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Graduate School Applications: Writing the Personal Statement/Statement of Purpose

The personal statement is one of the most important parts of your application to a department or scholarship granting institutions.  It is where you can put a personal face on impersonal GRE scores and transcripts.  Thus, writing a good personal statement takes time and requires multiple drafts.  A weak or poorly written personal statement will sabotage your application even if you have stellar transcripts.


Read carefully what the school is looking for in the statement.  Most will ask you to explain (through narrative and brief representative examples) how your personal, educational, and professional history has led you to pursue an advanced degree at their institution.  Your goal is to make connections between your experience, education, and the program you have chosen.  You are seeking to persuade them that you belong in their program and that they should fund your graduate historical studies.


The University of Wisconsin On-line Writing Lab has an excellent overview of the process  They even have brainstorming exercises to get you started or to figure out how to focus your essay.  This resource cannot substitute, however for talking with people at the school to which you are applying and making sure you understand what they want to see.  You also should talk with your advisor for guidance on the statement.  Ask several professors to read a draft of your statement. The admissions committee includes faculty in different fields and you need to communicate with all of them.


Basic suggestions:


  • Make sure you are responding to the requirements.  If you have a basic personal statement, you will need to personalize it for individual programs.
  • Avoid obvious and non-specific statements, e.g. “I want to go to grad school because I really like learning.”  “It would be really neat to go to Nebraska because I love football.”  Avoid platitudes, "I want to go to CSULB because I have heard great things about the school."
  • Choose examples that demonstrate your enthusiasm and familiarity with their particular program as well as your preparation for it.
  • Call attention to your successes and motivation to excel at advanced study.  Explain discrepancies in your record, but do not dwell on them or spend the entire statement apologizing for them.  Your tone should be confident, but not arrogant.
  • Keep the focus on your research and professional interests.  Personal reasons for pursuing a master’s degree should relate to your professional development.
  • Plan to write multiple drafts of your personal statement.  This is a specific genre of writing which your professors can help you master.
  • Make sure spelling, grammar, and syntax are perfect.  Sloppy errors suggest that you are a sloppy thinker.
  • Your statement should be as concise as possible.  Unless a longer statement is specifically requested, do not exceed two double spaced pages (or one single spaced page).


History faculty will be holding Grad School workshops in the fall (watch for posters and announcements).  Faculty will be available to critique personal statements and give you suggestions for strengthening them.  You should come with a personal statement that you have revised at least once.