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Personal Statement vs. Statement of Purpose: Literally Everything You Need to Know

When applying to graduate school, you’ll likely be asked to write a personal statement, a statement of purpose, or even both.

Sometimes, you’ll receive detailed prompts. Other times, your instructions will be vague: Include a personal statement or Include a statement of purpose.

So, what do these terms mean?

What’s the difference between a personal statement and a statement of purpose?

In this article, we’ll explain the key differences between the two and provide some tips to get you started.

What’s the Difference Between a Personal Statement and a Statement of Purpose?

The personal statement is about who you are, beyond the numbers and accolades the admissions team already knows. On the other hand, the statement of purpose is about what you want to do.

  • In the personal statement, you can tell a meaningful story about your life.
  • You may want to focus on life lessons, major accomplishments, personal motivations, or challenges that you’ve overcome.
  • The personal statement is more open-ended and less formal than the statement of purpose.

In the statement of purpose, you should discuss your future goals and why this graduate program is a great fit for you. Get specific about your interest in this program.

You’ll also want to discuss your accomplishments and why you’re a strong candidate and a good fit for the program.

To put it simply: The personal statement is about who you are, while the statement of purpose is about your goals.

The personal statement is more informal and open-ended, while the statement of purpose has a narrower focus.

What Are the Similarities Between a Personal Statement and a Statement of Purpose?

Although the personal statement and statement of purpose take two different approaches, they ultimately share a common goal.

Both essay types should demonstrate that you’re a good fit and likely to be successful in the program.

  • In addition, the essays are generally the same length, about 1-3 double-spaced pages.

In both essays, you should follow some general guidelines like:

  • Carefully read all instructions
  • Write in your authentic voice, and be honest
  • Use specific details when possible
  • Proofread and edit
  • Have at least one other person check over your essay before submitting

How do You Know Which Type of Essay to Write?

Some graduate schools require both a personal statement and a statement of purpose.

Others require just one of the two, and some use these terms interchangeably.

Some essay prompts even ask for a combination of the two essays.

  • In most cases, research-based programs require the more formal statement of purpose.
  • Other programs are likely to ask for a personal statement.
  • However, these are generalizations that don’t apply to every school.

To decide which essay(s) you’ll need to write, carefully read the application requirements page on the school’s official website.

You should also carefully read through the application itself, FAQ pages, and any other helpful resources for applicants.

If you’re still unsure what to write, call or email the school for more information.

Tips for Writing a Statement of Purpose

If you need to write a statement of purpose, be sure to follow these tips!

Research the Program

If you’re applying to a program, you probably know a good amount of information about the program already.

For your statement of purpose, however, you’ll need to mention specific aspects of the program that interest you.

Start by reading through the program’s official website. If the program has a blog, read through the blog too.

You may also want to talk to current students or alumni of the program if possible.

Then, choose a few features to focus on in your essay, like:

  • Courses you want to take
  • Professors you’d like to work with
  • Special programs, events, and opportunities offered through the program
  • Any unique aspects of the program that appeal to you
  • Favorable characteristics, like small class sizes
  • The program’s emphasis on a topic or area that interests you

Don’t mention the program’s ranking, prestige, or acceptance rate.

The admissions team wants to know that your interest in the program is deeper than just name recognition and reputation.

In addition, avoid mentioning aspects of the program that could apply to many or most similar graduate programs.

This is why doing your research and getting specific is so important.

You’ll show you’re knowledgeable and passionate about the school, and you’ll help the admissions team envision you on campus.

List Your Goals and Accomplishments

Another major focus of your statement of purpose will be your future goals.

  • What is your purpose?
  • What are you trying to accomplish by attending this graduate program?

Take the time to contemplate and write out your goals, both academic and professional.

In your statement of purpose, focus on the goals that are most applicable to the graduate program to which you’re applying.

Consider the following:

  • How do your goals relate to the field you want to enter and the program to which you’re applying?
  • What will this graduate program do for you academically and professionally?
  • How will this graduate program help further your goals?

Think through each of these points so you can clearly articulate them in your statement of purpose.

Finally, list relevant accomplishments that can be included in your personal statement.

You never want to simply rehash your resume, so get specific about what you’ve accomplished and how these accomplishments have influenced you to pursue a graduate degree in your field of choice.

Make the Connection: Why Are You a Good Fit?

Ultimately, your statement of purpose will highlight the connection between your goals and the aspects of the program that interest you.

Explain how this exact program will help you successfully reach your goals and pursue your passions.

If you’re applying to a doctoral program, you’ll most likely be working one-on-one with a faculty member on a research project or dissertation.

  • For this reason, a doctoral statement of purpose should identify a professor whose research area(s) align with your skills, background, and research interests.

To sum it up, your statement of purpose should outline your goals and explain how these goals relate to the program to which you’re applying.

When applicable, briefly mention accomplishments related to your goals and to your interest in/fit with the program.

Tips for Writing a Personal Statement

Need to write a personal statement instead of a statement of purpose? Follow these tips!

Brainstorm

Remember that the personal statement is more open-ended than the statement of purpose.

Although freedom to choose your topic has its benefits, it can also be challenging.

Start by brainstorming a list of the following:

  • Challenges you’ve faced
  • Obstacles you’ve overcome
  • Experiences you’ve had that shaped you and/or influenced your goals
  • Your motivation for the career area, major, and graduate program you’ve chosen

When you create your list, write without stopping, second-guessing, or editing. Once you’re finished, read over the list.

  • Would any of the items make a compelling story?
  • Do any feel especially meaningful to you?

You can also read through the graduate program’s website to get an idea of their ideal candidate.

  • What personal characteristics and attributes does the admissions team especially value?

You don’t want to lie or exaggerate to present yourself as the ideal candidate.

If, however, some of the items on your list highlight the qualities preferred by the admissions team, you may want to choose one of these topics for your personal statement.

Tell a Story

The personal statement is more creative and informal than the statement of purpose.

Take the opportunity to flex your creative muscles and tell a story.

Open with a vivid anecdote related to your motivations, challenges, or a meaningful experience. Use specific details that make your story unique and engaging.

Feel free to let your personality shine through. Use your authentic voice, tell a joke, etc.

Just don’t be overly informal, and steer clear of controversial topics.

Be Reflective

Whatever story you decide to tell, spend some time reflecting on it. Discuss:

  • What you learned from the experience
  • How the experience influenced you to pursue this field, major, and/or graduate program
  • How the experience shaped you as a person

If you talk about a challenge or obstacle, be sure to focus on the positive. How have you grown from the experience?

What did you learn from facing the challenge or overcoming the obstacle? Your story should be one of resilience and optimism.

Tips for Both Essays

Remember that for both essays, you should:

  • Carefully read all instructions-Adhere to length requirements, topic guidelines, and any required information. If the prompt has multiple parts, be sure to address every question.
  • Write in your authentic voice, and be honest
  • Use specific details when possible
  • Proofread and edit
  • Have at least one other person check over your essay before submitting-preferably a former professor, teacher, or peer who is a gifted writer

Final Thoughts: Personal Statement vs. Statement of Purpose

Graduate school applicants often dread writing the personal statement and/or statement of purpose, but it doesn’t have to be scary or complicated.

The statement of purpose should highlight your academic and professional goals, your relevant accomplishments, and why you would be a great fit for this specific graduate program.

Be sure to:

  • Research the program, including specific professors, courses, opportunities, benefits, etc.
  • List relevant accomplishments that you could mention in the statement
  • Make the connection: Explain exactly why you are a great fit for this program

The personal statement should tell a story that showcases your personality and who you are as an individual, including obstacles you’ve overcome or what has motivated you to apply to this graduate program and pursue this career.

Remember to:

  • Brainstorm potential topics
  • Tell a meaningful, compelling story
  • Be reflective- What does the story mean to you and how has it influenced your personal development and ambitions?

Most graduate schools require one or the other, but you may be asked to write both.

Regardless of which essay(s) you write, don’t forget to:

  • Read instructions
  • Write in your authentic voice
  • Be specific
  • Proofread and edit
  • Recruit at least one additional proofreader/editor

With these tips in mind, you’re ready to write a stellar personal statement, statement of purpose, or even both.