Dos and Donts of the Personal Statement

DO prepare to write multiple drafts. This is probably the second most important part of your graduate school application, after your writing sample.

DO take the time to prewrite. The prewriting process for personal statements can take quite a long time because you need to reflect on all of the experiences you have had in the last 4 or 5 (or even longer, no shame!), which experiences are the most pertinent, and how they fit together into a cohesive narrative,

DO write chronologically. In general, it helps the story-of-you seem more cohesive.

DO tell a story. Scholars aren’t automatons, they’re people. This is the part of the application where the admissions committee can see the most of your personality.

DO state your research interests in the first paragraph.

-Here is an example of how to state research interests: “My research interests are critical race theory, and 19th and 20th century political philosophy with an emphasis on Carl Schmitt. In particular, I am interested in tracing back the Schmittian concept to Hobbes as I believe the Hobbesian/Schmittian concept of the sovereign has implications for 21st century racial politics in the United States.”

-The author above has included both a broad sub-discipline and specific philosophers that they are interested in. This is good because admissions committees both want to be able to mold you into a scholar and they want you to be capable of planning and executing long term research.

DO make your personal statement work with the other materials in your application. If you also have to submit a research statement and a diversity statement, don’t repeat content.

DO be quite specific. These are scholars in your field. They’re going to know what you are talking about. The way you stand out is by having these very clear ideas about what you want to do.

DO go into detail about some of the papers you have written, conferences you have presented at, and research you have done. Tell them about your research methodology, any obstacles you overcame, what kind of problems you were trying to solve in your papers.

DO show your readers how your projects have built off of one another and how they relate to each other. Admissions committees want to see that you can engage in long term projects.

DO talk about things you are going to do and projects that are ongoing. If your application is due on December 1st, tell them what you have planned for the spring semester and in the summer if your are going abroad or engaging in summer research experiences.

DO tailor your last paragraph to the school you are applying for. You should list specific faculty you want to work with and state why you want to work with them.

DO get outside feedback, maybe from a TA or professor.


DON’T use passive voice. This is the single most common mistake students make.

-Example of passive voice: “I have studied X, Y, and Z.” “I have received a scholarship.” “My research was done.” “It was realized that…”

-You should move your verbs to the front of your sentences. “I study X.” “After completing my research…” “Upon analyzing the data, I realized.” Wording your sentences like this makes them more exciting to read.

DON’T open with cliches. Students often send me statements with opening lines “Since the dawn of time man has been asking ‘why?’” Openers like that make me ask “why?” Attempts to be memorable that begin with cliches will be forgotten, or remembered for the wrong reason.

DON’T simply list your accomplishments. They have your resume/CV. Don’t waste the space you do have by repeating yourself.

DON’T forget to proofread! One mistake won’t be a deciding factor, but they will definitely notice if you have many mistakes.

DON’T write a 12 page personal statement detailing everything you have ever done. If you can, stick to what you have done in the last 4 years of your life.

DON’T write a generic statement that does not speak to that specific department.

DON’T start from scratch every time you need to write a personal statement. Instead, have one document that has a list of multiple stories you have about your experiences and then tailor which stories you choose to the kind of department/application you are working with.

DON’T wait until the last minute to start writing. These take a lot longer than you think to write.

Additional FAQs:

What are admissions committees looking for in my personal statement?

They are trying to find out who you are as a person. You find out a lot about how a person thinks via how they talk about their research interests, what names they reference, and what personal anecdotes they choose to tell about their life.

Who is my audience?

Broadly, the admissions committee. This means that it could be anyone in the department you are applying for who is not on leave. However, they will probably give your writing sample to someone who is more likely to be familiar with your topic, so you can write for a specialized audience.

How long should my statement be?

You should have a longer statement (4–5 pages double spaced) and a shorter statement (1 page double spaced) prepared. Some schools will have strict word counts, others won’t.

I love philosophy, history, and social justice. I help students succeed with academic consulting.

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