paragraphs:
    o Paragraph 1 should be a very personal story from high school or early college days (or earlier) that shows your interest and/or aptitude in the specific area in which you are applying. Set the scene in one or two sentences. Tell what happened in two to four sentences. End with telling your response to the situation and your feelings about it. This should be a total of no more than eight to ten sentences. It is a summary that is concise and to the point.
    o Paragraph 2 (could be broken into two paragraphs): Connect your example with the place to which you are applying. What about that place or internship appealed to you directly? What else have you done that is linked to that program? Don’t repeat that they will see that on your résumé. Summarize those things that apply directly.
    o Paragraph 3 (or 4): State your short-term and long-term professional goals.
    o Close with a brief summary of your background and goals in one or two sentences. This reaffirms both your preparation and your confidence in your choice of this program.
  • This is not an academic paper; it is a sales pitch. Use “I” and make it sound like you. Have someone help you with words that mean what you want to say. Have someone check it for grammar and punctuation. Use spellcheck and grammar check on your computer and fix anything that is underlined in red or green!
  • If it is printed and submitted, use white, 8.5” x 11” paper with 1-inch margins all around. Put your name in the top right-hand corner. Use Times New Roman either 11 or 12 and double space.