Writing an effective personal statement for a Master’s or PhD application for a university abroad is probably one of the most important steps of your application process abroad. It represents both a chance for you to introduce yourself to the admission committee of the institution, but also to present your thesis or research goals you plan to achieve during your studies. Read key tips for understanding what a personal statement is and how to write one for your Master's or Ph.D.
What better way to get the creative juices flowing than an example of a successful personal statement, written by a student applying for a PhD in Literature at a university in the United States? Read carefully and think what you would include in your personal statement to convince the university you’ve got what it takes to successfully complete your degree and
become a prestigious alumna or alumnus.
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Personal Statement for a Ph.D. in Literature
In August 2015, I completed my graduate degree and thesis for the Research Master's in Comparative Literary Studies at [university name2]. As a student in the Research Master's (RMA) program, my scholarly concerns were mostly focused on critical theory, cultural studies, and social discourse, built into the wide-ranging, cross-cultural framework of Comparative Literature. In addition, the rigorous graduate curriculum in the RMA program placed a strong emphasis on individual research and intensive academic writing to prepare me for Ph.D-level studies. As a student, I find myself consistently engaged with the intersection of politics, literature, and critical theory.
I have always had an interest in projects that are interdisciplinary and which also foster a broad, social-political dialogue; I have published in Marxist theory, but I have also presented at conferences on neuroscience and on post-colonialism. While my interests are vast, I have always found literary studies to satisfy my intellectual curiosity and provide a meaningful methodological foundation. Therefore, it is from this theoretical perspective and challenging background as a scholar that I wish to pursue a Ph.D. in Literature at [university name], as it would be a privilege to participate in this critical discourse alongside the immensely distinguished Literature faculty.
Before beginning my graduate studies, I finished a Bachelor's degree in English from the [university name3]. I was fortunate enough as an undergraduate to have found exhilarating joy in academic research. Setting a goal to pursue a lifelong career as an academic allowed me to overcome weaknesses that were initially felt to be insurmountable, including low grades and test scores. Learning the strategies necessary for university study, though, while following a compelling curriculum enabled me to complete my degree, participate in interdisciplinary thesis research, and eventually continue on to graduate school. Relocating to the Netherlands for graduate school proved to be a worthwhile choice, as living abroad for the past few years has been a formative and enriching experience. Thinking globally about academic study and education more generally, while being amid a tumultuous political climate and refugee crisis has developed the way I continue to speak (and write) about cultural experience.
In 2015, I had my first refereed article, "Utopian Registers of the New Italian Epic," published in the peer-reviewed journal Incontri: Rivista Europa di Studi Italiani. After submitting it to this journal, the article underwent a strict external review process where I was able to refine my argument carefully before it was published in the 30th volume of Incontri.
The final six months of my degree were devoted to completing my RMA thesis, entitled "An Ethics of Belonging". For this project, I chose to continue my interest in examining ethics and literature, using several sources of migrant literature as my literary corpus. I framed my discussion within the context of 'belonging,' and considered the ethical complications with that concept. One of the interesting aspects of writing this thesis was the ability to place these ideas in the background of current events and political issues such as racism, police violence, and migrant experience. Adding an urgency to my thesis, I was able to further emphasize the stakes of literature, otherness, and belonging, while illustrating the efficacy of imagination, empathy, and representation in re-calibrating the ethical horizon.
It is with gratitude that I have always looked toward the esteemed Literature department at [university name] as a source of inspiration throughout my undergraduate and graduate education; and, the faculty at [university name] has always held my attention as giving invaluable contributions to literary and social discourse. It would, therefore, be an honor to pursue my Ph.D. in Literature at [university name]. And, given my own scholarly background and academic achievements, I believe I am an ideal candidate for this program.
Cover letters and personal statements
PhD applicants are often asked to include a covering letter or personal statement as part of the application process, however you will find they are less common for PhD applications than those for Masters courses.
If you are asked to write a cover letter, make it sure it is brief, and you include the following details:
- How it fits with your skills, experience and academic interests.
You do not need to try to answer your research question, just provide an outline of why you want this place, and what qualifications, skills and work experience make you so well suited to it.
The requirements for a personal statement are similar, but vary slightly in that it is more 'personal'.
How to write your PhD Personal Statement
If you are completing a PhD application, you may be required to write a personal statement.
As experts in this area, we've put together a guide to help you get started and complete a final draft for this important part of the application process.
Typically you will be allowed around 1 side of A4 to say why you think you should be accepted on to the course.
Sometimes you will just be asked to provide a statement that supports your application, though at other times you will be given more of a description of what to include.
For example, if you are applying for a PGCE course:
Describe briefly your reasons for wanting to teach giving the relevance of your previous education and experience, including teaching, visits to schools and work with other young people.
There will be times when you are not given any clear indication of what you should include in your statement, so we’ve written some guidelines to help you put together a well-structured statement.
Before starting to write your first draft of your personal statement, use the points below as a guide.
Try to put together a paragraph of 2 or 3 sentences for each question, as this will help you construct a good personal statement that focuses on what the reader is interested to find out.
- Why do you want to pursue a PhD?
- Why is this particular area of most interest to you?
- What previous academic and practical experience have you got that shows your interest in your chosen subject?
- What skills do you have that will help you make the transition between undergraduate and postgraduate study and make you succeed in the research area?
General guidelines for writing your statement
Do not use the same statement for each application – each one will require slightly different content depending on the university you are applying to and the department you are applying to.
Therefore it’s important to research each university and what’s involved in each project so you can see what is unique about each of your choices, and how they each stand apart from the others.
Don't underestimate how difficult it can be to write a good personal statement that will do you justice. Make sure you give yourself ample time to write it.
Use good vocabulary and grammar – using well-written sentences that flow easily will make your statement more fresh and dynamic compared to other applicants.
Do not use overly long sentences.
Try to keep the tone of your statement positive and enthusiastic. You also need to demonstrate you are able to make the points required in a concise manner, and make sure you adhere to the word limit.
When you've completed your final draft, make sure you use the spelling and grammar checker on your computer to correct any mistakes.
Your statement should be structured, with an introduction, main body and end. The aim of the introduction is to grab the reader’s attention and hold it so they remain interested and read to the end of your statement.
In the main body of the statement you should concentrate on relating your skills, knowledge and experience in the field and how this relates to the course you are applying for.
When you think your statement is as good as you can make it, ask a few friends or family members to take a look at it and see if they can suggest any improvements.
Print off a copy of each statement you write as what you have written will probably be referred to in your interview.
What should I include in my statement?
The following is a list of areas you could potentially cover in your statement:
Why you want to do this particular course/study this particular area of research – write down your reasons why you are interested in and enthusiastic about pursuing further study into the field.
Convey your motivation and mention any relevant projects, dissertations or essays that demonstrate your skills. Put down anything that shows creativity, responsibility and independence.
You should also mention any prizes or awards you have, plus any relevant travelling experiences or time spent studying abroad.
Why you want to study this particular subject – make it clear why you have chosen the subject – e.g. does the course place emphasis on a certain area of the subject, or offer specialist modules? When did you become interested in the field and what knowledge have you gained about it?
Why you have chosen to apply to this particular university – does the institution have special research facilities/equipment that appeal to you? Are there certain academic staff in the field you wish to work with?
Academic skills you have to offer – include IT skills, and knowledge of any appropriate research techniques.
Personal skills – e.g. ability to work as part of a team; communicate effectively with others; organisation and time management, etc. Give examples of how you have demonstrated each of these skills, as this shows that you have considered all your strengths and potential weaknesses.
Place emphasis on your strengths and show how you are a better candidate than any others.
Relevance of your undergraduate degree to the course – describe how any work you did as part of your degree relates to the course you are applying for, and what foundation in knowledge it has laid for further study.
Career aims – although you may not have a concrete idea of what career path you hope to follow after completing your PhD, you should at least have some ideas that you can put down for your statement.
For example, do you think you will want to continue working in academia, either in research or teaching? Or do you see yourself working in industry?
Having an idea of which direction you would like to go in will show more commitment to the course, and show that you are likely to get good results.
Try to make it unique - one way you can make your statement stand out is to relate a detailed example of something specific to your own experience, e.g. something that influenced your decision to pursue a particular undergraduate degree, or career path.
Remember that for each point you make in your statement, always provide an example to back it up.
E.g. if you are applying for a Masters in Biotechnology, saying you are a "good scientist" isn't enough - give examples of your previous laboratory experience, any projects you have completed and what technical skills you have learned.
It's important to remember that a personal statement is meant to be "personal".
There's nobody else who knows you and your experiences as well as you do, so you are the best person to write your personal statement in order to present yourself in the best possible light.
You may wish to ask yourself this question – could my personal statement apply equally to, say, my friend or my neighbour?
If the answer is "yes" then it is probably too general and you need to make it more specific and more personal.