SoP vs Personal History Statement vs Diversity Statement

When filling out graduate school applications, you’re bound to come across several types of statements and essays. Some are optional, some are not. Prompts may be quite quirky, such as Duke Fuqua’s “25 Random Things” essay. Regardless of their quirkiness, statements play a huge role in the success of your application. Even for optional statements or essays, I would recommend attempting them, because I’ve seen some wonderful stories that the applicants would have otherwise never thought of mentioning.

Types of Graduate School Application Documents

Let’s look at a few of the most common statements in grad school applications, and my top 5 tips for crafting high-quality statements: 

What is a Statement of Purpose (SoP)

The Statement of Purpose is for you to express your motivations and reasons for wanting a postgraduate degree. You must highlight academic and professional qualifications and achievements, and career goals while clearly identifying why you are a great candidate for that postgraduate program.

The statement of purpose is also called a statement of motivation, a letter of intent, a letter of motivation, a background statement, or something along these lines. It is also called a personal statement, however, if the application asks for both a statement of purpose and a personal statement, they are different. In such a case, the personal statement would resemble a personal history statement, which I have described next. 

5 Tips on How to Write an Effective SoP

  1. Always refer to and follow the university’s or program’s guidelines (if given) for the SOP. This includes length/word count, points to address, formatting, etc.
  2. Never open with a childhood story or a quote. If discussing an incident or experience from your past, it should be in the recent past. The same applies to detailing your most significant academic or professional qualifications and accomplishments.
  3. You must dedicate at least 20% of your SOP to discussing your future, particularly your career plan or career goals, unless the application requires a separate career goals statement.
  4. Demonstrate your individual strengths by example. If you have multiple examples of a particular strength, focus on the most impactful one (but do not forget it has to be recent).
  5. Pay careful attention to the flow of ideas, paragraph transitions, and your SOP’s structure.

What is a Personal History Statement or Personal Statement?

A PHS or PS (if asked in addition to an SOP) is your opportunity to go deeper into your personality, descriptions of academic and/or professional experiences and accomplishments, and even personal, financial, familial, or other experiences that have shaped you. I would recommend writing in such a way that this statement supplements or complements your SOP, and not be completely disjunct. You can also describe your motivations and what led to your academic and/or career decisions. The PHS is also the place to discuss any challenges you have had to face and overcome in your journey. 

5 Tips to Craft a High-Quality Personal Statement

  1. Be relevant and succinct. Even if the word limit is 1500 words, try to discuss the most relevant experiences and be specific. Do not ramble or diverge from the key ideas just because you have room to write. 
  2. When describing a challenge, highlight the challenge as a fact and skip the background details (unless absolutely necessary). Focus more on your process of overcoming the challenge, and how you grew personally or professionally.
  3. It is crucial to demonstrate values, again, by example.
  4. Focus on the most important achievements, and ensure that your CV and recommendations validate these (if possible).
  5. Remember, the focus is on you. After every idea you pen down, ask yourself whether it is highlighting something about you or not.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity (DEI) Statements or Diversity Statements

These are far more commonly asked for as compared to a few years ago, as universities are becoming increasingly purposeful in their efforts to enhance and embrace DEI. A diversity statement is usually optional (that may change in the future). It is also the most confusing for international applicants, especially for those with a fairly common or privileged background. That’s because most misunderstand the diversity statement. 

A diversity statement is primarily about your contributions to DEI, how your work has helped embrace DEI in a community you have engaged with and demonstrating a commitment to continue and broaden such service. Read How to Write a Diversity Statement Essay for Grad School.

How to Write a Diversity Statement

  1. Be aware of disclosing your personal identity, especially relating to culture, ethnicity, and religion. Sometimes this may be Avoid indicating any biases towards a particular group.
  2. Lived experiences with marginalized or underrepresented communities, whether related to disability, gender and sexual expression, age, geographical factors, socioeconomic status or others are great examples to open with.
  3. Universities and schools/departments within universities often have different DEI commitments, visions, and values. Align your statement to these.
  4. Some of the best examples to demonstrate a commitment to enhancing DEI come from leadership, mentorship, teaching, and community service. Think about these when writing. 
  5. Identify how your experiences, values, and commitment to DEI will help build enduring bonds with those whose identities are different from yours.

Research Statements

Research statements are quite different from the previous types of statements, as they are meant to showcase your research abilities and achievements. These are most often asked in PhD (or equivalent) applications, and not so often in master’s degree applications. Research statements are typically longer, and applications provide a prompt with specifics about what the admissions committee wants to read. 

5 tips: 

  1. Usually, anything apart from your research experience, ideas, and goals is meaningless.
  2. You may cite relevant research, and discuss the papers or associations with other academics that inspired your research ideas.
  3. Presenting research ideas as questions you intend to focus on works well. 
  4. You should mention research accolades such as awards and grants. 
  5. Write about the real-world impact or key contributions to the field you anticipate your research will have.

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