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Writing A Personal Statement For Research Program


The personal statement can mean the difference between rejection and acceptance.  A well-crafted statement can tip the admission scale in your favor; a poorly written one can leave you out of the running.  Think of the personal statement as a chance for you to introduce yourself—your background, experiences, knowledge of the field, goals and personality—to the selection committee.  It also affords you the opportunity to explain any irregularities or shortcomings of your candidacy.

Some programs will ask you to write one statement covering a number of areas.  Others require a brief response to a series of essay questions. Your best writing comes when you have an actual audience in mind and specific questions. I recommend that you don’t just write a generic personal statement but that you write a personal statement for the school with the earliest deadline.

Here is some advice on how to structure your statement, and what to emphasize and include:


(by Carla Trujillo, Ph.D., Director, Graduate Opportunity Program, University of California Berkeley)


  1. Remember that they read between the lines: motivation, competence, potential as a graduate student, knowledge of the field or subfield and fit with the department should all be apparent.
  2. Emphasize everything from a positive perspective and write in an active, not a passive, voice.
  3. Tailor your response to the particular question being asked, the specific department and program.  Avoid sending generic statements.
  4. Demonstrate everything by example. Don’t say directly, for example, that you’re a persistent person; you must demonstrate it.
  5. You don’t want to make excuses, but you can talk about the mistakes you’ve made as a learning experience.
  6. If there is something important that happened which affected your grades (poverty, illness, excessive work, etc.) go ahead and state it, but write it affirmatively, that is, in a way that shows your perseverance.
  7. Write with authority like a fellow colleague.
  8. Stick to the word limit guidelines.
  9. Single space statement, unless told otherwise.
  10. Understand that writing an effective, flawless statement takes considerable time and several sets of eyes.


How you arrange your statement and what you include ultimately will be up to you.  The following outline, written by Carla Trujilo, provides a clear sense of the kinds of things to cover and a logical means of organizing that information.

Part 1:  Introduction

This is where you tell them what you want to study.  For example, “I wish to pursue an MS degree in Mechanical Engineering with an emphasis in controls”.  Some applicants begin with a personal story.  Make your opening sufficiently interesting, enticing the committee to read on.  One Augsburg student applying to grad school in physics started his statement, “When I first enrolled in college I wanted to study Asian religions.”   This path is probably atypical for doctoral candidates in physics and thus draws the reader in.  Another began, “I was eighteen years old when I saw my first computer.  Five years later I am applying to the doctoral program in Computer Science at….”  These lines astound the reader while opening the door for the student to talk about being an immigrant, how his interest and aptitude in computer science developed and what goals he has for the future.

Part 2:  Summarize what you did as an undergraduate

  1. Important class or classes you took which stimulated your desire for graduate study, such as a specific project for a class.  Maybe conversations with a professor or a study abroad experience piqued your interest for graduate study.
  2. Research you might have done.  Indicate with whom, the title of the project, what your responsibilities were, the outcome and any poster or oral presentations you might have given.  Again, it’s important not to simply list what you did but the impact it had on you:  what you learned about the field, yourself or the research process, how the experience shaped your decision to pursue graduate work in this particular field, etc.  Write technically; professors are the people who read these statements.
  3. Work experience if it relates to your field of study or more generally, demonstrates preparation for graduate school.  Tutoring or classroom teaching experience, for example, is often relevant, since it shows a more firm grasp of subject matter, and that you might be a good candidate for a teaching assistantship.  Similarly, describe any kind of responsibility you’ve had for testing, designing, researching, extensive writing, etc.

Part 3:  If you graduated and worked for a while and are returning to grad school, indicate what you’ve been doing while working: company, work/design team, responsibilities, what you learned.  You can also indicate here how this helped you focus your intent to do graduate studies.

Part 4:  Here you indicate what you want to study in graduate school in greater detail.  This is a greater elaboration of your opening paragraph.

  1. Indicate area of interest, then state questions you might have which are associated with the topic, i.e., what you might be interested in studying or researching.  You should have an area of emphasis selected before you write the statement.  If you have no idea, talk to a professor about possible areas of interest or current questions in the field.
  2. Look on the web for information about the professors and their research.  Are there professors whose interests match yours?  If so, indicate this, as it shows that you have done your homework and are highly motivated.  (Be sincere, however; don’t make up something bogus just to impress people.)  Ideally you have read some of the professors’ work and have been in contact with them prior to making application and can make reference to that exchange.  Having a faculty member pulling for you from the inside is a winning strategy.
  3. Talk about what draws you to this particular program.  Show that you are familiar with the unique features, focus, field experiences, or faculty, etc. of this program.
  4. End your statement in a positive and confident manner with a readiness for the challenges of graduate study.



How to Write a Personal Statement

by Dal Liddle, Augsburg University English Department

Personal Statements for Graduate School (Humanities) Everything that follows is an elaboration of this one main issue: graduate school is specific career training and apprenticeship for the the profession of academic teaching and scholarship. If you are the sort of person who should be a professional academic. and can say honestly and clearly how you know that your essay will probably succeed. If you aren’t your essay will probably reveal that-saving you and your readers much wasted time and needless sorrow. either way, everybody wins.

1. Although the application process seems cold and impersonal, the human readers who pick up your essay and read it will probably feel hopeful, not hostile, as they start to read. Their goal is to build a good graduate class out of the stack of apps before them, and to bring in students who will enrich their own intellectual lives and lives of their classmates. Despite its high-stakes nature, the, the personal statements should be written sincerely and openly, not defensively.

2. While a personal statement is written to an admissions committee-a group of future colleagues who ideally will like you and want to meet you-it is not really written for the committee. The committee should never have the sense that you are saying what you think they want to hear. The writing should therefore start with the most specified information that you can nail down about yourself, your reason to believe that your vocation and fitness lie in this area, and your choice of this particular school.

3. The personal statement should show the reader/committee four things that are unique to you. These are your individual:

  • Qualifications (of intellect, will, and intestinal fortitude)
  • Commitment (motivation and sense of vocation-this is really what you want to do)
  • Personality and Backstory (those part relevant to this choice of career)
  • Comprehension (of what grad school is and does; what the life and duties of a grad student are; what this particular school-teachers, library-offers you.)

The statements need not do any of these four things exhaustively-it can suggest some while developing others. It need not separate them in the arbitrary way I have, or invoke them in my arbitrary order. But none of them can e obviously missing of inadequate.

4. Despite their optimism, grad admissions readers know very well what can (and very often does) go wrong in grad school, and the following questions will be inescapably present to them. Every essay implicitly offers an answer too them, for better or worse:

“Should this person be in grad school at all (or has he/she perhaps been placed on this earth for some other good and noble purpose)?”

“Has this person chosen the right grad school for the right reasons? Do we have what he she wants-not just reputation, but resources? A bad fit to our program will drop out,transfer,or be miserable and spread misery.”

“Will this person be an asset to our program-will he/she add diversity, collegiality, and intelligent ideas to our classes? Will he/she finish course work on time, write a good dissertation, get a good job, and ass to our reputation in the profession and among our peer colleges?”

“Will this person be interesting and enjoyable to work with and even mentor?”

5. Finally, every admissions reader watches for  “red flags” that signal an unqualified candidate, such as:

  • Lack of basic necessary skill to succeed in the field (to write coherently, to do research)
  • Lack of sophistication in the specialty field
  • Mainly negative rather than positive motives for choosing grad school (e.g., wanting to escape the “real world” or an unpleasant job, wanting to stay in college)
  • Emotional instability and/or security

How to Write a Winning Personal Statement for Graduate and Professional School 

by Richard J. Stelzer

Stelzer offers concise yet informative suggestions for crafting a statement.  At the back of the book is a survey that should help you get started writing.  The thin book includes suggestions on what to include and what not to include, sample personal statements and advice from people who serve on graduate admissions committees across the country, offering a rare look inside the process.

Graduate Admissions Essays:  Write Your Way Into the Graduate School of Your Choice

by Donald Asher

Donald Asher is a well known figure in the world of graduate school admission. His writing is clear, concrete and often humorous.  He walks the reader through the prewriting, writing, rewriting and editing processes.  The book includes 50 sample essays.

Visit the URGO Office to peruse these books and read sample personal statements written by Augsburg students.

It’s the night before the application deadline and Jamal has completed all application forms, requested transcripts, and asked for letters of recommendation from his professors and research mentor. One last piece needs his attention, however: the personal statements. One application states, “ Discuss how your past educational, research and/or work experience(s) will contribute to your proposed studies.” Another application asks, “What are your career goals and how do you see our program supporting your goals?”

Jamal thinks, “I’ll write up a quick one-pager of my life story and send it to all the programs I’m applying to. The review committees won’t even look at it. Anyway, I’m a science major, not an English major.”

Jamal’s approach to writing a personal statement is risky; he is making several assumptions that could jeopardize his admission to graduate school. In my capacity as program coordinator of undergraduate educational research programs, I have learned what admissions committees are looking for in a personal statement. I am aware of the mistakes students commonly make and offer suggestions about how to present yourself effectively.

What is a personal statement and why is it important?

A personal statement (also known as graduate school essay, statement of interest, statement of goals, among other names) is a document, submitted as part of a graduate school application, that describes your abilities, attributes, and accomplishments as evidence of your aspirations for pursuing a graduate education and, beyond that, a career in research. This is your chance to stand out from all the other applicants.

An important quality of a graduate school personal statement is how well it communicates professional ambitions in personal terms. It outlines a career-development plan including previous experiences, current skills, and future goals. Faculty reviewing graduate school applications want to know that you have a personal commitment--the deeper the better--to the path you desire.

What is the structure of a personal statement?

Your personal statement should clearly express your understanding of what graduate school is about and how the graduate degree will build upon your previous experiences toward the attainment of your career goals. The outline below is just a guideline, a suggested structure. You can follow it precisely or devise a structure of your own. But either way, make sure your personal statement has structure and that it makes sense.

The Introduction--Set the stage for the rest of your essay. Begin with a hook (i.e., a personal anecdote that relates to your career path, a unique perspective on your academic career, or a statement that clearly summarizes your level of commitment) that will draw the reader into your story. Once you lose a reader, he or she is gone for good. On the other hand, don’t get too creative or humorous; you may offend someone inadvertently.

The Body--Describe your experiences, professional goals, your motivation for attaining these goals, and how you intend to get there. Discuss the research project(s) you’ve been involved with intelligently and clearly: identify your research area, state the research question you were addressing, briefly describe the experimental design, explain the results, state the conclusions, and describe what you gained from the experience. If you have not been directly involved in hands-on research, describe other experiences you’ve had that have influenced your career path, how the graduate degree will advance you toward your career goals, and why you feel you would be adept at such a career. Provide evidence of your progress and accomplishments in science, such as publications, presentations at conferences, leadership positions, outreach to younger students, and related experiences that sparked your interest in specific areas of science. Since this section--the body--demonstrates that you can communicate science effectively, you should devote the bulk of your writing time to it.

The Conclusion--Once you're done with the body, it's just a matter of wrapping things up. This is a good place to reaffirm your preparation and confidence that graduate school is right for you. Explain what contributions you hope to make--to science or society--and how a graduate degree will help you make that contribution.

Questions to consider

The following questions will help shape your personal statement. Address the ones you feel are most appropriate to what you want to convey to the review committee. Most of these questions will be addressed in the body of the piece, but one or more may help you structure the article as a whole.

  • Why should the admissions committee be interested in you? Why might you be a stronger candidate for graduate school than other applicants?

  • How or when did you become interested in a specific area of science? Was it through classes, readings, seminars, work, or conversations with people already in the field? What have you learned about the field and about yourself that has further stimulated your interests?

  • Are there any gaps or discrepancies in your academic record that you need to explain?

  • Have you had to overcome any unusual obstacles or hardships in your life? How have these experiences shaped your professional growth?

  • What personal characteristics do you possess that would tend to improve your chances of success in the field (i.e ., persistence, determination, good problem-solving skills, a knack for collaborative--or independent--work)? Provide evidence.

  • What experiences, skills, attributes, both in and out of the lab, make you qualified?


  • Be positive

  • Be honest

  • Be professional

  • Tailor your personal statement to the institution and program you’re applying to. Be certain your statement is in line with the program’s mission and focus. Describe why you want to work with specific faculty members in that particular program. If you’re interested in studying obesity, for example, be sure that institution or program has researchers working on obesity.

  • Describe your research concisely and leave out minute details (e.g., 1M solution of NaCl was added to the master mix at 50oC…).

  • Stick to the length guidelines specified in the application. If there aren't any length guidelines, keep the document to about 2 single-spaced pages of typewritten text, no more than 3 pages.

  • Proofread for spelling, punctuation, and grammar errors.

  • Give your essay to at least 3 other people who will provide feedback and suggestions for improvement. Consider all feedback and revise accordingly.


  • Don’t use slang.

  • Don’t use abbreviations unless generally known in the scientific community (AIDS and DNA are fine, but spell out other, discipline-specific technical terms instead of using abbreviations).

  • Don’t make up experiences you’ve never had or write what you think the review committee wants to hear.

  • Don’t send in a first draft.

  • Write it yourself; don't steal--or borrow--someone else's words.

  • Don’t say you want to help people, want to cure cancer, or use other clichés. A desire to help humanity can be a plus, but only when expressed in very specific terms.

Things to keep in mind

Here are three points that you should be aware of while writing.

  • Remember your audience. Applicant review committees are composed primarily of faculty from the department you are applying to. They may be familiar with some terminology but assume that they are not familiar with all aspects of your research project. Faculty read many--sometimes hundreds of--applications. Make your statement unique.

  • If you are submitting applications to multiple programs, each personal statement should be customized for that particular institution and application. Ensure that each personal statement includes the correct name of the institution or program and states faculty member's names correctly.

  • Ensure that you address specific questions posed as part of the personal statement portion of each application for different programs.

The personal statement is an important part of your application package. Developing one is a process that takes time, persistence, and revision. Start early and take it seriously. Remember, the statement is a reflection of you. Don’t be like Jamal. Use it to your advantage and it will land you an interview with your program of choice. Happy writing.

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Brian Rybarczyk

Brian Rybarczyk is director of academic and professional development at UNC Chapel Hill's graduate school. He has a Ph.D. in pathology and laboratory medicine from the University of Rochester.