Writing a Personal Statement

When applying to graduate schools, you will be expected to write a statement of purpose, commonly called a personal statement, or personal essay. This is a very important part of the application process, and it is your one opportunity to showcase your best qualities and achievements.

Graduate committees from the colleges and universities that you apply to will review this document to help in making a determination as to whether or not you will be a good fit for the program for which you hope to be accepted. Although GPA, GRE scores, and letters of recommendation are weighed more heavily, this is your opportunity to inform the graduate committee that you exhibit a strong potential for excellence.


  • Sell yourself! You need to capture the admissions committee’s attention with your lead paragraph. Graduate committees may receive hundreds of applications, so you want to make sure that your application stands out. Begin by developing a general outline highlighting the key points that you would like the selection committee to know about you. Be sure to list what aspect(s) of psychology is/are most interesting to you, and provide reasons behind your motivation.Then, use this information to create an opening paragraph that frames the rest of your essay. 
  • Highlight your strengths and unique qualities. Discuss your long-term goals and why you have chosen them. Incorporate academic achievements and specific reasons why you would make a solid candidate for admission. 
  • Research your programs. Learn the areas of expertise of specific faculty members with whom you have an interest in studying. Incorporate this into your personal statement and mention why these professors would be suitable mentors for you. 

Ideally, the program that you apply to should match your personal long-term aspirations as closely as possible, and the faculty members for which you hope to work with should have similar interests to your own.  For example, if you are applying to a developmental program but your essay states that you have an interest in clinical experience, the graduate committee may determine that your focus is not in line with what they have to offer.  However, if you are interested in studying cognitive psychology, and the program offered provides this type of curriculum, a faculty member with whom you wish to work under may seek an opportunity to mentor you.

  • Reach out to your undergraduate advisor.  Good advice from a professor who is willing to invest in you is priceless. Investing in the opportunity to work as part of a research lab through independent study is a great way to show you are graduate school material.  In addition to securing a strong letter of recommendation, your advisor may even be willing to review your personal statement.  S/he may offer you clear direction about how to target a specific program of your interest. 
  • Ask for help with revisions.  Enlist your family and friends, fellow classmates, or anyone else who is willing to take time to give you feedback.  Multiple revisions will be necessary, so prepare early!
  • Use proper grammar!  Avoid slang, spell your words correctly, and make sure that punctuation and sentence structure is formatted appropriately.  Your end result should be that you have quality writing skills.  See: http://www.bartleby.com/141/ for writing tips.

General Outline

  1. Opening Paragraph – 4 to 6 sentences
  2. Academic Accomplishments – 5 to 7 sentences
  3. Research Experience – 5 to 8 sentences
  4. Employment/Volunteer Work/Clinical Experience – 5 to 8 sentences
  5. Future Plans/Goodness-of-Fit – 6 to 9 sentences
  6. Concluding Paragraph – 4 to 5 sentences

(Information adapted for the purposes of this website from Sleigh (2013).)

Many programs ask specific questions for you to answer in your personal essay, and it is important to read over any application instructions before submitting your statement. Factors such as length requirements, specific questions to answer, and additional deviations from the “traditional” personal statements are essential considerations that take priority over the basic guidelines provided here.