Over the summer break, to continue my efforts toward personal and professional development, I recently attended “Brainstorm with UCLA: Statement of Purpose”, a 2-hour virtual Webinar. If and when you decide to apply to graduate school, depending on the institution, you may be required to submit either a personal statement, statement of purpose, or both. A personal statement is most similar to your undergraduate college application essay. According to the UCLA Undergraduate Writing Center, a personal statement is a “storytelling of experiences related to who you are & how they shaped your interest in the field.” Contrastingly, a statement of purpose is written to demonstrate to a selection committee (usually made up of relevant faculty and current graduate students) that you understand how to formulate and pursue a research question. Regardless of which type of essay you end up writing, you want to make sure that you thoroughly explain why a given department within the University is a good fit for your career goals.


In short, tell your story.  In the first paragraph, use a lead to set the tone and direction for the statement. The lead can, but does not have to be an attention grabbing story. The goal of the lead is for the readers to know who you are and what your goal is by the end of the first paragraph. Even if your life has been less than dramatic than others, you still have a story to tell. The best approach is to find a theme that can unify all your paragraphs.

You may find that this the personal statement is usually most applicable to financial aid and fellowship applications. Therefore, while the purpose of the personal statement is to sell yourself to the review committee, you need to reserve at least one paragraph to discuss why this particular program, fellowship or affiliation with a scholarship donor is a sell for you. (UCLA Undergraduate Writing Center)


Open with a brief personal story that draws the reader in. This story should be the best representation of who you are, challenges you’ve faced and how your present research interests emerged. Close your first paragraph by explicitly stating a research question or observation that arose from this experience and has guided you since.

Next, talk about your past work experiences (academic and professional) that have prepared you for graduate school. These experiences should have some correlation to the overall story or research question you introduced in paragraph one. Close this section with a key lingering question that emerged from your work. It should be something presently missing from the field which you would like to contribute to by continuing on to graduate school. In the next section, highlight the knowledge you already have on the topic by discussing solutions that other experts have contributed through academic literature. Restate what is still missing and where/how you would like to contribute.

Focus the penultimate paragraph on explaining how this specific program will help you answer your chosen research question. Think about the available research and faculty within the department, discussing any 2-3 you find interesting. Make sure to answer why your chosen program is a good fit, how you will impact the department and your peers, and why you feel like this experience will be fruitful. Close your essay with your short-term and longer-term goals after the program. Make sure that your essay reads smoothly and that each paragraph ties back to your original story. (Bulletproof dress, 2016)

Think of the various sections of your essay like a tree with roots, a trunk and branches that bear fruit, your acceptance to a Graduate level program. When brainstorming, record yourself having a conversation with a friend or mentor, discussing these three components. The roots are the experiences that started you on your journey. What inspired you to consider a career in public service and what are your passions? The trunk is any relevant experiences that have continued to propel you on this journey. You don’t want to be too general, think about a specific project within a key course or a special contribution at work. Why did you pick this project, what did you learn, and what more do you wish you could have done? Lastly, consider the branches as where you want to end up. What do you want to be remembered for?

In conclusion, because these essays are being reviewed by academics, it is best to keep the format like every other class submission by including your name, essay title, and page number. However, it is most important that you only answer the question being asked by the prompt. Therefore, you would need to write a different essay for each school you apply to. According to the UCLA and Carnegie Mellon admissions teams, it is all too common to receive student applications that are either too general or obviously written with another school in mind. Lastly, make sure that every sentence has a purpose. You want to keep your readers captivated and ensure that any readers walks away with a positive impression of what you have to offer. Avoid starting every statement with ‘I’, listing or telling stories about all the points that can be found in your resume or CV, sounding defensive or self-pitying, summarizing the research of a professor in the program you are applying to, or talking about money as a motivating factor in your decision making process. When you are done, share your essay with 2-3 mentors such as your recommenders for review and suggestions.

Good luck in your graduate school application and remember that peers and staff at the O’Neill Career Hub are an additional resource during this process.

By Ama Amzat
Ama Amzat