PhD Admissions: Statement of Purpose vs. Personal Statement

The statement of purpose (SOP) is probably the most important part of your application. It is where you get the chance to discuss how your past research experience has influenced what you want to study in grad school and why the specific program you are writing about can help you reach your personal and professional goals. Here are some of my tips for writing an effective SOP:

  • PRO TIP #1: Make sure to tailor each SOP for the programs that you are interested in applying to. Pay close attention to what each program is asking for and address each point. You can start the writing process by creating a template that contains all of the details that you want to be included in your SOP and tweak it accordingly. Don’t write a new essay for each program unless you absolutely have to!
  • PRO TIP #2: It’s okay to use a “hook” or anecdote in the introduction of your statement! If you do this, make sure that what you are talking about is relevant. I know some people feel that it’s unnecessary and you should just get straight to the point, which is fine. If this is more of your style, do what works best for you. However, admissions committees often look at hundreds of applications and you want yours to stand out. I included an anecdote in mine and it seemed to be received very well.
  • PRO TIP #3: Avoid using words like “passionate” when writing your SOP. Let your passion for your field shine through without having to explicitly say it. This was told to me by one of my letter writers and I think it was solid advice.
  • PRO TIP #4: STICK TO THE WORD/PAGE/CHARACTER LIMIT! For all of you long-winded writers (like me), you don’t want to give the impression that you can’t follow directions by writing too much.
  • PRO TIP #5: Once you finish writing a draft of your SOP, be sure to turn on the “text to speech” feature on Microsoft Word (or whatever software you choose to use) so that it can be read aloud to you. I did this and it helped tremendously. Also, PROOFREAD, PROOFREAD, PROOFREAD!
  • PRO TIP #6: Stay organized! What I did when getting my SOPs and personal statements together was that I created a table using Microsoft OneNote with information such as the name of the institution, SOP prompt, personal statement/personal history prompt, and writing sample prompt. Although I will not have a separate post about writing samples, normally what admissions committees look for is an honor’s thesis or a longer essay that you wrote in one of your classes. Most of the programs that I applied to didn’t ask for one, but it’s still something to keep in mind.
  • PRO TIP #7: Have multiple people that you know read your SOP and give you feedback! Share it with anyone who is willing to look at it such as your friends, letter writers, and grad students that you know. Remember that you do NOT have to implement all of their comments; just choose the ones that you feel are most useful!
  • PRO TIP #8: You can use your SOP to talk about “negative” spots in your application (e.g., a low GPA), but try to frame it in a way that shows how you got through this hurdle. If you don’t want to talk about this in your SOP, you can ask your letter writers to address it for you.

I also wanted to talk about the differences between a statement of purpose and a personal statement. I’ve seen this question come up a lot across various grad school forums that I frequent. Unlike a statement of purpose, a personal statement is where prospective applicants get the opportunity to discuss their personal reasons for wanting to attend grad school. Here, you can talk about challenges that you have faced and what you have overcome to get to where you are. Weave your personal narrative into this essay and be proud of it! I talked about my first-gen/URM status and how that lead me to want to help other students like me through my research and future career. Although not all programs ask for a personal statement, here are my main tips for writing one:

  • PRO TIP #1: Even though this essay is called a “personal” statement, don’t get overly personal. You can talk about your life story, but refrain from mentioning aspects that could unfortunately be seen as a “kiss of death” (e.g., bouts with mental illness). I hope there comes a time when we can be free to talk about anything that makes us who we are even if it’s not the prettiest, but for now, play it safe.
  • PRO TIP #2: Although it depends on the prompt, some things that you can mention about yourself in your personal statement includes:
    • Being a first-gen grad student
    • Your cultural background (e.g., race/ethnicity, immigrant status, etc.)
    • Being a non-traditional student (e.g., being a mom that went back to get her PhD after raising children)
    • Being a low-income student

NOTE: I realize that I didn’t talk about diversity statements in this post. The reason why I decided not to is because in my experience, diversity statements are quite similar to personal statements, so the same tips apply.

I also wanted to share my statements as well as some other resources:

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