Preparing your personal statement for graduate school applications

Nearly all doctoral programs and many master’s degree programs in psychology require submission of a personal statement as part of the application package. In my experience advising students as well as serving as a graduate dean for many years, few things in the application process cause students as much anxiety and prompt so many questions.

Why so much concern? Several reasons. First, what we generically call the personal statement goes by different names at different institutions: “statement of goals,” “purpose and interests” and a host of other terms. Second, institutions have varying requirements for length and specific topics. Third, you have to compose it from scratch, in contrast to your transcript (which the registrar sends), your letters of recommendation (which other people compose) and any required test scores (which the testing agency sends).

Here are answers to students’ four most common questions.

Is the personal statement important?

Absolutely yes. Summaries of research on what is important in the application process, particularly for doctoral programs, show that the statement of purpose plays a key role in admission decisions — often more important than such standbys as your GPA and GRE scores. Admission committees really do pay attention. Each program in APA’s (2017) “Graduate Study in Psychology” provides a rating of the importance of the statement of purpose, so you can check for your target programs. This is where you display your:

  • Fit with the program.
  • Especially desirable qualifications.
  • Clarity of plans.
  • Writing skill.

Do I use the same one for all?

Absolutely not. Customize your statement for each program to which you apply. Each program will provide a brief description of what it wants in the applicant’s statement of purpose, the length and topics. One program may want 500 words covering topics A, B and C. Another program may want 1,500 words covering topics A, B, D and E. Pay attention to these directives. If, as program director, I want the latter and you give me the former, you have just done yourself a great disfavor — and irritated me. If you are applying to many programs, make a little spreadsheet showing what each program wants in the statement. Then, cross-check your customized statements against your spreadsheet.

What do I include?

Despite the latter advice about customizing, many programs ask about similar topics. The most common topics include your professional/career plans, academic objectives related to a particular program, research experience and other applied experience (for example, internships). Doctoral programs (but not usually master’s programs) often ask for your interest in or fit with particular faculty members (just two or three — not everyone). Of course, that fit relates to your objectives and the faculty members’ areas of expertise/research.

Because these topics appear frequently in programs’ requests, a useful strategy calls for developing a boilerplate statement covering the latter topics. Thus, you don’t have to start from scratch for every program. Construct the boilerplate, the common statement, first. Get it in good shape. Then customize it as needed for different programs.

You should certainly have a paragraph or two focusing on what you want to do in terms of career goals, academic specialty and research interests. And sift through your experiences to see which might set you apart and make you especially attractive as a candidate. Perhaps you have a strong research record, an exceptionally meaningful field experience or a few advanced undergraduate courses. Maybe all three of these.

When writing about your goals and experiences, aim for precision and detail. Avoid generic statements (“I have a lot of research experience,” “I did an internship”). Provide details, as space permits. What exactly did you do in your research, and what did you learn from it? What did your internship entail, and, again, what did you learn from it?

While on the topic of what to include, let’s identify a few things to not include. Norcross and Sayette (2016) call these the 3 Hs: humor, hyperbole, hard luck. No jokes or funny stories in the personal statement. Watch out for hyperbole in your statement: I’m the most qualified; I had the greatest major; I never have interpersonal conflicts. And don’t describe your own depression, substance abuse or family turmoil. Appleby and Appleby (2007) included such items among their “kisses of death” for applicants’ personal statements.

Will you read it for me?

The answer will vary for different faculty members and your relationship with them, but many will be happy to help. Please, however, do not ask a faculty member to read your first rough draft. Get it cleaned up. No half-sentences, no typos. Your institution may have a writing center that will prove helpful. When you have it in pretty good shape, ask a faculty member for feedback.

Finally, proofread your statement before hitting the submit button. Remember, it’s used partly to evaluate your writing skill.

Watch this free video series for more information on graduate school applications.

Re-posted with permission from the American Psychological Association’s Psychology Student Network.


American Psychological Association. (2016). Graduate study in psychology: 2017 edition. Washington, D.C.: Author.

Appleby, D.C., & Appleby, K.M. (2007). How to avoid the kisses of death in the graduate school application process. Eye on Psi Chi, 11(3), 20-21.

Norcross, J.C., & Sayette, M.A (2016). Insider’s guide to graduate programs in clinical and counseling psychology: Revised 2016/2017 edition. New York: Guilford.

About the Author

Thomas P. Hogan, PhD, is professor of psychology and distinguished university fellow at the University of Scranton, where he served as dean of the graduate school and director of research for ten years. He was previously associate vice chancellor for graduate and professional programs at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.