Personal Statements For Graduate Programs


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Personal Statements for
Graduate Programs in the Humanities
Definition of Genre
The Personal Statement, or Statement of Purpose, is one of the most important components of an
application for graduate study in the humanities. With interviews rare and campus visits
expensive, this statement is your one chance to tell an admissions committee, in your own words,
how and why you have decided to pursue a graduate degree in a particular field and at a particular
Personal statements for humanities graduate programs differ from other types of admissions
essays in some very significant ways. An applicant to medical school with a high GPA, strong
test scores, and extensive research experience might try to present herself in her personal
statement as more than just a “science nerd”—as someone with important community ties, for
example, or strong leadership potential—in order to round out her application. For the
humanities, however, the content of your statement should primarily inform your readers about
your academic background, interests, and aspirations, rather than extracurricular and professional
experiences. This essay may be the first occasion where you’ve been asked to write seriously
about your own research. Your challenge is to do so in a way that sounds unique and professional
at the same time. You can’t simply turn your resume or CV into a prose narrative and call it a
The committee wants to know if you are interested in and able to conceive of and complete a long
yet incredibly in-depth and focused research project. Extracurricular activities don’t carry any
weight unless they directly speak to your ability to do research and teach in your field.
Humanities departments tend to be interested in seeing evidence of how you think and write,
rather than reading through a litany of papers you’ve written and courses you’ve taken. (All this
information should be available somewhere else on the application, after all.) Suffice it to say that
a personal statement for a humanities program is a sensitive and tricky genre to master. So, be
sure to take your time with it.
Questions to ask
You need to have rough answers to the following questions in your head before you begin
applying to any graduate program in the humanities, let alone start writing your personal
You may love literature/music/cultural theory/art history, etc., but—given the limited
number of academic jobs in this field and the amount of money and time further study
will require—why do you want to devote at least the next two, five, or eight years of your
life to this subject?
Your phone rings; it’s your dream graduate program. They’re offering you a full ride on
the spot; all you have to do is tell them—right now—what your research agenda looks


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