If you’re applying to graduate school, then you might remember the headaches of that application process that you encountered many years ago. Maybe you struggled to decide on a topic for the personal statement, maybe you debated which extracurriculars were worth listing, or maybe you were torn between taking the ACT or SAT. But for all the anxieties induced by college applications, at least those applications (especially, if you remember, those sent through the Common App) spoke the same language: that is, most schools needed the same essential materials, asked the same kinds of questions, and expected the same kinds of answers.
Graduate school applications, by contrast, are far less universal. Since many programs are highly specialized, you may be applying to several programs that each require their own unique statements and supporting materials. Even if you are applying to seemingly identical programs, one school may ask for a one-page statement while another asks for three pages, one school may ask for five recommendations while another asks for three; the variations are endless! Just wrapping your head around the different application requirements can be tiring.
In this post, I want to de-mystify one difference that I found particularly disorienting when I applied to graduate school: the distinction between the “statement of purpose” and the “personal statement.” Most graduate schools will ask for a statement of purpose, and only some will ask for a personal statement, so in the majority of cases, the statement of purpose is considerably more important. But pointing out the difference between the two statements also emphasizes what exactly a statement of purpose is (and what it is not!).
As I mentioned earlier, the confusing lack of common terms across graduate school applications means that the following distinction might not even hold for all applications. You may, for example, come across a program that asks for a “personal statement,” but the actual essay prompt essentially describes the more standard “statement of purpose.” Or you might encounter a request for a very specific kind of personal statement--one that, for example, only focuses on your ethnic background. Be sure to fully read each application and any accompanying resources so that you address exactly what each application requires. With that important caveat aside, here are the distinctions for what are most commonly called the “statement of purpose” and the “personal statement:”
Statement of Purpose
Think of the statement of purpose like a cover letter. You might start off with something autobiographical or anecdotal, but most of the essay should be about your relevant training and technical career goals.
A strong statement of purpose should:
- Focus on your specific research interests within a particular field
- Detail how your academic and professional experiences have developed those research interests and prepared you to pursue them at a higher academic level
- Explain how those research interests can be pursued at this particular institution in this particular program
Here are some tips for writing an effective statement of purpose:
- Spend at least a paragraph discussing your interest in the specific program to which you’re applying. List specific professors whose work aligns with your own academic experience or research interests (and explain that connection). List specific institutions, programs, and opportunities associated with the program and explain how you would utilize them.
- Be as specific as possible about your research interests. This doesn’t mean you should know exactly what your dissertation topic will be in five years, but you should be able to identify a specific field within the department and professors who work in that field. Often admissions decisions are based on specialties (an English department probably doesn’t want an entire class studying Victorian literature and a biology department probably doesn’t want an entire class researching genetics), so narrowing your field can be essential.
- Anecdotes and autobiography can be effective in your introduction, but make sure the bulk of your statement is technical and academic. Only include extra-curriculars if they directly relate to your research interests. In all likelihood, your personal history has shaped your research interests, and your statement of purpose shouldn’t sound like a generic, lifeless script. But you primarily want to prove to the committee that you can succeed in coursework, excel in lab, finish a dissertation, or teach an undergraduate class.
Think of the personal statement, by contrast, as more of a bio. You still want to mention your research interests and the specific program you’re applying to, but you also have an opportunity to flesh out your personal history.
A strong personal statement should:
- Focus on the intersection of your personal, academic, and professional lives
- Detail various life experiences that have developed your character, work-ethic, and perspective
- Explain how your background particularly suits your for this program and/or will allow you to contribute a unique perspective to the community
Some tips for writing an effective personal statement:
- Some institutions use the personal statement to assign various fellowships based on students’ backgrounds. If you’ve overcome or still face any barriers to education, this is an opportunity to explain those experiences.
- If you haven’t overcome any significant barriers, don’t stretch the truth. Instead, you might talk about how certain experiences have shaped your perspective or widened your understanding of the barriers that others face. Maybe you haven’t experienced any significant hardships but are still driven to help others who do, and you can discuss how this program will help you to achieve that goal. Or you might explain how you look forward to learning from a diverse and dynamic academic community.
- Though the personal statement is an opportunity to share information about yourself that might not directly map onto your academic career, you should still explain how your personal experiences ultimately make you a stronger student, colleague, and/or teacher.
Hopefully these distinctions have helped to clarify some key terms you’ll encounter while applying to graduate school. While these essays are usually the hardest part of applications, they can also be the most rewarding. If you think carefully about why exactly you want to apply to a program, what exactly you would study while there, and how that experience fits into your larger personal history, you’ll be both a stronger candidate and graduate student.