Writing an effective personal statement for a Master’s or PhD application for a university abroad is probably one of the most important steps of your application process abroad. It represents both a chance for you to introduce yourself to the admission committee of the institution, but also to present your thesis or research goals you plan to achieve during your studies. Read key tips for understanding what a personal statement is and how to write one for your Master's or Ph.D.
What better way to get the creative juices flowing than an example of a successful personal statement, written by a student applying for a PhD in Literature at a university in the United States? Read carefully and think what you would include in your personal statement to convince the university you’ve got what it takes to successfully complete your degree and
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Personal Statement for a Ph.D. in Literature
In August 2015, I completed my graduate degree and thesis for the Research Master's in Comparative Literary Studies at [university name2]. As a student in the Research Master's (RMA) program, my scholarly concerns were mostly focused on critical theory, cultural studies, and social discourse, built into the wide-ranging, cross-cultural framework of Comparative Literature. In addition, the rigorous graduate curriculum in the RMA program placed a strong emphasis on individual research and intensive academic writing to prepare me for Ph.D-level studies. As a student, I find myself consistently engaged with the intersection of politics, literature, and critical theory.
I have always had an interest in projects that are interdisciplinary and which also foster a broad, social-political dialogue; I have published in Marxist theory, but I have also presented at conferences on neuroscience and on post-colonialism. While my interests are vast, I have always found literary studies to satisfy my intellectual curiosity and provide a meaningful methodological foundation. Therefore, it is from this theoretical perspective and challenging background as a scholar that I wish to pursue a Ph.D. in Literature at [university name], as it would be a privilege to participate in this critical discourse alongside the immensely distinguished Literature faculty.
Before beginning my graduate studies, I finished a Bachelor's degree in English from the [university name3]. I was fortunate enough as an undergraduate to have found exhilarating joy in academic research. Setting a goal to pursue a lifelong career as an academic allowed me to overcome weaknesses that were initially felt to be insurmountable, including low grades and test scores. Learning the strategies necessary for university study, though, while following a compelling curriculum enabled me to complete my degree, participate in interdisciplinary thesis research, and eventually continue on to graduate school. Relocating to the Netherlands for graduate school proved to be a worthwhile choice, as living abroad for the past few years has been a formative and enriching experience. Thinking globally about academic study and education more generally, while being amid a tumultuous political climate and refugee crisis has developed the way I continue to speak (and write) about cultural experience.
In 2015, I had my first refereed article, "Utopian Registers of the New Italian Epic," published in the peer-reviewed journal Incontri: Rivista Europa di Studi Italiani. After submitting it to this journal, the article underwent a strict external review process where I was able to refine my argument carefully before it was published in the 30th volume of Incontri.
The final six months of my degree were devoted to completing my RMA thesis, entitled "An Ethics of Belonging". For this project, I chose to continue my interest in examining ethics and literature, using several sources of migrant literature as my literary corpus. I framed my discussion within the context of 'belonging,' and considered the ethical complications with that concept. One of the interesting aspects of writing this thesis was the ability to place these ideas in the background of current events and political issues such as racism, police violence, and migrant experience. Adding an urgency to my thesis, I was able to further emphasize the stakes of literature, otherness, and belonging, while illustrating the efficacy of imagination, empathy, and representation in re-calibrating the ethical horizon.
It is with gratitude that I have always looked toward the esteemed Literature department at [university name] as a source of inspiration throughout my undergraduate and graduate education; and, the faculty at [university name] has always held my attention as giving invaluable contributions to literary and social discourse. It would, therefore, be an honor to pursue my Ph.D. in Literature at [university name]. And, given my own scholarly background and academic achievements, I believe I am an ideal candidate for this program.
What is the Personal Statement?
Graduate schools, fellowships, grants, and other competitive programs often require each applicant to submit a short essay about her history and goals. These essays are sometimes written in response to very specific questions; sometimes, they’re written in response to a generic prompt. In both cases, the good personal statement carefully balances its author’s history and aspirations.
Unlike much academic writing, personal statements are not necessarily thesis-driven. They tend to offer instead a narrative of development or illustrate a match between applicant and program. This does not mean the statement should narrate the applicant’s resume. Applicants should ask instead how the statement can enhance a particular element of the resume. Each applicant should ask how she might tell a compelling story about how and why she was drawn to a particular field of study, program, or career path.
How to Write a Personal Statement
Start by examining the prompt. Oftentimes, applicants are asked very specific questions about why they are applying to a particular program and what, specifically, qualifies them to be part of that program. Think about the question you’ve been asked. Also, no matter how tempting it is, do not submit the same personal statement to multiple programs if those programs are asking different questions. Tailor each statement to each question.
Decide how your experience is different, interesting, or special. Personal statements succeed when they are specific. Don’t say you want to go to medical school because you want to help people or you want to be a veterinarian because you like animals. Instead, tell a story about Megan, the seven-year-old leukemia patient you met when you volunteered in the cancer ward of Boston Children’s Hospital in April 2008. Or, instead, describe how you watched Dr. Phillips, the local veterinarian in the Chicago suburb where you grew up, reset the broken leg of your neighbor’s Irish Setter, Morris, after the dog had been hit by beat-up Camaro on Oak Street.
Research the program. The program you’re applying to is also unique in some ways, and you should make it clear that you chose it carefully from among its competitors. Think about how your goals will best be served by this particular fellowship, internship, or university. Again, be specific. Any MBA program will grant you the “skills you need” to succeed in the business world. What will this specific MBA program do? Is the actuarial class taught by the president of the Casualty Actuarial Society? That would be important if you’re more interested in becoming a casualty actuary instead of a pension or health actuary.
Make your goals clear. Just as your past is interesting and specific, so is your future. What do you plan to do, and how will this program help you do it? Do you want to develop long-term convection models for the eastern seaboard? Or become a choreographer for a major ballet company? How do you plan to get there, and how does this particular program fit into that plan?
Once you’ve thought about your history and your goals, start writing. It’s often very tempting to put this off. Writing a personal statement is stressful. But it’s important to start writing as soon as possible—especially because you’ll be revising again and again. Show how your personal history relates to your goals, and how you’re a good fit for this particular program. If your first attempt looks halting and a little half-baked, don’t worry. The first draft is supposed to look this way.
Revision is where the real work begins. Read through what you’ve written. Ask yourself what works and what doesn’t:
- Are you answering the question you set out to answer?
- Are you specific enough?
- Are you spending too much time on your personal history (this isn’t an autobiography, remember; only relevant information here)?
- Is your tone consistent throughout?
- Does your first paragraph grab the reader’s attention?
- Do you make it clear why you’ve applied to this particular program?
- Do you have too many things competing for the focus of the statement? What should you consider cutting (even if you want to include everything)?
After looking over your writing, rewrite. Then, rewrite again.
Once you feel the personal statement says what you want it to say, show it to somebody.The Writing Center can be useful here. It might also be useful to get feedback from a professional in your field. Many personal statement conventions are discipline-specific. What works in the hard sciences might not work in the humanities; what works for business majors might not work for artists.
Social Psychology Ph.D. Personal Statement (pdf)
Medical School Personal Statement (pdf)
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NEAG School of Education Personal Statement (pdf)
English Ph.D. Statement of Purpose (pdf)
Instructions on personal statements from other universities