How to Write a Personal Statement for Grad School | Top Universities

How to Write a Personal Statement for Grad School

By Mathilde Frot

Updated March 4, 2021 Updated March 4, 2021

Think of your personal statement as the meat of your application to grad school: everything around it – from your GRE scores to your two letters of recommendation – is accompaniment. Without a strong personal statement, you simply will not stand a chance of getting through to the next stage.

Adopt the right tone

It’s important that you get the tone right – and you may find that different countries and graduate schools will expect varying degrees of familiarity from a personal statement, but it’s always a good idea to avoid either being negative, or being overly informal.

It can be very tempting to overshare, but remember, this is graduate school. Admissions officers will expect you to sound like a budding academic. Don’t risk trying to crack a joke, as the admissions officer may not share your sense of humor. Avoid personal anecdotes and leave out the cheesy celebrity quotes! The admissions committee won’t care that your interest in civil engineering began back in 199X when you were playing Lego Star Wars with your cousin.

Welcome to College Admission Pet Peeves 101: clichés. Admissions officers have to read through piles and piles of personal statements, and you need to make sure that you stand out from the rest, so don’t write that you have always been ‘passionate’ about your subject. Don’t waffle, but do back up each claim you make with specific examples.

Plan

You should aim to write a side of A4 or 500 words, but check content and style guidelines with your university first so that you are not unduly penalized.

Your statement needs to be tailored to the course and university you are applying to, and painfully precise and specific. Some universities will advise students on what information to include in their statements, but as a good rule of thumb you should aim to outline your career and research goals, your existing education and skillset, and explain your interest in the course, university and department.

Before you set pen to paper, make sure you have outlined an essay plan detailing everything you will include in your introduction, body and conclusion.

One way to structure your essay is:

  • Outline your goals and dissertation idea in the first paragraph;
  • Describe how your previous degree has prepared you for your research in the following paragraphs, giving a rundown of any relevant modules or internships you have completed;
  • Conclude by explaining why you think the university in question would be the best place to undertake your research, listing any resources, staff members and facilities you would like to make use of.

Of course, one size does not fit all and you might find a different structure would work better for you. That’s fine – after all, you don’t want your statement to be indistinguishable from all the others.

Proofread several times

Remember: your personal statement needs to be absolutely perfect – especially at PhD level or if you are applying for a scholarship! Get your friends, family and professors to proofread it for you as many times as needed and watch out for those misplaced commas and typos! It might be worth leaving your statement to the side for several days, and then returning to it with a fresh pair of eyes.

Applying to grad school?

Meet universities and grad schools from around the world at the QS World Grad School Tour – your chance to get personal answers to all your questions, as well as attending free seminars and applying for exclusive scholarships. 

This article was originally published in August 2016 . It was last updated in March 2021

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I'm originally French but I grew up in Casablanca, Kuala Lumpur and Geneva. When I'm not writing for QS, you'll usually find me sipping espresso(s) with a good paperback.

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