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Applying to Graduate School: Preparing a Personal Statement

Most graduate schools require a personal statement as a part of the application. This statement is usually centered around:

Although a well-written personal statement will not overcome poor grades or a low score on the Graduate Record Examination, a poor one will surely hurt your chances of acceptance. Fretz and Stang (1980) give the following example:

"Take the case of the student with a competitive grade-point average and good references who was not accepted to any of the 11 programs he applied for. One cannot be sure, but the biographical statement included with his application is the suspected reason... The spelling and grammar were both appalling [and] the content left much to be desired. It was far too long—about 15 pages—and stressed emotional agonies and turning points in his life. Hoping to cure the world of all its evils, this person tried to indicate how a Ph.D. in psychology was necessary to fulfill that end. In short, it was an overstated, ill-conceived essay that may have been received so badly that it overshadowed his other attributes and data."

Plan and produce your personal statement as carefully as you would a crucial term paper. The following tips will help you produce an effective personal statement.

Prepare a series of drafts. After finishing a new version, leave it alone for a day or two, then come back to it and improve it by making it simpler and more readable, or other improvements you can spot.

Before you begin your statement for each school, read as much as possible about their program so that you can tailor your statement to the program and convince the admissions committee that you will fit well there. Selection committees will reject applicants who write, for example, they want to attend the counseling psychology program at University X because they want to learn how to counsel emotionally handicapped children, when the department web pages make it clear they do not work with young children.

Check your grammar, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization carefully. Minor errors detract from the content of a statement to a surprising degree, because they seem to indicate carelessness or inadequate education. Avoid slang words that make you sound uneducated, or elaborate words and stilted language that make you sound pompous or pretentious. A straightforward, honest approach is generally best.

Ask two of your instructors to read a draft of your statement and to suggest improvements. Incorporate these suggestions into your next draft, then ask for another reading and set of suggestions, then prepare your final statement.

Your statement should not be too long. If it fits comfortably onto one page when printed out, that is a good length. Stick to the points requested by each program, and avoid lengthy personal or philosophical discussions.

Do not feel bad if you do not have a great deal of experience in psychology to write about. Do explain your relevant experiences (e.g., field studies or research projects), but do not try to turn them into events of cosmic proportion. Be honest, sincere, and objective—that is the only way to impress the evaluators that you are a mature person who is ready for graduate school.


Adapted from Appleby, D. C. (1990). Handbook of Marian College Psychology Department. Indianapolis, IN: Author and Fretz, B.R., & Stang, D. J. (1980). Preparing for graduate study in psychology: NOT for seniors only! Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

APA-style reference for this page:

Lloyd, M. A. and Dewey, R.A. (2016, November 21). Applying to graduate school: Preparing a personal statement. Retrieved from:

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