How To Write A Graduate School Personal Statement Or Application Essay

Many people decide to go to graduate school in order to open up career opportunities or increase earning potential. As part of the application, you will often need to submit a personal statement, statement of purpose/intent, or a similar essay. But what is a personal statement, and how should you format it?

As a graduate of one of the top Plant Biology PhD programs in the country, I have first-hand experience crafting a winning graduate school application essay. I have also helped numerous applicants polish their own personal statements through both editing and feedback on Fiverr. Feel free to click here if you’d like to receive my help directly (or here if you want a complete revamp, which my wife specializes in). Otherwise, read on to find out the best approaches to help you get accepted to your dream program.

What Is a Personal Statement?

First, it’s important to understand what a personal statement is and why the admissions committee wants you to write one. In brief, a personal statement is a summary of your experiences, a snapshot of your interests, and a way to show your passion for the field and program you are applying to. The admissions committee wants to see that you are passionate about the field, that you have the foundational knowledge and skills to succeed, and that you’ve taken the time to research the program and think about how you will fit in with the faculty and current students. Programs keep statistics about how many people drop out and how long it takes to graduate, and if the admissions committee thinks that you may negatively impact these statistics, then they are unlikely to accept you.

How Do You Show Passion?

It’s a good question, since just stating that you are passionate or eager can come off as insincere. While it is helpful to include such keywords, it’s best to also describe the following:

  • Why you are interested in the field
  • What inspired you to pursue this research or program
  • What experiences you already have in the field (professionally or personally)
  • Any notable contacts you have made (professors you have reached out to or met at conferences)

It’s okay if you can’t include all of these, as long as you include enough detail to convince the admissions committee of your sincere interest.

What Foundational Knowledge and Skills Should You Demonstrate?

This is really broken down into two parts: (1) knowledge and skills related to the field and (2) writing ability.


You need to describe how your experiences have prepared you to succeed in the program you are applying for. These experiences may include:

  • Prior degrees earned (majors and/or minors)
  • Research (any papers published should always be mentioned)
  • Teaching (more important in some disciplines than others)
  • Extracurricular activities (relevant clubs, etc.)

Be sure to tie in all of your experiences to the program you are applying for. Just mentioning all of your background with no clear link to what you intend to study is an easy way to get passed over. Also, be specific. Providing details shows that you understand what you did and makes for a more interesting read.

It’s okay if not all of your experiences are directly relevant to the field as long as you can describe the transferrable skills. For instance, if you have research experience in a different field, you can mention how this has prepared you to succeed in a lab atmosphere, taught you basic bench skills useful in both disciplines, and helped you to understand how to collaborate with others to generate useful results.

It’s also okay to acknowledge gaps in your knowledge and skillset. You are not expected to already know everything about the field. If you previously only had experience with data analysis but the program involves data collection, describe how you are excited to experience the other side of the research process by collecting data yourself, noting that you already have the tools to analyze the results.


The other skill you need to demonstrate is your writing ability, or more generally, your ability to communicate effectively in the language of instruction. The admissions committee wants to see that you can put your thoughts to paper in a way that is both logical and concise. This helps them to understand your thought process. Are you able to describe relevant details and present your experiences in a meaningful way without rambling? This is an important skill for writing academic papers.

Keep in mind the following points:

  • Ensure there aren’t any typos (show that you care enough to read over the essay before submitting)
  • Make sure your points are clear and can be easily understood
  • Write in a consistent manner
  • Use transitions to improve the flow (less important, but appreciated)
  • Most importantly: do not plagiarize! (no copying and pasting from the website, use your own words!)

If English is not your greatest strength, consider having someone else read over your essay. Does it make sense to them? Can they understand what you are trying to get across? Being able to accept and incorporate feedback is a necessary skill as an academic.

How Do You Demonstrate That You Have Researched the Program?

A lot of applicants neglect this last part of the personal statement. You need to show that you have taken the time to look up the program and its faculty members and are not simply submitting the same personal statement en masse to every program out there. This also helps to show your knowledge of the field and your passion for the program.

Here’s what you should include:

  • Relevant program information in your tie-ins from your own experiences
  • Program-unique features you are eager to take advantage of (such as on-campus facilities or business connections)
  • An indication that you understand how prestigious the program is in the field (if applicable)
  • Importantly: the names of a few faculty members you would like to work with along with a short description of how their research matches your interests

Again, don’t just copy and paste lines from the website. Instead, paraphrase how your interests and background match the program.

It is particularly important to mention the names of a few faculty members you would like to work with. This shows that you have thought about your own research goals and have an idea about how you fit in to the program. Paraphrase their research in reference to your own desired research directions. If your interests closely match their research but you have some other skill or knowledge that may be useful, definitely include that. Faculty members know what they have to offer a new student, and they are often excited if you are bringing something new to the table that could be helpful for their research.

Don’t worry about whether particular faculty members are actually taking students currently. You’ll find that out later. The important thing is to put your background and desired research into the context of the program.

How Should You Format Your Essay?

It’s easy to think about what should be included in a personal statement, but it’s often harder to actually write it. Thankfully, personal statements are simply a genre of writing, which means they have their own conventions. Basically, they can be broken down into three parts: (1) the introduction, (2) the body, and (3) the conclusion.


The first paragraph of your essay should mention what program (and school) you are applying for and include a thesis sentence briefly summarizing your background and stating your research goals. It may also mention your inspiration for pursuing a graduate degree in the field.

Ideally, start with a transitional phrase to ease the reader into the essay (i.e., “As a lifelong XXX enthusiast with extensive experience in XXX, I am eager to apply to the XXX program at XXX”), but it is also okay to simply be direct (“I am writing to apply to the XXX program at XXX”). You can also start by describing your inspiration (“As a child, many of the people in my community suffered from XXX caused by XXX. For that reason, I decided to devote my life to studying XXX, and I believe the XXX program at XXX would be instrumental in helping me to achieve XXX”).

If you have not already mentioned why you are interested in the field, you can either do that next, or save it for your first body paragraph.

This paragraph usually ends with your thesis sentence, which should briefly mention what your body paragraphs will cover. (“I have gained significant experience in XXX through coursework, research opportunities, and XXX, and I look forward to taking my knowledge and skills to the next level at your esteemed program, where I hope to study under the guidance of your world-renowned faculty.”)

You may also include a mention of your career goal (“…with the ultimate goal of studying XXX as a career academic/pursuing a career focusing on XXX at a big tech company/working for the government to implement policy that can affect XXX”). If you do not include this part in the first paragraph, be sure to mention it in your concluding paragraph.

This approach should work for any field. Try to avoid flowery language unless you are applying to a humanities program, in which case it is okay to start with a narrative to hook your reader. However, if you do choose to do this, I would suggest keeping it to just the first paragraph so the rest of your essay still clearly states your experiences and qualifications.


After the introductory paragraph, you move on to the body paragraphs, which should focus on your experiences and how they relate to the program you’re applying for. Try to be specific but concise.

Typical topics include:

  • Undergraduate education (and relevant coursework/projects)
  • Masters education (if applicable)
  • Research experiences (mentioning any papers published or acknowledged in)
  • Teaching experiences (less important for research-heavy programs but can still show ability to work with or mentor others)
  • Extracurricular activities (relevant clubs, conferences attended, or activities related to the program that you have done in your free time)
  • Inspiration (if not included in your introduction)

These paragraphs should be organized either chronologically or by relevance, and applicants typically end each paragraph by tying the experience in with the graduate program.


The final paragraph is primarily about showing that you have researched the program and how you will fit in.

It typically starts with something about how you are excited to join the program, linked to your background and research interests. (“As an experienced researcher in XXX, I look forward to furthering my study by attending the XXX program at XXX.”)

Then you should mention the faculty members you want to work with. (“In particular, I am eager to study under Dr. XXX and Dr. XXX, whose knowledge of XXX closely matches my interests.”) Remember to mention how you can contribute to their work, if applicable. (“I believe my experience working on XXX would be beneficial to their research.”)

Also, discuss aspects of the program or school that interest you. (“I am excited to make use of the XXX facility/attend the XXX seminars/join the XXX group, which I believe will help me XXX.”)

Finally, end by reiterating your research interest or career goal (especially if you have not already mentioned it). The admissions committee wants to see that you have considered how the program will fit into your overall career plan.

What if the Application Asks a Specific Question Rather Than for a Broad Personal Statement?

Sometimes, graduate school applications ask you to reply to specific questions rather than instructing you to submit a personal statement. In that case, make sure you actually answer the questions. You can still try to fit in all of the important information discussed above, but make sure you write in such a way that the questions are clearly answered.

For example, if a question asks what inspired you to pursue a graduate degree in this field, do not simply list your relevant experiences. Start by describing why you are interested in the field, and then you can mention how you have acted on that interest by describing your experiences.

These sorts of questions test your reading comprehension and ability to follow directions, so make sure you give the committee what it asks for. You can (and should) still provide information about your qualifications as part of your answer.

Time To Get Started!

I know writing a personal statement can be a daunting task, but I hope this article provides some useful information to help you get started. Again, if you would like more individualized assistance, feel free to reach out. Good luck!


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