Portland State University Admissions Essay Samples

Graduate and professional schools often require a written statement -- often called a "statement of purpose," "personal statement," or "letter of intent"-- as a part of the application. Some statements require specific information such as the applicant's intended area of study within a graduate field. Others can be quite unstructured, letting applicant address a wide range of matters. The importance of the statement varies from school to school and from field to field.

Determine your purpose in writing the statement

Usually the purpose is to persuade the admissions committee that you are an applicant who should be chosen. Whatever its purpose, the content must be presented in a manner that will give coherence to the whole statement.

Pay attention to the purpose throughout the statement so that extraneous material is left out. Pay attention to the audience (committee). The audience is professionals in their field, and you are not going to tell them how they should act or what they should be. You are the amateur.

Determine the content of your statement

Be sure to answer the questions fully. Usually graduate schools are interested in the following, although the form of the question(s) may vary:

  • Your purpose in graduate study. Think this through before you try to answer the question.
  • The area of study in which you wish to specialize. Learn about the field in detail so that you are able to state your preferences using the language of the field.
  • Your intended future use of your graduate study. Include your career goals and plans for the future.
  • Your unique preparation and fitness for study in the field. Correlate your academic background with your extracurricular experience to show how they unite to make you a special candidate.
  • Any problems or inconsistencies in your records or scores, such as a bad semester. Explain in a positive manner. Since this is a rebuttal argument, it should be followed by a positive statement of your abilities. In some instances, it may be appropriate to discuss this outside of the personal statement.
  • Any special conditions not revealed elsewhere in the application, such as a significant (38 hour per week) workload outside of school. This, too, should be followed with a positive statement about yourself and your future.
  • You may be asked, "Why do you wish to attend this school?" Research the school and describe its special appeal to you.
  • Above all, this statement should contain information about you as a person. They know nothing about you unless you tell them. You are the subject of the statement.

Determine your approach and style of the statement

There is no such thing as "the perfect way to write a statement." There is only the one that best fits you.


  • Be objective, yet self-revelatory. Write directly and in a straightforward manner that tells about your experience and what it means to you. Do not use "academese." 
  • Form conclusions that explain the value and meaning of your experience, such as what you learned about yourself and your field and your future goals. Draw your conclusions from the evidence your life provides.
  • Be specific. Document your conclusions with specific instances. See below a list of words and phrases to avoid using without explanation.
  • Get to the point early on and catch the attention of the reader.
  • Limit its length to two pages or less. In some instances, it may be longer, depending on the school's instructions.


  • Use the "what I did with my life" approach.
  • Use the "I've always wanted to be a _____" approach.
  • Use a catalog of achievements. This is only a list of what you have done, and tells nothing about you as a person.
  • Lecture the reader. For example, you should not write a statement such as "Communication skills are important in this field." Any graduate admissions committee member knows that.

Words and phrases to avoid without explanation

significantenjoyable/enjoymeant a lot to meI like helping people
interestingfeel goodstimulatingremarkable
challengingappealing to meincrediblerewarding
satisfying/satisfactionappealing aspectgratifyinguseful
appreciateI like itfascinatingvaluable
invaluableit's importantmeaningfulhelpful
exciting/excitedI can contributehelping people

Where to go for help

  • If you need some help figuring out what to write, make an appointment with a career counselor to come up with a plan. 
  • Once you have a draft, show it to faculty, letter of recommendation writers, family, etc. The best people to review your statement are those who know you well and have excellent writing skills. 
  • The Writing Center can advise you on writing technique and provide individual tutoring. 
  • Writing Personal Statements Online is a helpful resource that includes essay samples, critiques, and writing tips. 
  • Purdue Online Writing Lab has excellent questions for your first draft. 
  • Anne Lamont, Shitty First Drafts
  • Review this presentation by Dr. Erik Sanchez from Physics Dept., PSU

Adopted from University of California, Berkley website

Most graduate schools require a personal statement as a part of the application. This statement is often centered around your interests in psychology, your personal background, the reasons you are applying to a particular graduate program, and your career and personal objectives. Plan and produce your personal statement as carefully as you would a crucial term paper. The following tips will help you produce an effective personal statement.

1. Before you begin your statement for each school, read as much as possible about their program so that you can tailor your statement to the program and convince the admissions committee that you will fit well there. Many applicants will write, for example, that they want to attend the counseling psychology program at University X because they want to learn how to counsel emotionally handicapped children--even though the program specifies in its brochure that it does not provide training for work with young children. Any selection committee immediately rejects such candidates.

2. Prepare an outline of the topics you want to cover (e.g., professional objectives and personal background) and list supporting material under each main topic. Write a rough draft in which you transform your outline into prose. Set it aside and read it a week later. If it still sounds good, go to the next stage. If not, rewrite it until it sounds right.

3. Check your grammar, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization carefully. Nothing detracts from the content of a statement more than these types of errors. Avoid slang words that make you sound uneducated, and overly elaborate words or stilted language that will make you appear pompous or pretentious.

4. Ask two of your instructors to read your first rough draft and make suggestions. Incorporate these suggestions into your second draft. Ask for another reading and set of suggestions, and then prepare your final statement.

5. Your final statement should be as brief as possible--two double-spaced pages are sufficient. Stick to the points requested by each program, and avoid lengthy personal or philosophical discussions.

6. Do not feel bad if you do not have a great deal of experience in psychology to write

about; no one who is about to graduate from college does! Do explain your relevant experiences (e.g., field studies or research projects), but do not try to turn them into events of cosmic proportion. Be honest, sincere, and objective--that is the only way to impress the evaluators that you are a person who is already taking a mature approach to life.

Adapted from Appleby, D. C. (1990). Handbook of Marian College Psychology Department. Indianapolis, IN: Author and Fretz, B.R., & Stang, D. J. (1980). Preparing for graduate study in psychology: NOT for seniors only! Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Lloyd, M. A. (1997, August 28). Applying to graduate school: Preparing a personal statement. [Online]. Available: http://www.psywww.com/careers/perstmt.htm.


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