Personal Statements and Statements of Purpose

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A personal statement and/or a statement of purpose is often required by graduate school applications. Sometimes these terms are used interchangeably, but sometimes they can have different meanings. For example, some schools might use the term personal statement to ask for more information about your background to get an idea of who you are as a candidate. Other schools might ask for a statement of purpose to understand why you want to attend graduate school and a particular program, which might mean focusing more on academics than on your personal history. Some schools might label it one or the other and ask for a combination of both. For this reason, it’s important to read the prompt carefully to understand what is being asked of you.

Depending on the field and program, it’s possible that each school might have a slightly different prompt for these documents. Unless your program uses a common application, it’s highly recommended that you tailor your personal statement or your statement of purpose to fit the school or program you’re applying to.

Sample Prompts (Retrieved in Spring 2022)

  • Statement of Purpose:
    • Why are you applying for this program? What are your research goals and interests? What do you hope to accomplish in this degree program? What do you want to do after and how will this help you? (UC Berkley, Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, MS or PhD)
    • Please use the Academic Statement of Purpose to describe (within 1000 words): (1) the substantive scholarly questions you are interested in exploring in graduate study, (2) your academic background, intellectual interests, and any training, research, or other experiences that have prepared you for graduate study, (3) how our program would help you achieve your intellectual goals, (4) any specific faculty members, if applicable, whose research interests align with your own interests, and (5) your professional goals. (UIUC, Education)
  • Personal Statement:
    • A statement in which you provide evidence of how your professional experiences and prior academic work have focused your thinking toward the planned program of study. A minimum 500 words is required for the personal statement. There is no maximum length to the statement, though most are not over 3 pages. (UIUC, Education)
  • However, schools and programs may ask for one statement that serves both purposes:
    • This statement of 500 – 1,000 words explains the decision to apply to Yale for graduate study, research interests, and preparation for the intended field/s of study, including prior research and other relevant experiences. This statement gives the admissions committee an idea of who the applicant is, what motivates them for chemistry graduate study, and how Yale’s faculty, research, and resources would contribute to their future goals. A successful personal statement provides a substantive description of prior research, puts background into context, indicates enthusiasm for research at Yale Chemistry, and shows how the candidate would enrich the intellectual community at Yale. Concrete and specific statements are more useful than broad generalities, though, of course, one does not need to know their future career plans in detail. (Yale, Chemistry, PhD)

Some programs will provide prompts (like the samples we included here), while others may ask for a statement without providing prompts. In the section below, we included some brainstorming questions to help you gather ideas.

Getting Started

It’s important to understand that the personal statement and/or statement of purpose is usually a part of an application package which often includes transcripts, CV or resume, letters of recommendation, etc. In the personal statement and/or statement of purpose, you will be able to provide greater details about key experiences. You also will be able to make an argument that your experience has sufficiently prepared you for the program you are applying for.

Try answering the following questions to brainstorm ideas for your statement:

  • What attracts you to this discipline or career?
  • What kind of work or projects that are related to your interests and/or this discipline and/or career have you found rewarding?
  • What life experiences have prepared you to succeed in this program or to pursue graduate education?
  • What personality traits set you apart from others? Why and how?
  • What life experiences have you had that are different from those of other potential applicants?
  • What do you expect to get out of this program/experience/degree?
  • What are your long-term and short-term goals? Why is this program/experience/degree necessary to your goals?

General Structure

Remember, this is your statement and each school will want slightly different information, so this isn’t the only way to structure a personal statement or a statement of purpose, but it’s one way to get started:

Personal Statement (PS)

Statement of Purpose (SOP)

To explain why you are the right candidate for the program


To explain why you want to study a given subject and to demonstrate your accomplishments and readiness to succeed in a program.
  • Personal motivation for applying;
  • How you developed your research interests;
  • Relevant experiences, challenges, or accomplishments.


  • The area you want to pursue;
  • Your credentials and qualifications;
  • Your academic or professional goals and how you plan to achieve these goals.

General Structure

Intro paragraph(s): For both PS and SOP, you would want to start by introducing yourself (personal and/or academic/professional background) and stating what program you’re applying to. Candidates often include an anecdote or hook that highlights a theme that will be developed in the statement.

  • Body paragraphs: Highlight events that help the admission committee see that you are a good fit for the program. These can be narratives of how you developed your research interest and motivation for going to graduate school, your academic experience (course experience, research opportunities, etc.), internship experience, or other relevant experiences.


  • 2nd paragraph: Describe the subject area you are interested in. (You may also briefly describe how your interest in this subject area developed.)
  • 3rd paragraph: What specific research questions do you want to pursue? Why are they important to you or to your field  of study?
  • Next couple of paragraphs: What academic experience or job experience have prepared you for the proposed program? (These paragraphs are similar to the “Body Paragraphs” in a personal statement but focus more heavily on academic and industrial experiences.)
Concluding paragraph(s): State your short-term and long-term goals (reiterate if you have included them in your intro). Why are the school and the program you are applying for a good choice? Are there specific faculty members you would like to work with? Basically, you want to leave the readers with a concise and strong reason for why you’re a good fit for the program and what you hope to achieve in the future based on this program. The content in this paragraph is traditionally tailored specifically for the school and program you’re applying to.

 While you are drafting, you may feel that you are repeating some of information available elsewhere in your application package: that is normal. However, your statement should provide more details of these important events and highlight the connections between these events and what you see yourself doing in the program you are applying for.

Regardless of what kind of statements you are writing, there are a few things all statements should do:

  • Answer the question(s) asked and respond fully to the prompt.
  • Tell readers about yourself beyond what other materials (resume/CV, writing sample, transcript) show.
  • Be forward-looking. For example, explain your contribution to the program, how it’s a good fit for you, and how it’ll help you achieve your goals.
  • Be honest and confident.
  • Focus on a few main topics that demonstrate your professionalism, intellectual maturity, and ability to do intellectual work in the field.
  • Be tailored for individual programs/schools (unless you are in a field that uses a common application).
  • Be as readable, clear, and organized as possible.

Depending on the program and the number of applicants, readers might skim your statement and focus their attention on the first and last sentences of each paragraph. It might be helpful to give those sentences a bit of extra attention.

Other Tips

  • Sometimes it’s helpful to think of quality over quantity. Don’t feel that you need to reach the word limit, and, in some cases, those who read your application may value conciseness.
  • Think of the “bigger picture” when writing about your experiences. Rather than simply describing your experiences, also explain what you learned from them and why they motivate you to pursue graduate school.
  • Demonstrate “fit” with the programs (e.g., faculty, program resources). Help the readers understand why the program will help you develop your professional/academic interests, and how you can contribute to the program and field.

Revising and Editing

Make sure your statement answers the question or prompt as fully as possible and revise it multiple times until it’s as clear as you can make it. One helpful way of doing this is to share it with multiple people. While each person will give you different feedback, they will also often give you ideas for revising and editing as well as a sense of how the committee will read  it. You can ask any of the following to read your statement and provide you feedback (and it might make sense to have a combination of people from within and outside your field):

  • Friends
  • Teachers
  • Writers Workshop consultants
  • Recent graduates from the program you’re applying to or from the discipline you hope to join
  • Current and past mentors, such as professors or bosses
  • Your letters of recommendation writers