Let's Get Personal: Tips to Write Your Statement of Purpose

Photo:  AdobeStock

Photo: AdobeStock


I have found myself having more and more conversations about the concept of the Personal Statement. More conversations that I truly do not want to have; however, I get the fact that it is very daunting and damn near impossible. It is not because folks don’t know how to write; however, it’s because we have been brainwashed to believe 1) we should not brag about ourselves and 2) no one wants to hear a “sob” story.


Don’t think I am making a false claims. I want you to think back to the time you had to sit down and write a personal statement, what were some of your first thoughts to why it was difficult? I do not even have to know you to know that they went something like this: “I don’t want them to feel sorry for me. I don’t think I should write about that!” or “It is so weird talking about myself.” “Where should I start?” or the toughest of them all “Is that too personal?” If you tell me you didn’t think of any of these things I will call you a liar because you’re lying! We all have done this, hell you may be doing this right now because application season is right around the corner. And if I am going to totally transparent, I too am struggling with starting my own personal statement for my upcoming doctoral program applications.


As I sit back and look back over my life and the past two years, I have been living in Iowa while doing my master’s degree, I am faced with the fact that my personal statement could take many different directions and admittedly I want the admissions committee to know it all because I think it is all important. But I know that they won’t find everything about my story interesting—and even if they did find it interesting, the page limit wouldn’t allow me to flourish.


And then that thought of what is too personal to share? And then I remember what I wrote in my master’s program applications. And here is what I shared in the first paragraph (I know you are going to be blown away):


“I watched as the lady across the room removed her underwear and the man next to me was talking to himself—more like arguing with himself. Then the lady, who was formally across the room, made her way to me and began hitting me with her soiled underwear. This was the emergency psychiatric ward at the county hospital, the place I was taken involuntarily because my friends and family were deeply concerned about my well-being.”


What????!! I willingly told them I was a medically and emotionally unstable? Yes I did! Why? Because my end goal is to change mental health policy and what better way to convey that I am passionate about this then tell the admissions committee that I have witnessed first-hand the system that I wanted to change. It was risky, I know. I really do. And I wouldn’t advise everyone to speak their truths that loudly if they are not truly comfortable talking about it.


For me, speaking my truth allowed me to write an authentic and meaningful personal statement. Throughout this statement, I was able to convey that not only did I have the passion but I also had the commitment. And I had a lot to lose if I didn’t reach my goals, which meant I was going to do whatever it took.


With that being said, here are some pointers that I have been telling my students as they begin to prepare for their application process.


This ain’t your second CV

It is easy to start listing (again) all of the things that you have accomplished. All the things you learned in that one class that you really like. Or about that time that you spent volunteering that one time at the library and how you learned “so much” during that one 8-hour day. All of those things should already be on your resume/cv. We do not need to repeat them. I mean really, you are more than what you have done so talk about all the things that make you who you are that have nothing to do with accomplishments—I know that is hard to disconnect yourself from what you have done but you can at least try for 2-3 pages.


It’s not a “sob story” if it is the truth

Folks get scared to tell their story because they do not want to be viewed as telling a sob story. Or trying to gain sympathy or pity from the admissions committee. But, I found myself telling my students that if this story is a big part of who you are then it is worth telling. How can it be a sob story if it is the truth? If you lost a mother, brother, sister, etc. and that changed the trajectory of your career or made our passion for a certain thing even stronger, then talk about that. Do not shy away from the ugly truth just because you think some admissions committee isn’t going to like it. Do not enter into a program trying to making yourself smaller in anyway. The only critique I have of this is that if the story really is not relevant to the reason you are applying to said program, then don’t write about it.


Connect the dots

You should take the readers on a journey with you when they read it. Use this statement to connect where you have been and who are you with where you want to be and who you want to become. Programs want to know that you have a plan. They want to know that this also wasn’t something you thought of one night when you couldn’t sleep. They don’t want students who want to continue their education so they can continue to defer their loans or they just don’t want to enter “the real world” yet. They want students who have a story and have a purpose. So connect the dots and basically lead them to the answer of accepting you to their program.


I know these are only three tips regarding the personal statement. However, they are the tips that I have found myself constantly repeating with my students. And again, I get that the personal statement is a tough thing to sit down and write. So I hope these three easy tips can help you crack the code that will help you to get that pen moving.


About the Author

Joy Woods is a Master's Student at the University of Iowa who studies the sociology of sports and health communication within the education system. When she is not busy completing work for class she enjoys writing for her blog, running with her dog, and hunting down guests for her podcast.

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