Your Grad School Personal Statement: Part 1

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a four-part series. 

Four things will make your grad school personal statement successful. The first is to focus on motivation, rather than trying to stand out.

For your personal statement, many will advise you to be unique, to find a hook or angle in order to stand out from the pack. This is bad advice. A personal statement isn’t a beauty pageant. Trying to be special in the eyes of others is stressful and yields forced, contrived writing.

So step back, relax, and consider. The qualities most lacking in personal statements are claritymaturity, and authenticity.


These are closely related: it’s hard to be clear without careful reflection, which by its nature requires mature insight and reveals the truth of who you are. Stick to that and you’ll be fine; you’ll stand out without trying to.

Ok, so the goal isn’t to show how special you are. How about to prove you’re well qualified? Again, no. Your transcript, test scores, resume, and letters of recommendation speak to your qualifications. Instead, use your essay to explain your motivation, to shed light on who you are and why it makes sense for you to pursue further study.

Past actions and accomplishments are fine to include; indeed, they are unavoidable. But discuss them only as a way to explain your underlying motivation: its origin, exploration, development, or confirmation.

Your motivation is often not a single drive but a combination of elements. For example, your motivation might be the sum total of childhood experience + intellectual interest + emotional pull + sense of competency gained through academics and activities. Whatever your motivation, your job is to analyze it to make it clear for the reader.

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