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How to Write a Winning Graduate School Personal Statement

A solid personal statement can make or break your acceptance into graduate school. In this guide, we cover what should and shouldn’t be included in your personal statement, some important tips to consider when writing your personal statement, and additional resources to help you with the process.

Author: Angela Myers

Editor: Staff Editor

Imagine that an admissions committee is looking at you and another candidate with similar coursework and extracurriculars. You both would be a great fit for the program, but there’s only one spot left. How does the committee decide who to accept? Often, it’s by looking at the personal statement. If your statement is generic, they may pass you over for the other candidate. If you write a stand-out personal statement, your application will be memorable and you’ll get the spot.

A solid personal statement constructs a narrative of your academic and professional history and shows the admissions counselors how you’d fit into the program. It’s no easy task, but with this guide you’ll be equipped to write a personal statement that showcases your expertise and passion. We’ll cover what you should and shouldn’t include, important tips to consider when writing your statement, and additional resources to help you throughout the process.

What is a Graduate School Personal Statement?

While you probably know that your graduate school applications require a personal statement, you may still be wondering exactly what it should say. Basically, a personal statement is a short essay that uses your previous experiences to explain why you’re a good fit for the program. The personal statement is all about you and why you’re interested in a specific graduate school. For many people writing about themselves doesn’t come easily, but when you understand what to cover and what to avoid the process is easier. You’ll also want to keep in mind what schools look for and the purpose of the personal statement to make sure yours meets the mark.

What is the purpose of a personal statement?

When done right, your personal statement gives the admissions committee a better understanding of who you are and why you would fit into their program. It’s different from a statement of purpose, which you might be asked for as well. A statement of purpose covers your academic credentials and research interests. A personal statement can touch on those, but it’s more about your journey and your reasons for pursuing a graduate degree. You can also use your personal statement to discuss any credentials or experiences that don’t show up in the other sections of your application but that you think would interest the admissions committee.

What kind of information should it cover?

The information you can cover in your personal statement varies greatly. Successful personal statements have covered topics from growing up in a working class family, an applicant’s love of libraries, and the need to make a massive career change. While you can cover a wide range of topics, there’s one thing you shouldn’t write about: information already covered in other sections of your application. Focus on one or two themes instead of providing a laundry list of experiences or future goals that can be found in other sections of your application. Your personal statement should read like a narrative, with a beginning (what you were doing before you decided to apply), middle (why you decided to apply), and end (what your life will look like after graduate school).

What do schools look for in a personal statement?

As discussed above, the point of a personal statement is to create a narrative. Graduate programs are looking for a clear story about why you’re applying and what you intend to do after finishing the program. Admissions committees often refer to the personal statement for insight into whether a candidate is a good fit for their program. Try to focus on a thematic reason you would be a good fit, not just for a graduate program in your discipline but for this specific program. What makes the program right for you?

What should your personal statement avoid?

The biggest mistake applicants make in the personal statement is listing coursework, work experience, and other accomplishments that can be found in other sections of your application. If your personal statement reads like a resume, start again.

Make sure your personal statement is well written, avoids overcomplicated language, and has a clear focus. The last thing you want is for the admissions committee to walk away confused about why you’re applying.

What Should Your Personal Statement Include?

Now that you understand what a personal statement is and its purpose, the next thing you need to determine is what to include. While this can be highly subjective and personal, there are some concrete aspects you should cover to write the best statement possible. These include having a clear focus, developing a narrative, stating your goals, and showcasing your personality. You also want to consider your tone, who your audience is, and if your personal statement is as polished as it could be. Let’s dive into each of these in more detail:

Clear focus

Your personal statement should have one clear focus, whether that’s how you found your love for sports management after organizing a neighborhood baseball team or how law school will allow you to become the first lawyer in your family. While it can be tempting to choose multiple themes, stick to just one for your personal statement.

Strong narrative

Stories leave a lasting impact, and your personal statement should too. Write your journey to grad school as a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning could be that after you got your bachelor’s degree you got a job working in the sales department of a publishing house. The middle might cover how you soon discovered you wanted to move into an editorial role and learned that getting an MFA would qualify you. The end would be the outcome of getting your MFA: joining the editorial team and deepening your connection to the publishing industry.

Clear goals

Sprinkle some of your professional goals into your personal statement. Don’t write them out as a list in your statement—though writing your goals in a list can help you clarify what to include. Look for ways you can subtly include them. For example, you could discuss your personal goal to be a doctor before the age of 30 as part of your motivation for applying to med school on your 23rd birthday.

Consistent Voice

You don’t want your personal statement to read like a resume. Add some oomph by crafting an essay with a clear voice. This voice should come across in the same tone you’d use if you were giving a TED Talk—sincere, professional, and engaging.

Understand Your Audience

If you write to everyone, you write to no one. To avoid that, consider your graduate school admission committee and what they want. Examine the values of the school, explore what the graduate program is most proud of, and conduct informational interviews with faculty or current students. Many programs even have a section on their website about what they’re looking for in applicants, so read it carefully.

Show Your Personality

While you should sound professional in your personal statement, this doesn’t mean you have to write like a robot. Showcasing your personality is a powerful way to wow an admissions committee. Throw in a reference to your favorite TV show, your favorite book, or some favorite phrases and words. Don’t try too hard, though; if you’re faking, your personal statement will ring hollow.

Clean Grammar & Spelling

Last but not least, make sure your personal statement is as polished as possible. Read it multiple times to make sure your point comes across, it is grammatically correct, and it reads as a narrative with one main focus. If you can, have a few friends, colleagues, or advisors read your application and provide feedback too.

10 Things to Think About Before You Write

The first step to a great personal statement happens before you start writing: brainstorming what you want to cover. Jot down notes and maybe even create an outline of the sections in your personal statement. When you go into drafting your statement with a plan, the writing process will take less time and it will be easier to stay on topic. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  1. What do you want the committee to know about you?

    Jot down everything that comes to mind; you can always edit the list later. Conversely, if you have trouble thinking of things they should know, ask a trusted advisor or friend what an admissions committee should hear about you.

  2. What are some life details that are relevant to this narrative?

    Think about your life up to this point. What memories stand out as reasons you pursued your current professional path and why do you want to go to graduate school? For example, if you’re getting your master’s in engineering, brainstorm moments when you discovered or deepened your love for the profession. These could include the engineering class you took in middle school, listening to your friend’s mom talk about her engineering job when you were in high school, or your passion for Legos as a kid.

  3. What are your goals?

    Write a list of both professional and personal goals you have for grad school and beyond. Once you write your goals down, see if they have any common themes. For example, if all your goals surround your love of Black authors, that could be the theme for a personal statement for your master’s in literature.

  4. What background can you provide on your interest in the school/program?

    When brainstorming, remember to research the school as well as the program. Go to your program’s website and make notes on the features. You can also conduct informational interviews with students for a more realistic look of the program’s values and benefits.

  5. What obstacles have you had to overcome?

    In a narrative, the hero often overcomes challenges. Similarly, you probably have had challenges to overcome in your life. These could be anything from growing up with dyslexia to struggling in your introduction to computer science class (despite being a software engineering major). Remember to include how you overcame these challenges, too.

  6. What experience do you have that’s relevant?

    Make a list of all the experience you have that is relevant to the graduate program. Refer to your resume, LinkedIn, and past coursework to generate ideas. Make this list as long as you can; you can always eliminate less relevant experiences later.

  7. What skills do you have?

    Most likely, your past education and professional experience have allowed you to hone a specific skill set. Brainstorm a list of skills to refer to when writing your personal statement.

  8. What makes you unique?

    Write a list of both professional and personal goals you have for grad school and beyond. Once you write your goals down, see if they have any common themes. For example, if all your goals surround your love of Black authors, that could be the theme for a personal statement for your master’s in literature.

  9. Are there any gaps or problems in your application that you could address?

    While you should put your best foot forward in your graduate school application, you also can address any gaps in your resume or any cause for concern. Let’s say you are a nurse applying to an MBA program, though you’ve never had a full-time role in business. In your personal statement, talk about the impact that your side hustle as a house flipper had on you while you were working your way through nursing school.

  10. When did you first choose to learn about this discipline?

    This question could serve as the catalyst for your personal statement. It’s the moment when your interest in this field began!

Best Tips for Crafting Your Personal Statement

Now that we’ve brainstormed the content to include in your personal statement, it’s time to write. Write a rough draft without thinking about editing, how it sounds, or word count restrictions. Write your story in your own words, just for yourself. After that, edit your personal statement into a polished, memorable piece. Keep these guidelines in mind when writing and editing your personal statement:

Read the Instructions Carefully

Read the instructions before you start writing and again before you edit. Following the instructions on word count, content the admissions committee wants covered, and other requirements sets you up for success. Writing 1,000 words when the instructions ask for a 500-word personal statement is a mistake that could have been avoided by reading and rereading the instructions.

Keep it Relevant

You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again: Your personal statement must have a specific focus. Everything in your personal statement should be relevant to that focus and to the specific graduate program. If you read over your personal statement and something seems out of place, eliminate it. Your personal statement should provide answers for the reader, not raise questions.

Be Authentic

While your personal statement should be professional, it should also highlight your authentic self. Don’t be afraid to be sincere and candid.

Address Strengths & Challenges

If you’ve already brainstormed your strengths and weaknesses, this should be easy. Showcase your skills and what sets you apart, but also don’t be afraid to discuss challenges you’ve had to overcome or potential concerns the admissions committee might have. This is your chance to tell your story.

Use Specific Examples

Don’t be afraid to get specific. The more personalized your statement is, the better. If you’re applying to a program in aerospace engineering, tell a story of how you and your dad used to go watch planes fly and discuss how they were built. That will be much more memorable than a statement about how aerospace engineering runs in the family.

Get Outside Input

Have a friend, colleague, or advisor read over your personal statement. Often, other people can point out the confusing parts and grammatical mistakes you missed.

Draft, Edit, Repeat

A personal statement isn’t a one-and-done process. It will take rounds of drafts and revisions. Allow yourself time to rewrite your personal statement and edit it multiple times before submitting.

An Admissions Expert Weighs In


To provide some insider insight, we sat down with graduate school admissions expert Nicole Galante to discuss what graduate schools are looking for, the most underrated advice for writing a personal statement, and the most common mistakes students make. Galante serves as the Assistant Director for the National and International Fellowships Office at Elon University. In this role, she helps students apply for nationally and internationally competitive awards, such as the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program and the Rhodes Scholarship, as well as competitive graduate school programs. The applications for these awards are primarily essay-based. Galante offers feedback and support as students craft these narratives. In addition, she recently graduated from a master’s of higher education program and draws on her own experience writing personal statements.

Q: What do students often forget when writing their personal statement?

A: The personal statement should not be viewed as an opportunity to restate everything on a student’s resume. While a student should talk about their experiences and how they’ve helped prepare them for a graduate program, the goal should be to find a through-line: what does the sum of these experiences say about them, their preparation, and their future endeavors? Consciously or not, through their experiences, students spend their time in college crafting a story about themselves. The purpose of the personal statement is to communicate that story to the selection committee.

Q: What is one piece of underrated advice for writing a stellar personal statement?

A: If there is a sentence or passage in a personal statement that could be applicable to other applicants (e.g., something generic like, “From a young age, I have been passionate about science.”) take it out or tailor it. Be specific. Students won’t have a lot of space to get their message across, so they want to be sure that every word communicates something unique about them.

Q: As a recent graduate of a master’s in higher education program, what do you wish you had known when writing personal statements as part of your graduate school applications?

A: Share your work, solicit feedback, and rewrite drafts as many times as possible before you submit the final version. I can’t underscore enough the importance of getting trusted feedback from professors, staff members, and peers during the writing process. This will help improve your writing and also strengthen the story you tell about yourself. Although we know ourselves better than anyone else, I’ve found that reflecting on personal experiences and communicating them to people who know nothing about you is harder than you’d think! So, rely on people who know you, too. Oftentimes they’ll be able to give you insights or tell you things about yourself that you weren’t able to identify the first time around.

Q: How does a personal statement for graduate school differ from one for undergraduate programs, fellowships, or jobs or from other parts of graduate school applications?

A: While the spirit of the personal statement will be the same if a student is applying for graduate school versus another experience, a graduate school statement should be distinct in a few ways:

  • First, in addition to telling a story, students will want to communicate very clearly why they are a good fit for the program and why the program is a good fit for them. This means they should be writing unique components of their statement for each program that they apply for.
  • Second, many graduate programs have an emphasis on research. If this is true of a student’s program of interest, they’ll want to communicate that they have the requisite skills necessary to be a successful graduate-level researcher.

Q: What are three things that you feel must be included in a personal statement?

A: The first element your personal statement needs is a strong opening. Selection committees will read dozens if not hundreds of applications and personal statements, so students will want their statement to stand out. The trick is to hook readers right from the beginning. Make it impossible for them to stop reading.

The second must-have is a clear story with a past, present, and future. The personal statement must communicate where students have been, how that experience shaped them into the person they are, and how they will use all of that to take them where they want to go.

The third critical component of a personal statement is a concise and constant thesis. Because most statements will be short in length, students will want to arrive at “the point” rather quickly and carry that throughout the statement.