Personal statements

What is a personal statement?

The personal statement, also called the statement of purpose, is a special type of writing sample. Personal statements are commonly requested when applying to scholarship programs and graduate/professional schools. They may also be requested for certain types of jobs, such as competitive teaching and research appointments in education, for positions with non-profit organizations, or for internship applications. It is a writing sample describing you at your best, your reasons for choosing the field you have chosen, your research interests, your objectives, and the unique ways you can contribute to the program/organization to which you are applying. Some personal statement prompts may ask you to describe your experiences and principles around concepts of diversity.

If a position asks for a diversity statement in particular, review our diversity statement resources.

A statement of purpose is designed to communicate five things:

  1. Writing ability, including grammar, punctuation, organization, creativity, expression, etc.
  2. Connections between your past education/experiences and future goals.
  3. Your philosophy of the field and why you are pursuing an opportunity in that area.
  4. What makes you unique and how you can add to the diversity of the program.
  5. How you can be an asset to the organization or the school, now and in the future.

What makes a personal statement compelling? Good personal statements tell stories that demonstrate your strengths.

  1. Know your strengths. How can you be of value or how can you contribute? Begin by looking at your good experiences for evidence of your strengths and then ask those who know you best for their thoughts. Don’t overlook the value of a true friend’s honest assessment of your strengths. Many people find they have hidden strengths that are only obvious to their closest friends and family.
  2. Know your audience. Research the program(s) and organization(s) you are applying to by searching online, reading catalog/program descriptions, and emailing for more information. Talk with professors, graduate students, advisers, and colleagues you met through internships.
  3. Make a good case for the “match” between you and the program or organization to which you are applying.
  4. Tell a story that demonstrates your strengths through examples to set you apart from others and show how you can contribute. Avoid just writing a first-person essay where each paragraph is a direct response to the points you are being asked to address. Avoid starting every sentence with “I” or “I want”.

How do I get started?

  1. Set a timetable for yourself. Ideally, you should work on your essay for at least a month.
  2. Identify your strengths. You can use the UW Bothell StrengthsQuest assessment if you need guidance in determining your inherent strengths.
  3. Ask yourself some hard questions:
    1. Intellectual influences. Who were your favorite professors (and why)? Identify the best paper you ever wrote, the most influential book you have read, and the single most important concept you have learned.
    2. Encouragement. Write down the actual words of a professor, teacher, or someone else in your life who encouraged you to pursue this field of study.
    3. Turning points. Where were you and what were you doing when you first thought of going in this particular direction? How have your interests evolved?
    4. Experiences. List volunteer, travel, family, and life experiences that have inspired you to follow this career path.
    5. Academics. How have you prepared to succeed academically?
    6. Skills. What skills have you honed through your experiential and educational choices?
    7. Personal attributes. What personal attributes make you particularly likely to succeed?
  4. Be sure to tailor your statement to fit content, length, and other requirements of the individual scholarship/department/program to which you are applying.
  5. Create an outline for each paragraph before you write it, making sure that all of the components of the questions/prompts are being addressed.

What are some basic tips for writing a personal statement?

Content

  1. Tell concrete, vivid stories, and use examples to demonstrate your strengths and “match.”
  2. Don’t have too many different ideas in your essay. Only include information that supports your thesis or is consistent with your theme.
  3. Don’t exaggerate or make things up.

Expression

  1. Write in the active voice.
  2. Be yourself – don’t use words or styles you wouldn’t normally use.
  3. Be clear, concise, and direct; make each word count.
  4. Try not to repeat an idea too many times.
  5. Don’t write an autobiography – you are marketing yourself, not telling your life story.
  6. Don’t be a clown (although some humor can be appropriate).

Organization

  1. Follow directions regarding length. If no limit is given, aim for 1.5 to 2 pages of single-spaced text.
  2. Don’t start your essay with “I was born in” or anything similar to this statement.
  3. Start your essay with an attention-grabbing lead: an anecdote, quote, question, vivid description of a scene, etc.
  4. Link your paragraphs with transitions.
  5. End your essay with a conclusion that refers to the introduction, relates to your theme, or summarizes your main points.

Editing

  1. Revise your essay at least three times.
  2. Ask someone to critique your personal statement. You can utilize Career Services or the Writing and Communication Center
  3. Proofread! Don’t rely exclusively on your computer for spell check and grammar check.

Personal statement examples

Poor personal statement

Having graduated with an MA in English from Purdue University, with an emphasis on the writing of poetry, I feel that I have come a long way as a writer. I think that my poetry is strong, but I also feel that I need to continue in a concentrated study of writing and poetry. This is an important stage for me, and I think that continuing in a writing program – especially one as strong as the University of Washington program – is the best way for me to accomplish my goals. Eventually I would like to be teaching poetry writing at the college level. After teaching creative writing at Purdue, I realize that it is something that I would like to continue doing as a career, along with writing my poetry. I have also taught composition at Purdue, and I enjoy teaching at that level as well. If accepted into the program at UW, upon graduation I would like to teach composition, and continue to write and publish poems, in the hopes that I will eventually be able to publish enough to allow me to gain employment as a creative writing teacher.

Better personal statement

Every morning at 10:00 a.m. I come face to face with the power of language so free; it happens in a classroom. The students I teach at Seattle Central Community College come from night work in an industrial bakery, from a Vietnamese refugee camp, from a 9-to-5 job in a car wash, or from the day care center where they have left their children. All come to the English Skills Shop to improve their use of language and they move through the same process I have undertaken: uncovering their voices. When they get discouraged, I read aloud excerpts from their own writing. They applaud themselves. In this room, their varied experiences count. I remind them that the only reason to learn how to write well is because they have something to say. And they do. Until this past summer, I had no training in creative writing, nor even in literature; all my knowledge was absorbed like trace minerals from mass consumption of contemporary American fiction. The writer who does most masterfully what I attempt in my own stories is Wallace Stegner. He makes the intricate webs connecting his characters visible by illuminating the tears of dew balanced on each strand. Last summer I enrolled at the University of Washington and have been working ever since to find resonance in my own stories and study the voices within others’. Through an advanced short story class and a creative writing conference, along with literature and critical theory classes, I’ve become a more critical reader and a better writer.

I’m looking for a graduate program which combines the two elements I’ve found most valuable in my recent studies: strong mentors and tight community. I seek teachers who can pull me out of the details of works and phrases to see the whole piece, its form and contradictions. I seek guidance; the self-motivation is there. To balance the hours of solitary writing, I want a graduate program, which nurtures a supportive community. Throughout this process of thawing my voice, I’ve taken periods of formal training and applied the techniques; I see graduate schools as one of these steps. Through it expect to move to another level in my writing and myself, the ability to honestly and compellingly explore the world through stories. The stronger and more fluid connection between my life and writing, the better I’ll be able to teach that connection to others. I would like to write my own stories and teach others how to write theirs. In the end, both undertakings help us all find our voices.

Good personal statement (with commentary)

My awakening to the wonder of human cultural diversity began with my entry into Army Basic Training. Living in an open barracks for three months with women from every corner of the United States opened my eyes and mind to the amazing variety of cultural groups just within our own country. Since then, I have lived, worked, and traveled in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. I gained valuable cross-cultural experience as a member of a multi-national task force, which provided Emergency Medical Service in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm. In addition to these experiences, my Army training has enabled me to develop strong skills in leadership, teambuilding, and organization. These are all qualities that will help me to be successful in my chosen field of Community Health Nursing. [In this paragraph, she shares her turning points, skills and attributes. She also connects her past and present.]

I have chosen the focus area of cross-cultural nursing because I know that making health programs culturally accessible is as important as making them geographically and financially accessible. This has been clearly demonstrated to me at the Washington Poison Center where we provide telephone information services to the entire state of Washington. Poison Center services are underutilized by non-English speaking population groups and those with English as a second language. This is due, in part, to a lack of awareness or understanding of the services provided by the Poison Center. Cross-cultural health education is the key to informing these populations of the benefits of using Poison Center services. [In this paragraph, she discusses why she is applying for this program and talks about some related experiences.]

As a cross-cultural nursing consultant, I will work with multidisciplinary teams planning and implementing community health programs for underserved populations. I will bring to these teams the unique nursing perspective and an expertise in the effects of culture on health-seeking behaviors for underserved populations. Washington State has a rapidly growing Hispanic population with a large subculture of migrant farm workers. I intend to spend some time in rural eastern Washington working with Public Health officials and community leaders to increase the focus on primary prevention for this population group. I am also interested in working with Hispanic populations in other locations. With these plans in mind, I am currently studying Spanish. In addition, I plan to teach cross-cultural nursing subjects in the academic setting and in other venues such as hospital in-service training. [In this paragraph, she talks about her future goals. She also describes why she is a unique candidate.]