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Applying for a PhD: How to write a Personal Statement

A personal statement is an important part of a PhD application package, which, also typically includes a research proposal, CV, transcripts and references.

Personal statement vis-à-vis statement of purpose

A personal statement is similar to an alternative popular application package item, the statement of purpose (SoP), in that they are both means of ‘selling’ yourself personally to your intended university. However, while an SoP is specific to the topic of the PhD, the personal statement is more about your personal suitability for the course of study or the institution, and not so specifically the topic of your research. (Learn more about the difference between the two documents here: Personal Statement vs. Statement of Purpose)

Things to NOTE before you write your personal statement

The personal statement usually varies in length depending on the targeted institution’s requirements, which may range from the average 400–500 up to 1000 words. There may also be quite specific prompts in terms of what to cover. Like any academic writing, you are going to be judged on:

  • Your writing
  • The way you structure the writing
  • Meeting all the requirements within the set limitations

Things to DO before you write your personal statement

  1. Begin by researching the institution you are interested in.
  2. Check what strengths the department has, what areas of research they cover and how it aligns with your interests.
  3. Consider how your career fits with the targeted institution.

Preparing to write your personal statement

First, revise your CV accordingly and start to group the relevant information that you wish to emphasise in the personal statement. The personal statement usually allows you freedom to identify your specific strengths.

Tip: Be careful not to exaggerate enthusiasm as this runs the risk of sounding false. 

Writing your personal statement

Decide on the most appropriate sequence of factors to bring in and include in your personal statement.

a. Start with something that will engage your audience

Your audience will be members of the PhD admissions committee of your targeted institution, but may be other admissions staff too. One way to hook your audience is to recount how you became so interested in your specific academic field. Ideally, draw on something authentic as this will ring true with your reader, rather than relying on something more formulaic which many other candidates might also allude to.

b. Think about how your interests coincide with your targeted department/institution and their strengths

Demonstrate – drawing on the CV but not repeating it – how your academic background fits with the chosen department/institution.

c. Showcase your engagement/involvement with community

What other extracurricular academic activities have you been engaged in that highlight your role as an active and involved community member? This could either an academic/university community, a professional community or even your local community. Engagement in such activities and any leading roles you have held are important qualities that will interest your audience.

d. Showcase extracurricular skills

You might also draw on other skills from other areas or activities that you are involved in, such as sport or the arts. These activities also show you to be a rounded personality whose forte encompasses healthy elements important for sustaining a long-term research project like the PhD.

e. Showcase skills beyond academia

What other skills have you developed outside of academia that might also be relevant? In both the CV and the personal statement, use verbs such as ‘lead’, ‘initiate’ and ‘collaborate, to express your skill in fulfilling academic activities as a team.

f. End with your intent

End by expressing how you are a highly suitable candidate and that you can also make a useful contribution to the organisation that you are aiming to form part of.

Reviewing your personal statement

Always have some other people run through your drafts, preferably people with experience of application packages. It is important that you view this section as part of a larger package that needs to be coherent. All parts should be reviewed together to make sure they are consistent throughout the application.

All the best for writing your personal statement and also for your PhD application!


Read previous (first) in series: Applying for a PhD: Personal Statement vs. Statement of Purpose

Read next (third/final) in series: Applying for a PhD: How to write a Statement of Purpose


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