Ask an Expert: Writing a Personal Statement

Karissa Chabot-Purchase Head Shot

Karissa Chabot-Purchase, Career Consultant, James Madison College

Question: I’m overwhelmed at the thought of writing a personal statement to accompany my graduate/professional/law school application. Where do I even begin?  

Answer: Most graduate programs ask for personal statements (sometimes called statements of purpose or statements of intent) to understand candidates’ motivations for applying to graduate school—a perspective that metrics like an undergraduate GPA or a standardized test score just can’t offer. Unpacking that motivation and your personal goals is tough, and often very different than the writing you’re asked to do in the classroom.

The advice I give students is to make sure you address the main questions admissions committees will have on their minds.

Note: Some programs will ask candidates to respond to a specific prompt, while others will request a general statement.  These suggestions should help you get started when asked to provide a general statement.

First: What inspired your interest in the field you’re applying to pursue an advanced degree in? How have you sustained that interest in and outside of the classroom, and how have those activities reinforced your conviction that you’re well-suited to the field?

Note: Tackling this question at the beginning of your essay often offers you the opportunity to share a unique, personal story that will help you grab the attention of your readers.

Second: How are you well-prepared/poised for success as a graduate student? How has your classroom-based work broadened your skillset, and how have you gained insights about the field through extra-curricular pursuits (internships, part-time roles, student group engagement, etc.—all those great involvements that are on your resume!).

Note: This is your chance to highlight a few key accomplishments/involvements that have helped you grow (both personally and professionally) and have prepared you to meet the challenges of an advanced degree program. Try unpacking 2-3 experiences that have contributed the most to that growth/preparation vs. trying to cover your entire resume in a few paragraphs.

Third: What is it about our school that makes it a unique fit for you? What can we provide you that other institutions cannot?

Note: This final portion of the essay will need to be customized for every school you’re applying to. Consider highlighting what attracted you to the program beyond its ranking or location (faculty, specific courses, out-of-classroom offerings, etc.).

Still feeling stumped? Feel free to write your essay “out of order” and assemble it into a cohesive narrative at the end. Outlining some thoughts about how you’ve prepared for an advanced degree program through your courses might help you generate ideas about your motivation for applying or remind you why specific schools are on your radar.

Finally, remember, that career practitioners across campus are here to assist you! Book an appointment through Handshake with your college-based advisor to work on your statement, whether you’re still in the brainstorming stage or would like perspective on a more polished draft.

Sources:; Purdue OWL

By Karissa Chabot-Purchase
Karissa Chabot-Purchase Assistant Director, Career Services Network