Personal Statements

Importance of the Personal Statement

  • Makes a first impression.
  • Provides information about you, including your interests, talents, abilities, experiences, and goals.
  • Distinguishes you from the other applicants. Graduate school admission is very competitive, so your statement has to be perfect!

Questions to Answer In Your Statement

Some applications will ask you to address particular items in your statement. If this is the case, be sure to address EVERY item that they ask for. The faculty looking at your application do not have time for people who don't follow directions. If they just ask you for a personal statement and don't give you any further guidelines, your statement should address three main questions:

  • Why are you interested in their program?
  • What do you plan to do with your degree?
  • How will their program help you to achieve your goals?

What to Include

  • Demonstrate that you fit with their program. Know what kind of research the people do there (read their papers, visit their websites) and make sure your interests fit in (if they don't, then you shouldn't apply to that school!). Then focus on that fit. In graduate school, you will typically work specifically with one faculty member, so you need to show that your interests fit with some of the faculty there. It is different from your application to undergraduate school, where you were admitted to the school in general. It is very important to tailor your application to the program.
  • Discuss your professional experiences. What contributed to your interest in this program--e.g. internships, research with faculty, teaching assistantships, community activities, etc. Discuss specifically what you did in each of these roles (e.g. Did you present research at a conference? What was the title? What were your duties as a teaching assistant?)
  • Do NOT overemphasize your deep personal experiences. It's ok to mention these as motivating factors, but don't emphasize them as the main reason you are applying to graduate school. Although such struggles may be a reason you want to go to graduate school in a particular area, the faculty reviewing your application are more interested in people who really want to explore psychology, not people who are looking to work out their own personal issues. The faculty are scientists--they are interested in psychology for its own sake, and they look for students who are too.
  • Explain anomalies in your application materials. If there is a negative aspect to your application (e.g. low GRE score), briefly explain why, but don't dwell on it, and don't come over as if you are making excuses.

Writing Tips

  • Express yourself clearly. This is what scientific writing is like. The faculty would rather not have to teach you to write, so you must demonstrate that they won't need to. Make sure you check your spelling and grammar, and be sure to proofread it yourself many times.
  • Solicit feedback. Have many people read it over and give advice. This includes your advisor and/or other professors with whom you have had significant contact.
  • Be specific. Otherwise, it looks as though you haven't thought much about your decision.
  • Be focused. Get to the point and do not ramble, or else they'll just stop reading your statement. Remember that they have to read lots of statements.
  • Avoid cliches. Avoid vague statements like "I want to help people." This just shows that you haven't given enough deep thought to your plans.
  • Be concise. Say as much as you can using as few words as possible. If you are struggling to keep your statement to one page, really examine what you've written and see how you can reword things.
  • Say exactly what you mean. Don't be vague or hope that they will interpret things for you. They don't have time to try to figure it out.
  • Plan what you will write very carefully. Make a detailed outline before you write. Be organized, don't just start writing.
  • Keep your audience in mind. Remember that your audience consists of professors with Ph.D's. They teach and do research and may have clinical practices, depending on the program. They are professionals and expect you to be as well.

Technical Details

Follow every single direction that you are given on the application. If they want fewer than 1000 words, do not give them a 1050-word statement.

If they don't specify all of the details, here are some guidelines:

  • The statement should be no more than one page single-spaced.
  • Use 12-point font.
  • Never use fancy fonts or colors. Keep it simple. You need to stand out because of your abilities and potential, not because of colorful letters.

This information is adapted from John P. Forsyth & Edelgard Wulfert. (1999). Applying to doctoral training programs in clinical psychology: Writing an effective personal statement. The Behavior Therapist, 22, 113-115.

Questions, Comments, Suggestions?

If you would like more information about the psychology program at SUNY Plattsburgh, please contact

Department co-chairs
Dr. Katherine Dunham (katherine.dunham@plattsburgh.edu)
Dr. Michael Morales (michael.morales@plattsburgh.edu)

Department secretaries
Ms. Pam LeClair (leclaipl@plattsburgh.edu)
Ms. Donna Vanderhoff (vanderdm@plattsburgh.edu)

Phone: (518) 564-3076
Toll-free Phone: (800) 441-7215
Fax: (518) 564-3397