Tips for Writing a Strong Personal Statement What is a personal statement and what is it used for

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Tips for Writing a Strong Personal Statement
What is a personal statement and what is it used for?
The personal statement, often called a statement of purpose, is required by most graduate programs. It serves multiple functions:

  • It allows you to present yourself beyond grades and GRE scores. It provides you with the opportunity to tell them what is unique about you and your background.

  • It enables the program to assess the degree of “fit” between you and them. They will be asking themselves if what you are looking for in graduate school is a good fit with what they can provide you.

  • It provides a sample of your writing skills. Often, the personal statement is the only example of your writing ability. Like any important paper, make sure you revise your statement several times, have others proofread it, and edit it carefully.

What will I be asked to write about?
While personal statement instructions can vary widely, there are several common themes applicants are asked to address. Included below are examples of these common themes and suggestions on what to consider order to clearly answer these questions.

  • Career Plans

Sample Questions: “Tell us about your long-term career goals.”

“What do you see yourself doing ten years from now?”

These are extremely important questions because if a school cannot provide you with training to reach your long-term goals, you will likely not be accepted. For example, many clinical psychology programs are research-focused. If you write that you would eventually like to work as a therapist in a private practice, these types of programs will not train you for that and will likely not accept you into their programs. In other words, make sure you’ve done your homework ahead of time by identifying programs that are a good match with your career goals.

  • General Interest in the Field

Sample question: “What are your academic or professional interests?”
Unlike your broad undergraduate training, graduate school training is usually focused in a more specific area of psychology. If you are interested in research, you should have certain topics/specialties in mind (e.g., autism, schizophrenia). If you are interested in counseling, you should have some idea what types of populations you’d like to study and what types of problems you would like to address. Whatever your focus, show the reader that you have some knowledge already about the field in which you aspire to work.

  • Relevant Experiences (e.g., research, clinical, applied work)

Sample questions: “Describe your research experience and interests.”

“Discuss any experiences you have had working with children.”

Whenever you describe your experiences, make sure you describe what you did AND what you learned from the experience (e.g., specific skills, realizations about yourself, etc.). Ultimately, you want the reader to see how your experiences have prepared you for graduate study. In general, avoid discussing unrelated activities (e.g., membership in a social organization) unless those activities enabled you to develop skills that are clearly helpful for graduate study.

  • Reasons for Choosing a Particular Program/School

Sample questions: “Why did you choose _____ University?”

“How can our program contribute to your long-term goals?”

Here is where it is very important to avoid generic statements. Show them that you have researched their program and that you understand how they train their students. If you are applying to research-oriented programs, you should discuss faculty with whom you would like to work. Ultimately, the program wants to make sure they can provide you with what you want.

  • Do allow enough time to write several drafts of your personal statement. Don’t wait until the week before the essay is due to start writing. For many people, it will take several weeks or even months to develop a strong statement. The first essay is always the most time-consuming so plan accordingly.

  • Do give your statement to several people to read. Ask family, friends, and/or a trusted faculty member to review your essay. Also consider visiting the Writing Center or Career Development Office on campus. In addition to having someone proofread for grammar/spelling errors, ask her if the essay answers all of the questions on the application. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback- you might receive great suggestions that ultimately lead to a better essay.

  • Do make sure that each essay you submit is tailored to each particular program. Don’t send the exact same essay to each school- if you do this, it will be very obvious to the reviewers that you have not taken the time to research their program. You will likely be able to cut and paste parts of your essay, but also make sure you tailor other sections of it for each program.

  • Do follow each program’s instructions closely. If there’s a 300-word limit, make sure you adhere to this guideline. Also, make sure you answered every question.

  • Do write professionally and confidently. Don’t put yourself down or be blatantly arrogant. Avoid funny, cute, and casual language (e.g., avoid contractions, slang, etc.)

Keith-Speigel, P., Wiederman, M. (2000). The Complete Guide to Graduate School Admission: Psychology, Counseling, &

Related Professions. (2nd edition). Mahwah, NJ, Erlbaum Associates.

Location: Hillman Library- General Collection also in PSY Advising Office

Call Number: BF77.K35 2000

- Chapter 19: What About Statements of Purpose and Other Essays?

Getting In: A Step-by-Step Plan for Gaining Admission to Graduate School in Psychology. (2007). Washington, DC,

American Psychological Association

Location: Hillman Library- General Collection also in PSY Advising Office

- pp. 131: Writing Application Essays

The Writing Center – offers review of personal statement

M-2 Thaw Hall, University Of Pittsburgh, 412-624-6556

Fall and Spring Hours: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday: 10 a.m.-7 p.m., Wednesday 11 a.m-8:30 p.m., Friday 10 a.m.-3 p.m.

Summer Hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday:10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Satellite Location: Hillman Library (ground floor)

Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday: 1:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.

Career Development- offers review of personal statement, by appointment only

224 WPU, University of Pittsburgh

Ryan Sweeny, Career Development Advisor for Psychology majors, 412-648-7130,

Psychology Advising Office revised 06/10

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