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University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Writers Workshop: Writer Resources

Writing Tips: Personal Statements

Overview of the Personal Statement

Personal statements are sometimes also called "application essays" or "statements of purpose." Whatever they are called, they are essentially essays which are written in response to a question or questions on a graduate or professional school application form which asks for some sort of sustained response.

Some applications ask more specific questions than others. There is no set formula to follow in shaping your response, only choices for you to make, such as whether you should write an essay that is more autobiographically focused or one that is more professionally focused.

From application to application, requested personal statements also vary widely in length, ranging from a couple of paragraphs to a series of essays of a page or so each.

Personal statements are most important when you are applying to an extremely competitive program, where all the applicants have high test scores and GPA's, and when you are a marginal candidate and need the essay to compensate for low test scores or a low GPA.

Context Considerations

How are personal statements read, and by whom? It's most likely that your personal statement will be read by professors who serve on an admissions committee in the department to which you are applying. It is important in developing your personal statement to carefully consider this audience. What are the areas of specialty of this department, and what might it be looking for in a graduate student?

Additionally, since personal statements will most often be read as part of your "package," they offer an opportunity to show aspects of yourself that will not be developed in other areas of your application. Obviously, it is important that personal statements are not simply prose formulations of material contained elsewhere in the application.

It may be helpful to think of the statement as the single opportunity in your package to allow the admissions committee to hear your voice. Often times, committees are sorting through large numbers of applications and essays, perhaps doing an initial quick sort to find the best applicants and then later reading some of the personal statements more thoroughly. Given that information, you will want your statement to readily engage the readers, and to clearly demonstrate what makes you a unique candidate--apart from the rest of the stack.

One Process for Writing the Personal Statement

  1. Analyze the question(s) asked on a specific application.
  2. Research the school and/or program to which you are applying.
  3. Take a personal inventory (see below). Write out a 2-3 sentence response to each question.
  4. Write your essay.
  5. Revise your essay for form and content.
  6. Ask someone else - preferably a faculty member in your area - to read your essay and make suggestions for further revision.
  7. Revise again.
  8. Proofread carefully.

Personal Inventory Questions

Do…

Don't…