How to write a personal statement for grad school: US edition

28 FEB 2022

What makes for a strong application to a postgraduate program in the US? High grades and test scores, earnest letters of recommendation from respected advisors, and innovative writing samples will all help. But being able to write a strong personal statement is the keystone of any excellent postgraduate application. This blog will explore the purpose of the personal statement and what separates a good statement from a merely decent one.

The Purpose of the Personal Statement

The US edition of the personal statement—distinct from the UK version—aims to draw together all the other disparate elements of an application. Imagine your postgraduate application as a collection of data, much of which is numerical and written by other people: professors, your undergraduate university’s registrar, testing companies, etc. Your personal statement is your chance to discuss the larger significance of that data. It should illuminate how your application dataset portrays you (as a whole person) and point towards the facets of your identity that this data simply can’t capture.

What does this mean, practically speaking? Your personal statement should tell the story of how you came to be passionate about a specific area of research, using the rest of your application to illustrate or exemplify this narrative. The most important examples in your application will be your research samples. In your personal statement, try to contextualize those samples by answering the following questions. How does your work illustrate some consistent scholarly interest or method of yours? What inspired you to pursue your sample projects in particular? What most excites you about this work, and what do you hope to carry forth from it, in your future research? Ideally, the final purpose of a personal statement will be to describe how you will build upon your past work to pursue your postgraduate level research.

What makes a personal statement “good”?

If you have a strong sense of what you’d like to accomplish in your postgraduate program—and in your life after the degree—and why, then you’re already on the path to writing a good personal statement. Clarity of purpose and passion will take a personal statement far. But the most powerful personal statements that I’ve read manage to balance this clarity with a more flexible sense of curiosity. In the US, PhD programs prize students who are self-aware enough to realize that they will learn a lot over the course of their degrees and, as a consequence, their specific research interests may change. It can be challenging to balance a clear sense of direction with intellectual openness in one concise document, so I’ll share some of the ingredients that I have historically used to create this combination. 

Here’s my most specific advice. You may wish to edit your personal statement, changing it a bit for each school to which you submit it. In the second half of your personal statement, consider creating a university-specific paragraph, describing inspiring works or research specialties by your potential advisors there—and see our previous post on How to Find a Graduate Advisor if you have questions about how to find these individuals. These advisors will certainly not have identical research projects or scholarly fields, so if you state what excites you about a couple professors’ works, then you’ll be signaling that you are already interested in more than one research area.

More broadly, earlier in the personal statement, I recommend including examples of research projects, classroom or lab experiences, internships, work, and related extracurricular activities that have sparked your curiosity about a wide variety of related academic subfields. This will indicate that you have a track record of discovering and embracing new areas of interest as you continue to live and reflect on educational experiences.

That should be more than enough material to help you begin thinking about your personal statement. If you would like more personalized support, sign up for a session with one of Crimson’s Graduate Advisors!