Alongside the usual application materials - testing requirements, transcripts, CV, and recommendations - graduate and post-graduate programmes will always require you to include a ‘personal statement.’
Think of it as if you’re on trial, and the 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 to that you should be admitted to their Master's or Ph.D programme. You write a short statement with concrete examples and evidence, all pointing to what kind of student you are as a student.
Here are some universities to apply to, all over the world:
Below we will outline general tips that will help you write and prepare your personal statement for your Master’s or Ph.D application.
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You will learn from the following topics:
- Allow yourself extra time
- Research the programme you're applying to
- Avoid useless cliches, junk, and details
- Only present your life-story if it enhances the statement
- Grab your reader's attention from the very beginning
- Don't use the same statement for 10 different applications
Allow yourself extra time
Although personal statements are generally short in length (approx. 700 words; 1-2 pages), 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.
The previous 271 words leading up to this sentence only took me 15 minutes to compose; but your personal statement must be taken more seriously.
- Give yourself 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 neighborhood copyeditor to have them look over it for clarity.
The personal statement is your opportunity to get, well...personal! This is an opportunity for you to 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 perfect space to share these things.
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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 subject.
- In your personal statement, show that you’ve given thought to the actual programme that 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’.
Avoid useless clichés, junk, and details
While your personal statement is an opportunity to express yourself, you shouldn’t waste the admission committee’s time.
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 gets 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.
Only present your life-story if it enhances the statement
Students writing personal statements always feel tempted to present stories from their personal history. But, unless it is absolutely necessary to include in your statement, or if it really enhances the purpose that you’re presenting, you can leave this kind of information out.
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 aspects of your personal history that will be useful here.
- Talk about the time that you did an internship, and what experience that gave you.
- 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 taught you.
Grab your reader’s attention from the very beginning
Quick! 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!
- This is your opening paragraph: grab the reader's attention and tell her exactly what she needs 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 to hire you for the position.
Your personal statement is basically the same thing.
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It would be good to introduce these details in the beginning (without too much detail) to direct the reader’s attention: 'In 2013, after joining a seminar on holistic nutrition, I realized that this is a more viable approach to health management, and I decided to devote my research to it'.
Don't use the same statement for 10 different applications
One mistake that applicants often make is thinking that, when they’re applying to more than one programme, they need only 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 are applying to their school;
- Some want to see what is unique about you and the research that you’re doing.
Another reason to avoid this technique is that it often this 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 honor 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 statement for each school (hence our first piece of advice: allow yourself plenty of extra time).
Helpful tips and advice for drafting a compelling personal statement when applying for graduate admission
What does this statement need to accomplish?
The personal statement should give concrete evidence of your promise as a member of the academic community, giving the committee an image of you as a person.
This is also where you represent your potential to bring to your academic career a critical perspective rooted in a non-traditional educational background, or your understanding of the experiences of groups historically under-represented in higher education and your commitment to increase participation by a diverse population in higher education.
What kinds of content belongs here?
Anything that can give reviewers a sense of you as a person belongs here; you can repeat information about your experiences in your research statement, but any experiences that show your promise, initiative, and ability to persevere despite obstacles belongs here. This is also a good place to display your communication skills and discuss your ability to maximize effective collaboration with a diverse cross-section of the academic community. If you have faced any obstacles or barriers in your education, sharing those experiences serves both for the selection process, and for your nomination for fellowships. If one part of your academic record is not ideal, due to challenges you faced in that particular area, this is where you can explain that, and direct reviewers’ attention to the evidence of your promise for higher education.
The basic message: your academic achievement despite challenges
It is especially helpful for admissions committees considering nominating you for fellowships for diversity if you discuss any or all of the following:
- Demonstrated significant academic achievement by overcoming barriers such as economic, social, or educational disadvantage;
- Potential to contribute to higher education through understanding the barriers facing women, domestic minorities, students with disabilities, and other members of groups underrepresented in higher education careers, as evidenced by life experiences and educational background. For example,,
- attendance at a minority serving institution;
- ability to articulate the barriers facing women and minorities in science and engineering fields;
- participation in higher education pipeline programs such as, UC Leads, or McNair Scholars;
- Academic service advancing equitable access to higher education for women and racial minorities in fields where they are underrepresented;
- Leadership experience among students from groups that have been historically underrepresented in higher education;
- Research interests focusing on underserved populations and understanding issues of racial or gender inequalities. For example,
- research that addresses issues such as race, gender, diversity, and inclusion;
- research that addresses health disparities, educational access and achievement, political engagement, economic justice, social mobility, civil and human rights, and other questions of interest to historically underrepresented groups;
- artistic expression and cultural production that reflects culturally diverse communities or voices not well represented in the arts and humanities.