Admissions essays: Statements of purpose & personal statements

5-minute summary for people in a hurry

If you’re applying to:Use these resources:
Any discipline or programSkim my FAQ on Admissions Essays to look for answers to questions you may have.
MA/MS or PhDMost important:
The “Skeleton” document.
The sample essays.
The section on diversity statements.

Optional, but also recommended:
Karen Kelsky’s “A+ Admissions essays.”
“Part 2” PowerPoint slides &/or the Workshop video.

Also, check the “Discipline-specific” advice section below to see if your field is represented (I’m always adding new resources)
MSWSame as above (but especially the MSW sample essay)
MDScroll down to “Discipline-specific advice” section.
MFAScroll down to “Discipline-specific advice” section.
Law School/JDScroll down to “Discipline-specific advice” section.
Note: You can use “CTRL + F” or “CMD + F” to search for items by name.

Diversity Statements vs. Statements of Purpose vs. Personal Statements vs…

First, a clarification. When I write “admissions essays,” I am referring to graduate school admissions essays, but that phrase is much too long to fit comfortably on the site’s menu. In addition, the advice on this page leans heavily toward master’s degrees (MA/MS) and PhDs in academic disciplines, although much of the advice is still applicable to other programs, such as professional programs and fine arts programs. I’ve also included some discipline-specific links related to some of these other programs (scroll down to to the “Discipline-Specific Advice” section to see those resources).

Second, let’s clear up a confusion regarding terms. In and of themselves, the terms “statement of purpose,” “personal statement,” “personal history statement,” “letter of intent,” and “research statement” mean very little. These terms get used in such varied ways as to be essentially meaningless when taken on their own. What matters is what the particular school to which you’re applying means when they use these terms.

Most essays fall into 2 major categories:

(1) What I am calling the “statement of purpose” (but which is sometimes also called a “personal statement” or “research statement” or “letter of intent”) which has instructions something like these:

“Your personal statement should be approximately 500 – 1000 words (2-4) pages and should speak to your qualities and experiences as a student and future researcher, and should clarify how the program and degree you are applying for will be important to the achievement of your goals. Discuss courses taken that have a particular relevance to the program or work experiences that pertain to your career ambitions.” Source: UCSD Math Department.

(2) What I am calling a “diversity statement” (but which is also sometimes called a “personal statement” or “personal history statement”) which asks you something like:

“Please describe how your personal background informs your decision to pursue a graduate degree. Please include information about any adversities you have overcome in your academic career or personal life, along with evidence of your leadership roles and cultural competencies as they relate to serving under-served populations.” Adapted from: UC Berkeley Psychology.

So, what’s the difference?

The UC system describes it pretty well:

While the statement of purpose highlights the goals and experiences related to the research area you plan to pursue, your personal statement (also called a history or diversity statement) is an opportunity for the review committee to learn about the unique qualities and perspectives you’ll bring to the program.

Simply put, the statement of purpose is about your work, while your personal statement is about you – and how you’ll contribute to the diversity of ideas. Draw on your unique background to present yourself as an ideal candidate for the graduate program to which you are applying.

University of California

Why do some programs want you to write 2 different types of statements? What’s their goal in having you write them?

I’ve summarized some of my thoughts on the topic in the following table:

Statement of PurposeDiversity Statement
Other names:Personal statement, research statement, letter of intentPersonal statement, personal history statement, biographical statement
Program’s goal in having you write it:To figure out if you’re a good fit for the program in terms of your preparation, research interests, and intended specialty. To figure out whether you’ll contribute to the university’s campus culture and positive image (e.g., in society and the media) by: (1) being “diverse” yourself or (2) having experience working with diverse populations.

So, the “quick and dirty” summary is that the statement of purpose requires you to show the admissions committee that you’re prepared for the program and will fit in and succeed. The diversity statement requires you to show them that you’ll make them look good by contributing to the diversity of their campus. For more information, see the “grad school admissions essays” section of my page on Audience.

The remainder of this page is dedicated to the statement of purpose. But, if you need more help with the diversity statement, here are some great resources:

Caltech’s Hixon Writing Center: Approaching the Diversity Statement

UC Berkeley: Writing the Personal Statement.

UC Personal Statement (also cited above).

Sara Beck: Developing and Writing a Diversity Statement (Note: This link and the next one offer advice to faculty on how to write diversity statements for academic job applications, but the structure and content are still helpful models for the kinds of statements you’ll have to write in applying to graduate school).

Sample Diversity Statements from UCSF (see Note above).

One final (but important) point: Many schools want you to simply combine the statement of purpose and diversity statement into one essay. Or to put it another way, students often ask me: What do I do if they only ask for one essay? Should I include some of the diversity stuff in that essay? For example, should I mention that I am a first-generation college student or tell the reader that I have cultural competence working with diverse populations? The short answer is yes! (although the longer answer is yes, but you should always follow the specific instructions of the program that you’re applying to; if the essay prompt says “don’t tell us about yourself, just tell us about your intended research specialty,” then of course you should follow these instructions). It can often be a good idea to incorporate some of the “diversity stuff” into your statement of purpose if the program does not ask for a separate diversity essay. One way to do this is to simply add a diversity paragraph to the essay. If you take a look at the “Skeleton” document further down on this page, you’ll see that I recommend a paragraph-by-paragraph approach. You can just add a paragraph (e.g., right after the intro paragraph or right before the final paragraph) that is a mini diversity essay (you can write this paragraph as a super condensed version of the diversity essays described in the links above). Another approach would be to weave in diversity stuff into your other paragraphs. For example, when you describe your career goals, you could write something like:

“My long-term goal is to become a faculty member at a four-year university where I can both contribute to research and mentor the next generation of scholars in the field. In particular, I look forward to mentoring students from under-served backgrounds, who often face barriers in entering our discipline. As a first-generation student and a person of color from a low-income family, I possess the cultural competence to effectively serve students from a diverse range of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds.”

The sample essays further down on the page also model some ways of incorporating diversity into the statement of purpose.

Now, for our feature presentation

Writing the Statement of Purpose

The Statement of Purpose (or “SoP” for short) is the subject of a very popular 2-part workshop series that we conduct on the CSULB campus. The PowerPoint slides, like most of the presentations on this site, were designed to be self-explanatory, so I recommend reading them as a first step.

Part 1 is by my boss, Dr. Bryan Rodriguez, Director of the Graduate Studies Resource Center at CSULB:

Part 2 is by me: The Graduate Writing Guy:

The Part 2 slides reference the following 2 handouts:

The “Brag Sheet”

And the “Skeleton Document”

The skeleton document is highly recommended for students who have no idea how to go about structuring their personal statement. For many students I work with, simply reading the slides and the skeleton document are enough to answer most of their questions about writing the SoP. If you have limited time, or are in a hurry, I recommend starting with the Part 2 slides + the skeleton document.

**2021 Update** New and Improved “Skeleton Document

The old skeleton document is a classic, and is still useful. But the new one (version 2.0) more accurately reflects my current advice. You can download both below:

Recently, I discovered this excellent piece by Vince Gotera (English Dept., U of N. Iowa): How to Write a Great Statement of Purpose, which offers a paragraph-by-paragraph outline similar to that in the skeleton document (although also different in important ways). You can read it as companion to the skeleton document and decide which one to follow based on your field, the advice of your faculty + mentors, and your own best judgment.

Video: Workshop Recording (78 min)

You can view or download a recording of my SoP Workshop (from Oct 28, 2020) here or by clicking on the image below:

Note: The browser plays a 1-hour preview. For videos longer than 1 hour, download the file and watch it from your computer (Steps: 1. Click on the video to open the Dropbox video page. 2. Use the “download” button, usually located on the top left of the page).

In addition, here’s a great video on the grad school application process in general: Apply to graduate school: key points, tips, and suggestions ( YouTube link). It’s by Dr. Amanda Bittner, Associate Professor and Graduate Coordinator at the Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Samples

Samples or examples (of any genre of writing) should always be approached with caution. Just because a certain approach worked for one writer doesn’t mean that the same approach will work for you (or your discipline). Also, keep in mind that no piece of writing is perfect (in real life, perfection is a myth), so a candidate might have been admitted to graduate school in spite of flaws in their statement of purpose.

There are always exceptions, but in most cases a statement of purpose alone will not determine whether or not you get into grad school (although a bad statement can drastically lower your chances; see for example the “Appleby & Appleby” article listed below). In fact, many students are admitted on the strength of other factors (e.g. GPA, research experience, good networking and connections) despite having imperfect statements. So, the “positive” is that you don’t need to produce a perfect statement of purpose; the “negative” is that you do need to be careful when using other people’s statements as a model.

With these caveats in mind, here are some sample statements:

(1) MA in Philosophy. The first one is my statement of purpose that I used to apply (successfully) to CSULB’s MA in Philosophy:

Note: My statement here is a sort of “career changer” statement. That is, I was applying to an MA in philosophy despite not having completed a BA in philosophy. Keep that fact in mind when thinking about the writing choices I made and deciding whether to make similar choices in your statement. Also, as I say elsewhere on this page, nobody’s statement is perfect, mine included. Approach all samples with a critical mindset.

(2) MS in STEM: Applied Math. The second one is from a student that I helped successfully apply to an applied math MS program:

(3) PhD in Political Science. This one is from a student who I helped successfully apply to PhD programs in political science (he accepted an offer at a highly selective school):

(4) Master of Social Work (MSW). This one is from a student who I helped successfully apply to the CSULB MSW program (and other MSW programs).

(5) MS/PhD in STEM. Samples from Carthage College’s Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium

(6) PhD in History. A sample from UC Berkeley’s College of Letters & Science:

(7) Various (MA/PhD/JD) in History, Literature, Law, & Public Relations. Some samples provided by CSU Channel Islands (one or two of these have been borrowed from Donald Asher’s book, which is listed under “Further Reading” below).

NOTE: There are links to more samples further down on this page under “Discipline-specific Advice.”

Other useful stuff regarding the SoP

Karen Kelsky, whose site The Professor Is In I highly recommend for general information about succeeding in (and outside of) academia, has written a wonderful document entitled “The A+ Graduate Admissions Essay” available online and right here:

Kelsky’s essay is discussed in the “Part 2” PowerPoint slides (above), but it’s definitely worth a read on its own.

Appleby & Appleby (2006): Kisses of Death in the Graduate School Application Process is also mentioned in my SoP Part 2 PowerPoint slides (see above) but is very much worth reading for its own merits.

This handout, adapted from tips by the LSAMP program at Southwestern Oklahoma State University, also includes some useful advice:

Important word of caution: Any advice on this site should not be considered a substitute for the professional advice of people in your field. I am offering generic advice that should be applicable to most disciplines. But “insider” tips from people in your discipline (e.g. people who were recently admitted to the programs you’re applying to, people who will be on your admissions committee) are always the most valuable.

Discipline-specific Advice

As noted above, the advice on this page is mostly general, all-purpose advice that should work for most disciplines. However, every field is different, so below I’ve included some more tailored materials for specific fields. Also, most of the advice above is geared toward academic MA and PhD degrees. However, I have included below some materials that might help when applying to other types of programs, such as professional school programs and fine arts programs. Finally, this page (like my whole site) is a work in progress. If you have any resources to recommend, please send me a note at omar(dot)hussein(at)csulb(dot)edu.

STEM Programs

MIT Comm. Lab/Broad Institute: STEM Personal Statements

MIT Grad Admissions Blog: How to Craft a Personal Statement

LatinX in STEM: Pre-Doctoral Resources

Female Science Professor Blog: Grad School Application Essay

Prof. Zajj Daugherty (City College of New York): Applying to PhD Programs in Mathematics

Zeng Rui Han (PhD Student): Tips on the Math SoP

Philosophy Programs

Bernhard Nickel: Graduate School Writing Samples

Writing sample from GradCafe that helped a student get into the PhD program at UW-Milwaukee: “Faction vs stasis”:

Jim Pryor: Writing Philosophy Papers (see especially his advice on pretending that your reader is “lazy, stupid, and mean”!)

Eric Schwitzgebel – Splintered Mind Underblog: Applying to Ph.D. Programs in Philosophy: Full Text (includes samples)

USC Gathering of Philosophers: Handout from a 2018 event I attended on applying to grad school in philosophy:

Health Professions: Medical School, Dental School, and others

Not to imply that applications for all health professions are identical–they obviously are not. But they tend to be similar enough that, for example, good advice for a medical program is probably applicable to dental school as well, and vice versa. In fact, as stated in the CSULB HPAO FAQ below, much of the advice regarding medical school “can be generalized to most health professions.”

CSULB Health Professions Advising Office (HPAO): FAQ on Applying to Health Professions

CSULB HPAO: Medical School Admissions Requirements

Dan Scheirer: Writing the Primary Essay for Medical School

Sample Dental School Essays with comments by Dan Scheirer:

Sample Essay 1

Sample Essay 2

Sample Essay 3

Ilana Kowarski: 2 Med School Essays That Admissions Officers Loved

Jessica Freedman: Medical School Application Secondary Essays

Law School

Ilan Kowarski: 2 Law School Personal Statements That Succeeded

SLS Admissions Blog: Got Questions?

Spivey Consulting: The Why X Essay

U of Chicago Law School: FAQs: Personal Statement

U Chicago Law School: In Their Own Words: Admissions Essays That Worked

CSULB Political Science Department: Thinking About Law School FAQ

MFA Programs

Cady Vishniac: How I Wrote My Statement of Purpose

Creative Independent: How to Write an Artist Statement

Dave Madden: How Not to Write An SoP for MFA School

Inside Higher Ed: A Guy Who May Have Read Your MFA Application Speaks

Kristin Jennifer, Demand Media: How to Write a Statement of Purpose for MFA Studio Art Programs

MBA Programs

US News: 2 MBA Admissions Essays that Worked

Accepted Blog: Sample Essays from Admitted HBS Students

My Essay Review: 30 Successful MBA Essays

Further Reading

My FAQ on Admissions Essays.

–The section entitled “Writing to your audience: grad school admissions essays” on my “Writing to your audience” page.

–A great book is Donald Asher’s Graduate School Admissions Essays (Ten Speed Press). I’ve read the 3rd and 4th editions, and both are fabulous. However, keep in mind the proviso regarding samples that I mentioned above: the essays included in Asher’s book are real essays submitted by students. Thus, they often have notable flaws, as all essays do. So don’t rely solely on the examples: as always, follow the advice of experts in your field and general “gurus” like Karen Kelsky).

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