Writing the Perfect Personal Statement for Your Master's or PhD Application

Universities frequently ask for a personal statement for graduate and post-graduate programmes applications, alongside test requirements, transcripts, CVs’, recommendations and other university application materials. Let’s find out what is a personal statement for grad school, why a personal statement is important and how to write one that helps you achieve your goal and become an international student. 

What is a personal statement letter?

Think of it as if you’re on trial, and the university admissions committee is the jury. Except, in this case, you’re not trying to prove your innocence of a crime. You’re simply trying to prove that you are the perfect candidate that should be admitted to a Master's or PhD programme at your preferred university.

To do this, you will have to write write a short essay with concrete examples and evidence about your experience and motivation, all pointing to what kind of student you are and why you're a good fit for the chosen degree.

Your personal statement is an invitation to the admission committee to get to know who you are. It should also be the result of self-reflection, the outcome of you taking time to figure out who you are and what your goals for the future should be – both in terms of what you want to study, but also what your career should lead to after graduation.

girl writing personal statement

Your personal statement should answer questions like these:

  • Why is the programme you are applying for the right one for you?

  • How are you going to contribute to society if you follow the programme?

  • Why is this programme the logical next step considering your personality and previous studies?

The people who'll read your personal statement will be as convinced by it as you are. That’s why it’s crucial to first answer these questions for yourself and make sure you are comfortable with the answers. 

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What a personal statement is not

Don’t confuse a personal statement for your Master’s or PhD application with a cover letter for a job application. The personal statement is more about you and how the university fits into your plans rather than why the university is great, and you can’t live without it.

Don't use your essay to try to impress the application committee. Don’t write things that you think they want to hear. Just tell them your story, be authentic and offer them the opportunity to get to know a person, not just a set of achievements.

Don’t start listing your application documents in your personal statement. Your letter shouldn’t be just a repetition of information, but rather a map that puts all that you’ve done together and gives it personal meaning.

Don't treat your personal statement as a scientific paper or your journal. Keep it professional, but be a person. Just present yourself the way you would to a total stranger, but be friendly. You can be open and frank, but leave some things out, because you don’t know that person well enough.

how to start a personal statement

How to start a personal statement letter?

The key is to grab your reader’s attention from the very beginning. How?

Think of your opening paragraph as your 'elevator pitch': you get into an elevator with one of the committee members. You have a chance to convince them why you are the right choice before they get off.

Here’s how your personal statement for grad schools should start. Lead with what is most interesting for the reader, or what you are interested in the most. Second, set the stage for why you want to study that Master’s or PhD programme. In two sentences, explain how you got here, how you pursued your passion and are willing to invest more time and effort. In the next two sentences, give an overview of your background in this field! Now conclude with what you intend to do with your graduate degree!

time

Give yourself plenty of time to write a personal statement

How long should your personal statement be? And how much time should you invest in writing it?

Personal statements required for graduate school admissions are short. Their length should bearound 700 words, meaning 1-2 pages. However, you should be careful to write it well and edit it thoroughly for grammar, spelling, or punctuation errors. Carefully consider each sentence you write because every single word contributes to the impact of your statement of purpose.

Give yourself a few weeks to think about what you want to say (and how you want to say it). 

Reflect on what led you to apply for this programme. An encounter you had with a particular scholar, an inspiring course you took, a pivotal moment during your studies – there isn’t space for these kinds of things on your CV, but a personal statement allows you to share such personal experiences.

Expect to go through a few drafts before you get to the final version, and don’t expect miracles! You shouldn’t be able to do it over one weekend.  

You should also allow time to double and triple-check your statement for any glaring mistakes. Send your personal statement draft to a colleague, your thesis mentor, a teaching assistant, or your friendly neighbourhood copy -editor to have them look over it for clarity.

The level of your English can make a difference as well, so if you want to make sure you’re up to speed,  take an English proficiency test:

Research the programme you are applying to

Part of doing post-graduate research (especially in a PhD) is proving that you understand the field you are entering; In your personal statement, you can prove how familiar you are with the scholars who work in that area.

  • Demonstrate that you’ve given thought to the actual programme you’re applying to. Don't tell them that you applied to their school because it is the highest-ranking school or that it’s in a city you’d love to live in.

  • Almost every university department website has details about each faculty member - what they specialise in and what they’ve published. Use this information to your advantage. Show that your interests align with those who already work in that department and that your research will find a comfortable home there. If you already contacted one of the professors in the school, make sure to mention it in your personal statement.

Student writing her personal statement on a laptop

Avoid clichés, junk, and too many details

How do you keep the reader engaged while they go through your letter? Your personal statement is an opportunity to express yourself, but wasting the admission committee’s time is considered a capital sin.

Amateur writers fall into the trap of excessive, unnecessary preambles. It looks something like this: ‘Since the beginning of time, mankind has utilised principles of mathematics to measure objects in the world…’.

As a general rule for good writing, this kind of statement is, frankly, useless and annoying. Someone reading this sentence thinks you're either trying to fill space or just trying to show off. Committee members are just trying to find information about you that will let them decide your suitability for the programme. The last thing you want to do is bore them with unnecessary junk.

your story

Tell your life story only if it adds to the statement

Students writing personal statements always feel tempted to talk about their personal history. But you can leave this kind of information out if it doesn't support the purpose of your statement.

For example, if you’re applying to a Master’s programme in English Literature, you can leave out the ‘I’ve been a bookworm from the time that I learned how to read’ section. This kind of statement is most likely true for all other applicants to the programme and won’t set you apart.

Similarly, if you’re applying to a medical school, there’s no need to mention that you’ve ‘always wanted to help people or that you ‘had a calling to be a doctor since age 7’.

However, there are key aspects of your personal history that will be useful here:

  • Talk about that time you did an internship and what you got from that work experience.

  • Talk about your own major research project and what you discovered about yourself.

  • Talk about any publications, conference presentations, or assistantships you’ve done and what they've taught you.

These kinds of concrete details are more helpful, especially if there is a direct link between these experiences and what you will be doing in your graduate studies programme. These are the things that will set you apart from other applicants.

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Don't use the same personal statement for 10 different Master’s or PhD applications

A common mistake among applicants is applying to multiple study programmes using the same personal statement. I’ve personally heard advisors and tutors recommend ‘writing one personal statement’ and ‘changing the name of the university’ for each one.

This is a huge mistake!

For one thing, every programme has its own unique set of questions that they want you to answer in your personal statement.

  • Some want extra-curricular activities you’ve participated in

  • Some want a clear proposal for your project

  • Some want you to just explain why you are applying to their school

  • Some want to see what is unique about you and the research you’re doing

Admissions officers can tell when you’ve used the same worn-out personal statement and sent it to them without a second thought. Instead, you should have a good personal statement that is uniquely tailored to every programme. Some information will overlap, but much of it will not.

Another reason to avoid this technique is that it often ends in embarrassing mistakes and errors in the personal statement. Probably every admissions officer can recall a time in the last application cycle when a student applying to Northwestern University said, ‘it would be an honour to be admitted to UCLA this year.’ 

Errors like this come about when an applicant decides to use the same template for every school he or she is applying to. The easiest and most certain way to avoid such an egregious error would be to simply write a new strong statement for each school (hence our first piece of advice: allow yourself plenty of extra time).

A must-have list of what to include in your personal statement: 

  1. An explanation of why you want to study the course – what is your motivation, and how the degree fits in your long-term plans. Don’t be vague or too specific.

  2. Prove you are right for this course – do your research on what the programme offers and what is expected of you and show how you fit the requirements.

  3. Talk about your extracurricular activities – show how you went the extra mile. Don’t just list them. Show how they all fit together – how they have defined the path that you want to take.

  4. Mention what inspired you to apply – books, blogs or inspirational videos & speakers, science journals you’ve read, as well as relevant films or documentaries. Have any teachers or tutors really had an impact on your life?

  5. Include relevant experiences - What sealed your interest in the subject? This may be a volunteering programme, summer school, summer job, internship, or visits to places that left an impression on you. How does the degree influence your future career and personal goals? – Let the committee see how your study programme fits into your overall story and your future.

  6. What are you good at? - What skills have you developed up to the present, and what do you want to further develop? How will the programme help you develop those new skills?

  7.  This shows that you are a committed learner and that you want to keep growing. Avoid generic skills and clichés. Focus on the most relevant ones for the programme and give specific examples.

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