Jess Tate: Starting your personal statement

By Jess Tate.  Published April 25, 2014.

As a second year doctoral student I can remember as if it was yesterday the graduate application process.  After about twenty different drafts of my personal statement later and having three professors that I worked closely with make edits, it is safe to say that this particular document can be a daunting task. It is also often one of the more difficult components of the graduate application process.   More specifically, writing, editing, and sending off the final draft of the personal statement is one of the most rewarding yet frustrating aspects of the application process.

During my senior year at Iowa State University I attended a McNair conference in which Donald Asher the author of “Graduate Admissions Essays” presented several workshops discussing how to effectively write a statement of purpose.  I took several notes during the conference and then purchased his book to use as a resource during my writing process.  Now as a graduate student I still refer to this book for my own professional development as well as to use with students that I advise.

From these learning experiences at conferences and multiple resources given from several mentors I have created a handout (as seen below) that I utilize for myself and as a supplemental resource for students that I advise.



Past (Before College)
  1. Think about where you are from. How did growing up in your hometown shape you?
  2. How have you changed since high school graduation (focus on scholarly development)?
  3. Were there any people from your life who were influential to your academic and professional plans?
  1. How did you choose your college? Your major and/or minor?
  2. What courses have you most/least enjoyed? Why?
  3. Who has had a significant impact on you since coming to UNL? Why?
  4. Describe a specific example of your leadership.
  5. Describe your most satisfying public service activity.
  6. What is the single most important concept you have learned in college?
  7. What research have you completed? What did you learn? What research or lab skills have you honed?  Will you present your findings at any type of conference or meeting?
  8. Will you complete a thesis or capstone project?
  1. What are you specific post-graduate career plans? Where were you and what were you doing when you first thought of pursuing this?
  2. Will a graduate education facilitate those plans? If so, describe the graduate education program(s) you intend to pursue. Also, what position do you hope to have on the completion of graduate studies? Do you know what a graduate degree in your field will bring you?
  3. What is your five‐year goal? Your ten‐year goal?
  4. What personal attributes make you particularly like to succeed in your new career?
  1. What writers and which particular articles in your field of study have had the greatest influence on the development of your thought?
  2. Of which decision or accomplishment are you most proud? Which do you regret? What did you learn from these situations?
  3. What do you do in your leisure time? What do you wish you had more time to do?
  4. What events in your life have had the most positive impact on your intellectual and personal development that would be appropriate to share in an essay?
  5. Name one thing you wish you understood better (an issue, field of study, machine, etc.)
  6. What makes you unique? Different? Unusual?

Outlining a Statement of Purpose

  1. Attention Grabbing Paragraph

    Your opening paragraph should say something about you as a person and a student – perhaps some moment at which you realized what you wanted to do and that graduate school was the path to get you there. Your opening should be tailored to your particular interests in the program you are applying to. Your opening should be sufficiently interesting, engaging the committee to read on.

  2. Educational/Research Background

    Here, you might talk briefly about the courses you’ve taken that influenced you to pursue graduate school, your research experiences (e.g., research assistantships, honors thesis work, independent studies, research projects and skills, internships, field schools), and discuss how these courses and experiences led you to focus on the areas of interest you have chosen. You can also address issues such as changes of major, poor grades in certain semesters, GRE scores, and other “red flags” if you have a plausible, legitimate explanation for them. The key here is to synthesize – the admissions committee will have your transcripts, GRE scores. There’s no need to repeat that information. It is important NOT to simply list what you did, but rather the impact it had on you: what you learned about the field, yourself or the research process, how the experience shaped your decision to pursue graduate work in this particular field, etc.  You want to provide the committee with a narrative of how you became the kind of scholar you are today.

  3. Reasons You Are Applying To a Specific Program

    Give the admissions committee a sense of what it is you want to do in their program. Identify the particular areas of interest you have (fields you want to study, courses you want to take), as well as a preliminary direction for your research interests.  Talk about what draws you to this particular program.  It is important to show that you are familiar with the unique features, focus, field experiences, or faculty, etc. If you’ve already contacted faculty members in the department, note that here, as well as why you are interested in working with them.

  4. What This Specific Program Has To Offer You

    This section should provide the general reasons you’re interested in a program. You don’t want to restate the things you said directly above; rather, address things like research, teaching, or funding opportunities. You want to show the admissions committee that you’re not just randomly applying to their program, but that you’ve done some research on the program, what it’s like, and what life in the department (and city) may be like.

  5. What You Have To Offer a Program

    The admissions committee will want to know if you will be a good match with the program – not just in terms of your research interests, but also personally. This is your chance to highlight the academic preparation and other kinds of personal and educational experiences, as well as how they’ve prepared you to go to this particular school.

  6. Summary and Conclusion

    This paragraph should work to tie everything you’ve discussed so far back into the kind of experience or moment you discussed in section I. You want to integrate everything you’ve presented the admissions committee so that they see the entire person – not just GPAs and GRE scores, but the full picture of who you are and why you want to be a part of their program.  This is your chance to tie everything you have mentioned above into the bigger picture of what you want out of your graduate degree. Finally, you should end your statement in a positive and confident manner with a readiness for the challenges of graduate school.

Guidelines adapted from Dr. Laura Damuth’s “Personal Reflection: Getting Started by Taking a Personal Inventory”, Donald Asher’s “Graduate Admissions Essays”, and Dr. Carla Trujillo’s “Writing the Statement”.