Writing Personal Statements for Ph.D. Programs

Introduction

So you’ve decided to apply to a Ph.D. program—how exciting! While the application process can be harrowing at times, being accepted to a graduate school that is a good fit for your interests and skills is a privilege that will be well worth your efforts.

Before we get too wrapped up in the future, though, let’s return to the task at hand: writing a thoughtful personal statement that compellingly represents your academic journey and makes a persuasive case for your admission. This page will orient you to the process of writing a personal statement. The subsequent pages in this section will give you some general guidelines for constructing a convincing statement.

The advice on these pages is designed for students who are applying to Ph.D. programs in the U.S. While some of what we say may be applicable for graduate school applications to master’s degree programs, professional schools (like business school, law school, or medical school), or other kinds of courses of study, keep in mind that some (or many!) aspects of these applications may be different.

Although the title of this page mentions personal statements, the truth is that each department has different names for the essays they require for admission. Some departments require only a personal statement, others will ask for a personal statement and a research statement, still others will request only a statement of purpose (among other permutations!). While the personal statement, statement of research, and statement of purpose may seem like different essays altogether, this is not always the case. For this reason, it is critical that you read through the admissions guidelines for each program you are applying to. Carefully dissecting and understanding the criteria for each part of the application is an important part of applying to graduate school.

If you have any question about the kind of essay a school requires, your first defense should be your advisor (a professor in the field to which you are applying). Together, you can strategize about the requirements for the essay and can determine if you should reach out to the graduate coordinator for clarification.

That being said, this guide will focus primarily on personal statements, which we will define as essays in which applicants give details about their interest in an academic discipline and intellectual journey. Applicants may also be asked to write about challenges they have faced or the kinds of academic questions that most interest them. These statements’ main purpose is to convince admissions committee that the applicant is a good match for graduate work.

As you write your personal statement, be sure to read through these pages:

The Writing Process and a Suggested Timeline

Now that we know what we’re talking about, let’s think about how you will actually write this statement. What follows is a brief outline of one process for writing a personal statement. Keep in mind, though, that everyone is different. You may find that you are able to rigidly follow this process and timeline, but this also may not be the case.

Before you start your applications, think carefully about the kinds of writing you have done in the past. What kinds of writing processes have worked for you? What hasn’t? At what point in the day or week can you get the most work done? When are you not usually as productive?

Based on your answers to these kinds of questions, create a schedule for yourself and set deadlines for completing writing goals (like finishing a first draft of your personal statement, for example). Transcribe this schedule onto a physical calendar, your phone’s calendar application, or a boatload of sticky notes—whatever makes the most sense for you. Just make sure that you can see easily see your schedule in the places where you work.

One last note: try to build in extra time. Most students applying to Ph.D. programs are able to quickly write short essays, so you may be tempted to assume that you’ll also be able to write your personal statement without devoting too much time or effort to this process. Although personal statements are short, they’ll require more time than you might expect. This kind of writing is hard word—and can be emotional, especially because you’ll need to share your statement with tough critical reviewers. Sometimes, too, these reviewers may take a while to get back to you with feedback, so make sure that your schedule can accommodate these anomalies.

What follows is a suggested (and we think, realistic!) timeline for crafting a compelling personal statement based on the assumption that applications are due in December. Here, we’ve outlined a rough schedule that covers when you should start a particular element of the writing process, but we haven’t attempted to say how long each element will take. (For example, we say that you should write the first draft of your personal statement in August, but we don’t say how many hours you should devote to completing this draft.) We hope that you will use the schedule below to create your own calendar that includes your own estimates for the amount of time each element of the writing process will take. For example, you may want to schedule four two-hour writing sessions in August that you can use to write your first draft. Once you have a sense of how long it takes to write this kind of draft, you can tailor your calendar to your own writing habits.

March: Schedule a meeting with an expert in your intended field (usually an advisor and/or a professor with whom you’ve developed a close relationship) and let them know that you’re planning on applying to graduate school. During this meeting, be prepared to explain why you are interested in doing an advanced research degree and to talk about the specific fields or subfields within the discipline that you’d like to pursue. It’s a good idea to ask about this expert’s experience in graduate school and for advice about your intended programs. May: Ask professors or others who know you well and can speak to the quality of your work if they’d be willing to write a letter of recommendation for you in the fall. This is usually best done in person. Read “Before you Begin: Useful Tips for Writing your Essay” and “Frequently Asked Questions.” The Summer: Brainstorm for your personal statement and do research about the programs to which you’d like to apply. Many students have said that they’ve found it useful to create a spreadsheet that contains all of the relevant information for each program and school. Complete the “Guided Brainstorming Exercises.” August: Write the first draft of your personal statement. Remember that first drafts—since they really are only your first foray into writing this particular genre—can and should be messy! Don’t try to perfect your writing immediately. Instead, write a shaggy draft and just aim to get your thoughts on the page. September and October: Polish up your draft a bit and then meet with the people who are writing your recommendations and ask them to read it over. See “Get more Help with your Statement” for more information. November: Wrap up your final edits. Make sure that someone has seen the final version of each of your statements to ensure that it is clear and error-free. December: Send in your personal statements!