Writing a Personal Statement for Grad School Applications

At the end of October, I attended a virtual personal statement workshop hosted by University of Waterloo’s Psychology Department Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Working Group. I went into the workshop not knowing what a personal statement was, much less how to write a successful one or even where to start. But by the end of it, I had a clear idea of the steps I needed to take to write one for my future graduate school applications. Through this post, I hope to share what I learn to those who also may benefit from it.

The workshop was led by two presenters: Abigail Scholer, a social psychology faculty member, and Sarah English, a first year PhD social psychology candidate and MD. Both presenters were very enthusiastic about providing us undergraduate students the information we needed to enhance our success at the graduate school application process.

From attending this personal statement workshop, I learned a) tips on getting the writing processes started and b) specifics on what to include in my personal statement. Personally, I find that with any major task, especially ones that can seem as daunting as this, getting started is often the hardest part. Professor Scholer and Sarah first highlighted that its beneficial to start off with brain storming and creating an outline to help you organize your thoughts to get started. This can consist of figuring out what skills and experiences are the most relevant to your application and then putting together concise statements regarding those skills and experiences that you want to highlight. When you do start putting together your personal statement, these preliminary steps will help you stay focused on the important bits and give you a roadmap to follow.

As for specifics on what to include in your personal statement, Professor Scholer and Sarah recommend providing specific examples highlighting your research experiences and interests. Examples should help illustrate your research process and thinking skills and abilities. The content of your examples could be regarding your honours thesis project or even relevant work/volunteer experiences that showcase how you are an asset to the program of interest.

The presenters also recommended including a section on why you are the right fit for the program or the particular faculty member that you are interested in working with. This may require you to do some background research regarding the program or faculty member’s research. Different levels of specificity may also be required depending on the school’s expectations, so it is important to read the instructions on the application expectations. The presenters emphasized that you will have multiple drafts of your statement and that the first one does not need to be perfect! You may even have to create different versions of your statement for different programs, although in this case it is helpful to have one standard draft that you can then customize towards a specific program.

In the end, get feedback from people you know! This may be from a professor or lab members that you are connected with but having your trusted friends or family members read over your statement can be just as helpful as well.

Future events hosted by the EDI Working Group are posted about on their website. While this workshop focused on applying to graduate school in psychology, I believe the steps and tips discussed are generalizable to other programs as well.