Develop a Strong Personal Statement

For students, personal statements are one of the most difficult and most important documents they will ever write. We have the resources to boost your confidence and the know-how to help you write a powerful personal statement.

Daniel Salem, 2012 Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship winner

On this page:

Debunking the Personal Statement

What it is:

  • Your introduction to the selection committee. This is your story, written by you.
  • Think of it as an intellectual or vocational autobiography. It should describe your interests, skills, questions and goals. It should clearly portray continued interest in your field of research and desire to learn more.
  • A chance to demonstrate your ability to write and communicate effectively. A well-written personal statement with proper grammar and spelling, demonstrates your ability to write well, organize your thoughts and communicate clearly. Conversely, an unplanned, unpolished statement can unintentionally portray the writer as disinterested, unprofessional and careless.
  • It should articulate your preparedness. Your personal statement should clarify how your past experiences, readings, curricular activities and extra-curricular activities have prepared you for your field.

What it isn't:

  • A personal autobiography. A personal statement is not the time to write about your childhood, family or hobbies that are not relevant to your field or academic development.
  • A resume of accomplishments in essay form. Do not simply list information that is already available in your other supporting documents (e.g., resume, transcript). Rather, you should provide context as to why your past accomplishments and experiences are significant to your academic and professional development.
  • A plea for the scholarship. This is not the time to beg, plea or justify why you are more deserving of the scholarship than the other applicants. You are eligible for this scholarship for a reason. Focus on your accomplishments, not why your accomplishments make you better than others.

What to Include in Your Personal Statement

Professor Stacy Hubbard from UB's department of English breaks down what you should include in your personal statement.

  • Origins of interest in a particular field. This could be a book you read, a lecture you attended or an experience you had.
  • Ways in which you have developed your interest. Additional reading, experiments, internships, coursework, summer jobs, science fairs, travel experiences, writing projects, etc. Give some details about what you gained from a particular course or how a particular project or paper has helped you to develop intellectually.
  • Reasons for changes in your interests and goals. These chances could be addressed in positive, rather than negative, terms. Instead of saying "I became bored with engineering and switched to physics," try "Through a bridge-design project, I discovered a new interest in thermodynamics and decided to focus my studies on physics."
  • Reasons for inconsistencies in your record. If there is anything unusual or problematic in your record (poor grades, several school transfers, time away from school, etc.) this information needs to be explained in as positive a way, as possible. If you were immature and screwed up, then you matured and shaped up, say so and point to the proof (improved grades, a stellar recent employment record, etc.). Remember, failure of one kind or another, if you learn from it, is good preparation for future success.
  • Special skills you have developed, relevant to the planned research. This could be general knowledge of a field acquired through reading and study or special practical skills (data analysis, fossil preservation, interviewing techniques, writing skills, etc.) that will qualify you to conduct a particular type of research. Be specific about how you acquired these skills and at what level you possess them.
  • Character traits, talents or extra-curricular activities outside the field that help to qualify you. If you are particularly tenacious about overcoming obstacles, creative at problem-solving, adaptable to unfamiliar circumstances or just great at organizing teams of people, these qualities can be mentioned as relevant to the research experience. Sometimes the evidence for these traits may be other than academic; Have you have overcome a disability or disadvantage of some kind in your life? Have you persisted in a particularly challenging task? Have lived in different parts of the world and adapted to difference cultures? Have you organized teams of volunteers in the community? Make clear what traits have been developed by these experiences and how these will help you in the research experience. Acknowledge your strengths, but do so humbly.
  • Knowledge and/or skills that you hope to acquire through participation in this opportunity. What is particularly intriguing to you about this opportunity? How will it help you to acquire new skills or carry forward your own research questions?
  • Emerging and ongoing questions. What kinds of unsolved puzzles, problems or potential research paths are of interest to you? Which of these have you explored in school or extra-curricular projects? What sorts of projects do you hope to pursue in the future?
  • Future plans and goals. Do you plan to go to graduate or professional school and in what field? What are your post-graduation goals and why? How would this research opportunity help you to achieve those goals?

The Do's and Don'ts

Do:

  • Adhere to the rules. Note the proper page layout, format and length, and adhere to it.
  • Use proper spelling and grammar. An easy way to have your application overlooked is to submit it with spelling and grammatical errors. Use spell-checkers, proof-read and let others review your application, before you submit it.
  • Show your audience, don't tell them. It's easy to say "I am a leader," but without concrete examples, your claim isn't valid. Give an example of why you believe you are a leader.

Don't

  • Don't try to tell them everything. You can't cram your entire life into one personal statement. Choose a few key points to talk about and let your other application materials (resume, letter(s) of recommendation, application, interview, etc.) tell the rest of your story.
  • Don't use clichés. Things like "since I was a child" or "the world we live in today" are commonly found in personal statements and don't add any value.
  • Don't lie or make things up. Tell the truth. This is not the time to fabricate or inflate your accomplishments. Don't try to guess what the committee is looking for and write what you think they want to hear. Invite them in to get to know the real you.
The Bottom Line

At the end of your personal statement, you want people to think "I'd like to meet this person." That is your end-goal.

Additional Resources