Personal Statement vs. Statement of Purpose: Key Differences

Person writing a personal statement
April 15, 2024
9 min read
Expert Reviewed


Reviewed by:

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 4/15/24

What is the difference between a personal statement vs statement of purpose? Keep reading as we differentiate between the different types of statements you might have to write for your application. 

Scholars wanting to take the next step in their academic career and apply to grad school will most likely have to write personal statements and statements of purpose in the application process. 

The big question is: what is the difference between a personal statement vs a statement of interest? Is a statement of purpose the same as a personal statement? Which one should you submit? 

To best stand out on applications and impress admissions officers, understanding the expectations of each statement is key. 

If you’re getting your grad school applications together and are unsure of which statement to write or the differences between the two, we’ve got you covered! 

Keep reading as we outline the differences between the two statements and answer some of your frequently asked questions. 

What is The Difference Between a Personal Statement and a Statement of Purpose?

A personal statement and a statement of purpose serve distinct purposes in the admissions process. 

The personal statement is typically a concise one-page document where you reflect on your academic journey and personal growth. It's an opportunity to share how your experiences have shaped your character and influenced your decision to pursue further education.

In contrast, the statement of purpose is a longer, more detailed document that focuses on your qualifications, motivations, and aspirations related to the specific program or field of study you're applying to.

Personal Statement Statement of Purpose
Purpose: Explain why you are the right candidate for the program you are applying to Purpose: Explain why you are applying to the program, including how the program reflects your goals and motivations.
Focus: Explain how you’ve grown as an individual. You should describe how your academic achievements and experiences have shaped you into the person you are today. Focus: Highlight your interests, credentials, and qualifications for said program/area of study.
Tone: Reflective on your own interests and academic experiences and how your experiences and challenges have impacted your academic career and yourself as a person. Tone: Self-assured in your achievements, abilities, and skills. Confident that you are more than capable of succeeding in the program.
Length: Usually one page. Length: Usually two to three pages.
Objective: Sharing who you are with the reader. Objective: Sharing why you would be an asset to the school and the program.
Content: Genuine and inspirational. Content: Motivational and professional.

Ultimately, both statements have similar goals. They both require the applicant to demonstrate why they are a great candidate for the chosen program and institute and why they should be accepted into the program. 

Personal Statement vs. Statement of Purpose: Which One To Write?

First and foremost, ensure that you read the instructions on the school’s webpage! The webpage will clearly list and define what each school is asking for. Look at the program’s FAQ page for more information as well. 

Some schools will clearly define which type of statement they require hopeful students to submit. Some schools, however, ask for a mix of the two. 

For example, the University of Notre Dame’s MFA in Creative Writing program asks applicants to write a statement of intent that describes both personal goals and motivations for applying to the program. Make sure you know exactly what the program is asking for before you begin writing. 

If you need to make the call on which statement to submit on your own, there are a few things you should consider. One thing to keep in mind is the program you are applying to. 

Typically, research-based programs will be looking for more professional essays. In this case, submitting a statement of purpose may be the better choice.

If you are applying to a creative writing program or a grad program in the humanities, writing a personal statement may be more fitting. Typically, humanities programs want to know more about you as a person and how your experiences have shaped you into the person you are now. 

Humanities programs, like English or Gender Studies, want to see that students can be reflective, as the research topics pursued in these programs often require self-reflection and critical thought. In cases like this, you should write a personal statement as it often provides more insight into who you are. 

Tips on How to Write a Personal Statement

Your personal statement is a necessary element of many college applications. It may seem like a daunting task, but here are some tips to help you tackle it: 

  • Start with a hook: If you want your personal statement to stand out from the rest, you’ll need to start with a bang. Consider using a descriptive or action-packed hook to grab your reader’s attention right off the bat and keep them reading. 
  • Stay away from clichés: Admissions officers have to read tens of thousands of personal statements; they hear the same things over and over again. It’s okay to talk about an experience that may be considered cliché, but make it your own. Include details that are unique to your personal story. 
  • Use engaging language: Your personal statement should draw the reader in. Paint a picture with your words. Use sensory language and descriptive details to convey your emotions and experiences. If you’d like, you can take a look at some personal statement examples to give you inspiration. 

Some other details to include in your personal statement include but are not necessarily limited to the following:

  • Personal information 
  • Specific courses that changed your perspective or inspired you 
  • Your passions 
  • Your hobbies and extracurricular activities

Remember to stay focused while writing. Your personal statement should answer the question, “What do I want the college admissions team to know about me?” Don’t get off-track and make your statement any longer than it needs to be

If you’re still overwhelmed by this task, there’s nothing wrong with seeking help. You can get expert help with personal statements to make your application stand out from the crowd!

Tips on How to Write a Statement of Purpose

Your statement of purpose, while similar, should be more direct than your personal statement. As you write, remember that you’re trying to answer the question, “What do I intend to do with this degree?” 

  • Provide specific examples: Show, don’t tell. You can make many claims about your skills or abilities, but you need to back up these claims with specific evidence. UC Berkeley advises students to use examples for everything - “don’t say directly that you’re a persistent person, show it.”
  • Demonstrate your knowledge of the school: Be specific about why you want to attend this particular school. This shows passion and a sense of direction and motivation. Avoid writing a generic, lackluster statement of purpose to reuse for multiple schools. Instead, include certain classes or professors that intrigue you. 
  • Look toward the future: Make sure to end your statement of purpose with a glimpse into your future at the school and beyond. How will attending this particular school and program help you to make strides in your career and the world around you? 

Some other achievements to highlight in your statement of purpose include:

Of course, having good grammar and spelling applies to both statements. Make sure that your work is error-free by proofreading multiple times and asking friends or family members to read it over for you. 

FAQs: Personal Statement Vs. Statement Of Purpose

Now that we’ve answered “is a statement of purpose the same as a personal statement?”, let’s move on to answering some of your other frequently asked questions about personal statements vs statements of purpose. 

1. What is the Difference Between a Personal Statement and SOP?

Simply put, a personal statement should include your motivations and interests–speaking more to who you are as a person. Meanwhile, a statement of purpose focuses more on why you want to study in the program you’re applying to and your academic abilities. 

While writing a statement of purpose, make sure to write what the admissions committee wants to hear. Writing a persuasive statement of purpose can help your college application stand out amongst your competition.

2. Can I Submit a Statement of Purpose as a Personal Statement?

As the two statements differ a lot from each other, it won’t be the best idea to submit your statement of purpose as a personal statement. You can, however, tweak your SOP a bit to make it fit into the criteria of a personal statement. 

Your statement of purpose should outline your academic achievements and credentials. You can change up the wording and alter the content a bit to take a more personal approach for a personal statement. 

In showing off your academic prowess and attention to detail, you should pay close attention to how you’re writing your statement. College admission committees will notice if your statement is vague or does not follow what they asked for. 

While it may be time-consuming to write multiple statements (if you are applying for various programs), it is in your best interest to take the time and write a specific statement for each program. 

Don’t cut corners for your college applications.  

3. Is a Personal Statement the Same as a Statement of Purpose?

A personal statement is not the same as a statement of purpose. As we have discussed throughout the article, the two take different tones and have different objectives. 

A personal statement is more of a storytelling piece that reveals how you got to where you are today. It can be less formal and a bit more poetic and intimate than a statement of purpose. 

You can be a bit more creative with your personal statement as well! Try starting it off with a relevant quote or a clever opening line to engage your audience right away. 

A statement of purpose is more traditionally academic in its tone and structure. A statement of purpose should be more formal and focused on your credentials and accomplishments compared to a personal statement.

Final Thoughts

College admissions are no joke. Even if you are a strong applicant, there will also be tons of other applicants that have all the qualifications. Understanding the difference between a personal statement and a statement of purpose is crucial to standing out amongst thousands of other college applicants

If you are applying to a research-based program, a statement of purpose will probably fit the requirements more. If you are applying to a humanities program, something more personal and less formal, like a personal statement, would be more fitting. 

Use your own judgment to decide whether a personal statement or a statement of purpose would be most appropriate for the program. 

Best of luck!

Access 55+ free personal statement examples

Access 55+ free personal statement examples


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