Writing the Perfect Personal Statement for Your Master's or Ph.D Application

Alongside the usual university application materials - testing requirements, transcripts, CV, and recommendations - graduate and post-graduate programmes will always require you to include a ‘personal statement’ when applying to a university abroad. But what is a personal statement, anyway? Why is it important? And how to write a good personal statement for your graduate school application?

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 to a crime. You’re simply trying to prove that you are the perfect candidate that should be admitted to a Master's or Ph.D 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.

Your personal statement should answer questions like:

  • What contribution do you plan to make to society if you follow the programme?
  • Why is the programme you are applying for the right one?
  • 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 your statement as much 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. It’s just looking in a mirror and being comfortable with who you are and who you plan to become.

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What a personal statement is not

You shouldn’t confuse a personal statement for your university application with one for a job application. It’s 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.

It’s also not a good idea to 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.

Speaking of which: don’t just present 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.

Finally, your personal statement is not 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 and end a personal statement letter?

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

Start with the degree you are interested in, then set the stage for why you want to study it. In two sentences explain what you’re interested in and how you became interested in it! 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!

Make sure to grab the reader's attention from the opening paragraph and tell them exactly what they need to know from the start.

Think of it like your 'elevator pitch': you catch one of the committee members before getting into an elevator. You step into the elevator with them and, between the bottom floor and the floor where they are getting off, you must convince them why you would be the right choice.

How to make sure you write the best personal statement

There are a few key elements to keep in mind to write a successful statement:

1. Allow yourself time for writing your personal statement

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

Personal statements are generally short in length: approx. 700 words; 1-2 pages. However, you should take extra special care to make sure that it is written well and edited thoroughly for grammar, spelling, or punctuation errors. Every sentence should be carefully thought out, and every single word should contribute to your overall statement of purpose.

Give yourself a few weeks to think about what you want to say (and how you want to say it). You should also allow time to double and triple check your statement for any glaring mistakes. Send it to a colleague, your thesis mentor, a teaching assistant, or your friendly neighbourhood copy-editor to have them look over it for clarity.

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 at least your personal statement gives the space to share these personal experiences.

Expect to go through a few drafts before you get to the final version that is ready for submission. Don’t expect miracles! You shouldn’t be able to get a good final version over one weekend.  

All of this takes time. So start early on your personal statement.

2. Research the programme you are applying to

Part of doing post-graduate research (especially in a Ph.D) is proving that you understand the field you are entering; and there are ways for you to prove how familiar you are with the scholars who work in that area.

  • In your personal statement, show 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. Then, include a sentence or two about it in the personal statement: ‘I have contacted Professor Xavier, who has agreed to oversee my research during my post-graduate studies’.

Student writing her personal statement on a laptop 3. Avoid useless 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.

4. Only present your life-story if it adds to the statement

Students writing personal statements always feel tempted to present stories from their personal history. But you can leave this kind of information out if it doesn't highlight the purpose that you’re presenting.

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 doesn’t set you apart from other applicants.

Similarly, if you’re applying to a medical school, you needn’t include statements about how 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.

This kind of details are much more concrete, 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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5. Don't use the same statement for 10 different applications

One mistake that applicants often make is thinking that when they’re applying to multiple study programmes, they only need to send the same details, written the same way, to 5 or 10 different universities. I’ve heard advisors and tutors recommend ‘writing one personal statement’ and ‘changing the name of the university’ for each one.

This is an enormous mistake!

For one thing, every programme has its own unique set of questions that they want answered 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).

What should you include in your personal statement? – The must-have list

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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?
  • Include relevant experiences - What sealed your interest on the subject. This may be a volunteering programme, summer school, summer job, internship, 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.
  • 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? This shows that you are a committed learner, and that you want to keep developing. Avoid generic skills and clichés. Focus on the most relevant ones for the programme and give specific examples.

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