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Personal Statements and Statements of Purpose: What’s the Difference?

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So you’ve decided to apply for grad school—hooray! Now comes the fun part: more standardized testing, accumulating transcripts, and drafting essay after essay. As you go through your schools’ requirements, you may see requests for “personal statements” or “statements of purpose.” They’re the same thing, right? Not quite. 

As the names suggest, the personal statement focuses on who you are as a person, your background, and what inspired you to pursue your chosen field, while the statement of purpose focuses on your career goals, your academic and professional qualifications, and what you hope to get out of your graduate program. 

Some schools may require one essay combining these topics, some may ask for just one of these essays, and some may ask for both. So, as always, do your research! One way schools evaluate applicants is by how well they follow directions during the application process, so be absolutely sure you understand the prompt, the word count, and any other instructions. 

WRITING THE PERSONAL STATEMENT

The personal statement is similar to what you may remember writing for your undergraduate applications. This essay should be vulnerable, personal, and unique to you and your own life experiences. What are your interests? What personal, academic, or professional challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them? What inspired you to pursue graduate work in your chosen field? How did you decide to apply to this program? Perhaps you majored in chemistry in undergrad but did an internship in biochem that prompted you to shift your focus in your graduate work. Maybe a classroom debate in high school sparked a love of ethical philosophy, leading you to major in English and now apply for law school. 

The goal of this essay is to understand what has shaped you, including your family, your background, your interests, and your personal journey. Admissions should walk away from your essay feeling like they have a sense of who you are as a person. Make sure you mention your undergraduate major and any specific courses, professors, internships, or experiences that motivated you to apply for graduate studies. The most compelling personal statements weave your challenges and accomplishments into a unique narrative charting your personal growth. 

WRITING THE STATEMENT OF PURPOSE

The statement of purpose should be more formal and more focused on your academic and professional background, as well as your goals for the program and your future career. Rather than recounting your personal journey, tell admissions about your research, coursework, internships, and jobs. How have these experiences led you to this specific program? This document should help the reader understand how you will fit into their cohort and what you will bring both to the school and to the field upon graduation. Be sure to discuss your research interests (particularly for STEM fields) and describe how the program will support you to pursue your research. 

This essay should also outline what qualities you possess that make you a good fit for the program and how you will use your education for your future career. Most importantly, make sure you have done your research on each school so you can say exactly what attracts you to each program. Specificity is key here! List the professors, courses, research experiences, and other specific aspects of the program that excite you. How will this program prepare you for your chosen career? Maybe there’s a particular lab you can’t wait to join or perhaps you’re excited by the industry internships the program offers. 

The TL; DR

Personal StatementStatement of Purpose
Narrative describing your background, interests, motivations, personal challenges you’ve overcome, studies, and reasons for applying to this programFormal document outlining your academic and professional history, your relevant skills, your fit for the specific program, and your career goals
For both essays, remember the three Rs: Research, Reflection, and Revision
  • Research each school to understand exactly how your interests, background, and goals align with their offerings, highlighting specific faculty, courses, and program offerings.
  • Reflect on your personal journey, your motivations for applying, and your career goals to clearly and persuasively articulate your fit for each program and the field at large.
  • Revise your writing! It’s always easier to cut content than to add, so allow your first draft to be a word-dump of every vaguely relevant thought you have. Then go back through with your research and reflection in mind (see what we did there?) and edit your essay to best answer the prompt.

As always, your friendly neighborhood College Essay Advisors are here to help guide you through every stage of the writing process for your personal statement, statement of purpose, and any other supplemental essays that come your way! 

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