Preparing an Effective Personal Statement

When applying to graduate schools, you will be required to submit a personal statement as part of your application packet. Writing a personal statement takes time because it requires taking a deep look at the things that make you special--who you are, your background, your experiences, your abilities--and how all of these relate to the field that you are pursuing. I recommend sitting down and thinking long and hard about these things. And while you are at it, you should also consider how graduate school fits into your broader career goals.

By your last year in college you will have gained experience in your field through internships, fellowships, and the like. Write about these and let the grad school admissions committee know of your specific accomplishments.

Other items to highlight include the following:

  • Research opportunities, programs, or classes you have completed relating to the field that has influenced you to continue to pursue a higher degree. (Be sure to describe precisely what role you had in such work.)

  • When and why you became interested in the field.

  • Any leadership or managerial skills that you have learned, and how they have contributed to your personal growth.

  • Any examples that show you possess effective communication, writing, and analytical skills (e.g., oral and/or poster presentations at national scientific meetings, research abstracts published in conference proceedings, articles published in peer reviewed journals).

  • The significant dramatic obstacles you have overcome to be where you are right now. (This is especially applicable to us minority students, who often have to work very hard to achieve such victories.)

  • Explanations of any gaps or discrepancies in your academic record.

  • References to conversations with, seminars given by, or books written by people in the field.

The first paragraph of your statement is the most important. Perhaps you can catch the reader?s attention by telling a story that distinguishes your individuality. Your statement should be strong and well written throughout. It?s not something you can create in a rush--to do it right will take lots of time and preparation.

You want to come across as an intelligent, mature student, who has great potential to contribute to the field. You also want your statement to be unique in order for it to stand out among the other applicants. Don?t mention subjects that are potentially controversial. And do not guess what the admissions committee is looking for and pander to that, because they will see right through such attempts. Also make sure the statement is the correct length--follow the school?s guidelines in this and in other stylistic matters.

Finally, remember that what you choose to write in your personal statement reflects the choices you make in your life. That you have chosen to tell the admissions committee certain things and not others will tell the committee a lot about what is important to you. Use your best judgment.

Recommended Reading

R. J. Stelzer, How to Write a Winning Personal Statement for Graduate and Professional School (Peterson?s Guides, Princeton, New Jersey, ed 1, 1993).

University of California, San Diego, Career Services Center. (accessed July 2002).

Elizabeth R. Sanchez is a doctoral student in chemistry at Arizona State University. Her research efforts focus on the interactions of magnesium in biological ligands. She received a B.S. in chemistry from the University of Redlands in California. For further information, please send e-mail to Elizabeth at

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