Applications for graduate school include writing samples, particularly a personal statement or a statement of purpose. But what is a personal statement, and what is a statement of purpose? You must know the difference between these two types of statements in order to respond effectively to the university’s instructions and to improve your chances of admission to a competitive program.
Briefly, a personal statement looks back and a statement of purpose looks forward. Both focus on your experience and knowledge, but the first tells the reader about you as a person and the second emphasizes what you want to study and what you plan to do with the degree you hope to earn.
A personal statement is written in a way that lets the reader get to know you – your background, your hopes and dreams, your practical experience, your challenges and the hardships you have overcome.
Three main points to remember about the personal statement:
1. Tell a story.
Often written in ‘story’ form, the personal statement format gives you an opportunity to show why you are a good candidate for graduate study or medical, business or law school, for instance. The personal statement is a great opportunity to show off your writing skills as well as your determination to succeed while telling the reader why you are applying to their program – and why you should be accepted.
2. Add details to engage the reader’s interest.
Share a well-told story about your life – be funny or sad but, above all, be compelling and memorable. The more concise details that you can add to your personal statement, the better it will be. Consider sharing your triumphs and fears, your motivation to study medicine based on your father’s illness, your long-term desire to study law to right wrongs experienced or witnessed by your family or your interest in robotics or AI research. Be personal and unique.
3. Share your motivation and your dreams but be brief.
Be crisp in writing about yourself. Use strong verbs and avoid hackneyed phrases, such as “the experience opened my eyes” or “to make a long story short.” Write as if you were speaking directly to the reader and make each word count. Do not use a thesaurus in hopes of upgrading every other word in your essay because that can make the flow of ideas awkward and will not appear to be written in your own voice and style. Given the large number of applications received by most schools today, the admissions committee reader will appreciate a succinct, well-written story to introduce your candidacy. Focus on your dreams as if you only had a few minutes to convince the reader of your value to their program – because that is the truth. Make these moments count.
Alternatively, schools that request a statement of purpose format want you to tell them about your reasons for pursuing this field of study and your long-term goals in the field. This is the time to show your academic background and professional experience in this specific field.
1. Tell the reader why you want to pursue this graduate degree.
Do you have a natural affinity for scientific research or a commitment to teaching at the university level that will require an advanced degree? Perhaps you need an advanced business degree to be competitive in the corporate world or want to be a physician to help the underserved population in a specific country.
2. Describe how your interest developed in this discipline.
Again, briefly detail your experience in the classroom, in volunteer work, in shadowing opportunities, in internships. Cite mentors, if you were lucky enough to have expert guidance on your journey. Highlight your preparedness for study in this academic discipline.
3. What do you plan to do with this degree?
Emphasize that you are committed to this field and to a specific long-term goal, such as a career in research, teaching, human rights work, policy development, international affairs, finance, healthcare, or any of the many other compelling fields of study. Be specific.
So, the difference between these two types of essays is that the Personal Statement focuses on your individual background and your own special reasons for pursuing the degree while the Statement of Purpose spotlights your career goals and preparedness for this degree program. Know the difference to succeed!