Graduate School Applications

Personal Statement Guide

This guide provides an overview of the graduate school personal statement process, the materials required to apply and best practices for how to navigate it all.

  • What is a statement of purpose?
    A statement of purpose is also known as a personal statement in application essays. Think of it as an opportunity to market yourself and express who you are and what you would bring to a graduate program. This is your chance to stand out in a competitive application process and speak directly to the admissions committee.
  • You should…
    • Be sure to answer the prompt if one is provided.
    • Find a way to stand out! What makes you different? Focus on your unique experiences and interests.
    • Include details and give context to your work:
      • “I worked in a special needs classroom for 2 years.” VS “The two years I have spent running a classroom for 15 special needs children, planning fun and educational activities while being sensitive to their individual needs, inspired me to pursue a degree in special education.”
    • Explain why you are applying to THIS institution. Show that you recognize the unique qualities of the school.
    • Edit the letter for each school to which you are applying. Elements may be consistent between letters, but you should edit your drafts so that the statement for each school is tailored to their program. If the mission, format, or other aspects of the programs are unique, you should review the rest of your letter with a careful eye to make sure it fits each school to which you are applying.
    • Address weaknesses, setbacks or gaps in study. It’s likely these issues (such as GPA, missing experience, etc.) will be noticed by application reviewers. This is your chance to provide context and tell them what you have learned from these experiences and how you can apply those lessons moving forward. That said, it’s not a problem if you took or plan to take a break after your undergraduate degree. In your statement, explain what have you been doing since you graduated and how it relates to your future goals.  
    • Include relevant work experience from jobs held before, during or after your undergraduate degree if they include experiences and skills that relate to your future graduate study.
    • If applying to a research-based program, be sure to describe your long-term research objectives.
    • Be specific, and include references to professors you hope to work with based on their research, if applicable.
  • What to avoid
    • Quotations. Use your own words to describe yourself and your goals.
    • Mentioning money or your expectation of funding.
    • Redundancy: Remember that your resumé and transcripts will also have relevant information, so don’t repeat these basics unless absolutely necessary to the narrative.
    • Too many details or overly personal information.
    • Poor grammar or spelling errors.
  • Writing tips
    • Start early.
    • Be concise and pay attention to word limits and prompts.
    • Pay attention to flow: There may be details you want to include, but do they fit into the flow of the statement?
    • Ask, “Is this relevant?” when reviewing drafts. Is the information you are including relevant to reviewers assessing your fit or aptitude for the program?
    • If no criteria are included in the prompt, use 12-point font, limit your length to 2-3 pages double-spaced and choose a standard font, such as Arial or Times New Roman.
    • Ask everyone to read your draft! That includes your friends, professors you know well, your parents and supervisors. Even if they don’t have experience in your field, they can help catch grammar and spelling issues and tell you when things aren’t flowing or don’t make sense.
  • Suggested structure

    There is no one “right” way to structure your personal statement. Below is a guideline that may help you, but it is by no means the template against which your work will be judged. Feel free to change things up or seek out feedback on structure from other sources.

    • Part 1
      • Who are you? What are your goals and strengths?
      • Why would you make for an excellent graduate student?
      • Why are you a good fit for the program?
    • Part 2
      • Provide evidence of the above through your experiences.
      • Be detailed and give context.
      • Focus on what makes you unique.
      • Be thoughtful about what details are interesting and relevant.
    • Part 3
      • Why this institution?
      • Identify faculty members you might want to work with.
    • Part 4
      • Summarize and close.
  • Strategies to Get Started
    • Start simple then add complexity, depth and detail in each draft.
      • Begin with bullets of words or phrases.
      • Questions to answer:
        • What experiences, skills and ideas should be included?
        • Why will I be successful as a graduate student?
        • Why am I a good fit for the program?
      • Take those bullets and make them into sentences, add detail and context, keep expanding on this till you have a full draft.
    • Just write!
      • Don’t worry about word limits, continuity, or making things perfect on your first draft.
      • Just write. Include everything you think is relevant.
      • Next, read and revise:
        • What doesn’t fit? Where do you need less detail? Where do you need more? What’s missing?
  • Advice from graduate directors

    What do you look for in a personal statement?

    • “I'm always glad when the student has done some reading about the department and the graduate program on the web and therefore identifies a good reason for studying with us. To stand out, it's helpful to invest some time in research, so you're applying to programs that would be a good fit.”
    • “A clearly defined research topic and plan.”
    • “Clarity on direction of research. This doesn't mean I want to see a specific project listed, but a clear direction of what interests the candidate and what they hope to use their degree for.”
    • “Genuine interest.”

    What are common mistakes students make?

    • “Don't try to wax poetic about how important the field is to you. We know that because you're applying. Tell us about yourself, what you've done and why you want to pursue further study. Be specific.”
    • “Chronologically record their past study and fail to connect to the research plan that they propose for the graduate study at Binghamton.”
    • “Typos, rambling, using words/expressions that are too fluffy.”
    • “Just writing a list of accomplishments”