Personal Statements

How does one write a successful personal statement? There are two main criteria:

  1. Follow directions exactly;

  2. Distinguish yourself from the crowd.

Follow Directions 

This ought to easy, but applicants often miss this one. If ever there were a time when you wanted to impress an audience with how well you can read and understand directions, this is the time. So, read questions carefully and answer what they ask for. Stick to word/page limits!! Some schools have brief, very focused personal statement questions, some have vague questions with no page limit guidelines, and still others favor a series of essays rather than a single statement. Whichever the case, the key to keeping calm is selecting potential schools early and getting together all the admissions material you need. Since it costs nothing to get the materials, go ahead and gather any school which legitimately peaks your interest. Then, at your leisure:

  1. Read each school thoroughly.

  2. select the schools you want to apply to.

  3. throw the other material out to de-clutter your desk.

  4. rank schools from first to last choice

  5. prepare to write!

Distinguish Yourself from the Crowd 

Let's clarify from the very beginning that we are NOT talking about experimental writing styles here. You are not going to write in theatrical dialogue or trochaic feet or an AABB rhyme scheme or haiku or in cartoon bubbles. The personal statement is an essay, not a piece of performance art.

So what are admissions committees looking for? Peterson's does a good job of explaining the essay qualities readers are looking for. is another favorite online spot for help with personal statements. In all, you'll find mention that what admissions committees need to know is who you are -- they are trying to match you to their program and locale. This is a good time to be honest -- to think sincerely about why you are attracted to the profession/field, what you've done to prepare, and what you hope to accomplish. You do this by telling the story of yourself (while minimizing the grammatical first person -- sigh; nothing can be easy!). In other words: Show, Don't Tell -- Demonstrate, Don't Pontificate. (NOTE: both links above offer for-fee services on personal statement drafts. Personally, I find paying for this unnecessary when you've got many resources here at UF to help you: me, your academic advisors, and the Career Resource Center).

Basic Moves of a Personal Statement

        1. Motivation for studying -- opening paragraph -- anecdotal/narrative  (why this field/profession?)

        2. Qualities/Experiences -- told by example -- a few focused, well-developed arguments --  no listing, re-hashing of resume (why you?)

        3. Future Plans -- what populations, organizational settings, research are you interested in?  Not set in stone, but need some indication (what are your plans?)

        4. School Choice -- why this program?  Argument shows "this is me, this is you, this is why we are a perfect match"  (why us?)

    Best Practices

    "Best Practices" is a new fancy term for using techniques with a proven history of working well.  There are a couple of them pertaining to personal statement writing that are missed surprisingly often.  Here are a few of the biggies that will help.

    1. Most Important Rule -- say nothing in your personal statement that isn't directly relevant to helping an admissions committee make a decision about your merit as a graduate student. This especially includes quoting other people (why should they care what Einstein or Maya Angelou or Luke/Mark/ John or anyone else has ever said?  What does it have to do with your ability to succeed?),

    2. Be truthful.  Do not lie.  I know, this one seems obvious...but you'd be surprised.  You can manage vocabularly choice (and you should), but you may not say something that isn't true.

    3. Keep it positive.  Do not write negatively about yourself or your profession or anyone else!  If you need to explain a dip in grades, do so briefly and objectively; do not belabour whatever trauma/situation caused the problem.  Also, do not to say things like "I went into psychology because I couldn't cut in organic chemistry, thereby destroying my dreams of being a pediatrician."  Always find the "positive" (meaning not negative, not meaning ridiculously idealistic) way of communicating the same information.  For instance, another way of expressing the previous example is -- "Though I'd planned on becoming a pediatrician, I found that adolescent psychology provides the sort of sustained, personal contact with teens I really crave as part of my career."

    4. Details sell.  Lists do not.  Do not rehash your resume.  Instead, choose a few experiences that were particularly meaningful and/or can illustrate qualities  that you want the admissions committee to know.  To succeed as illustrative examples, experiences must have the following 3 parts (you can't expect the readers to fill in missing parts -- they have too many essays to read to spend time performing literary interpretation):

        1. Tell the story (what happened)

        2. Tell what you learned (what you got out of it)

        3. Tell how what you learned applies to success in grad school or in your profession (why it matters).

The example statement of purpose linked above is from here:


Course Links

Student Resources

Attribution Info

  • Creative Commons License