What Is a Personal Statement?

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advice for students
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By Kate Sitarz
Last updated on June 7, 2024

While a personal statement is just one part of your university application, it can make a big impact on whether you get accepted.

An international student writing up their personal statement on their laptop.

A personal statement, or statement of purpose, is your chance to show university admissions officials why you are a good fit for the institution and, in turn, why that institution is a good fit for you.

When admissions officers are reviewing hundreds of applications, a well-written personal statement can help you stand out. While it may be tempting to write one version and use it for every application you send, you need to make sure your statement is authentic and tailored to each specific university and the program to which you are applying. 

Why US Universities Require a Personal Statement 

This requirement is more commonly found at the graduate level, often in place of an essay.

While an essay showcases your writing ability and thinking on a particular topic, a statement of purpose allows you to articulate why this school and this program of interest or major is the best program for your future goals. While typically you may write one admissions essay and use it for every application, the statement of purpose is specific to each school.

“You cannot make it generic. Admissions professionals really pick up on that,” says Laurel Aroian, senior director, University Enrollment Strategy at Shorelight. “They want to determine if you are a good fit for the program to which you are applying.”

Aroian has worked in higher education since 2006, spending time managing admissions for full- and part-time MBA programs at Babson and overseeing admissions for the MIT Sloan Fellows program. 

“Admissions [teams] want to understand why you want to study a particular subject or major, as well as why you’re applying to that school, specifically,” she adds.

What Makes a Strong Personal Statement?

As Aroian emphasizes, the admissions team wants to know you researched the school. She also stresses that it is not a personal essay about who you are. 

“It is really about why you,” she says. “Why are you a good fit for this school, program, or major?”

Admissions officers can already see your grades and how you have performed in school. Your personal statement should highlight experiences and achievements that they can’t see in the rest of your application materials. 

How will those experiences and achievements help you when you attend this particular university? How will those experiences and achievements impact your course of study and future career goals? What do you value and how does that influence your education choices?

Your personal statement should:

  • Showcase your passion for the school. Why do you want to attend this school compared to others? Why do you want to pursue this major? Are you inspired by a particular faculty member at the school? Want to join a particular club?

  • Be authentic. It sounds obvious, but tell the truth. You should not sound like you spent too much time analyzing what you think admissions counselors want to hear. 

  • Have humility. Not only should you describe how a school and program can help propel you to the next phase of your career, but you also need to demonstrate the value you will bring to the classroom and the community. What will you be able to share with your classmates?

  • Maintain a clear focus. While it may be tempting to mention every achievement, remember that it should generally be about one page long. This is where editing comes in. Include only the details that support your main idea; delete anything that does not.

Personal Statement Examples

While looking at examples may offer inspiration, do not use them as a template for your own. Admissions officials want to see a unique statement, not an imitative version of someone else’s. 

Try writing several different versions so you can explore different focuses and find the one that feels strongest and most genuine to you. You may also try different tones of voice (for example, you may try a version that lets your humor shine through and another where you take a more professional approach). 

For example, maybe you are applying to a liberal arts school and want to gain theoretical learning and broaden your skill set for overall career growth. That statement of purpose would look very different from one tailored to a school that focuses on experiential learning in a particular area, such as business.

“Ultimately, your statement of purpose should demonstrate you have taken the time to look at programs, activities, and academics, and you have thoughtfully considered why you want to pursue those things,” says Aroian.

Your personal statement is a crucial part of your application. Even though it is typically a short piece of writing, it can be difficult to distill your message into a few words. Give yourself more time than you think you’ll need to write and refine it! 

Shorelight advisors can help you put together a strong US university application