What’s the Difference Between Statement of Purpose vs. Personal Statement?

A student with her brow furrowed in thought

Now that you’re working on your grad school admissions, you might be wondering what the difference between a statement of purpose and a personal statement is. Before we dive into nitty gritty differences between the two, here’s an overview of the main purpose of each essay:

  1. In the Statement of Purpose you will focus on telling the grad school what you want to do in the program and why this school is the best fit for you.
  2. In the Personal Statement, you will focus on telling the story of who you are, and why you want to pursue graduate study.

The Statement of Purpose and Personal Statement are your chance to tell an admissions committee your story and often the most important part of your application. Knowing the difference between these two forms of writing is the first step to wowing your prospective grad schools!

What’s the Difference Between a Statement of Purpose and a Personal Statement?

Your very first step should be to carefully read the prompt and instructions provided by each school you are applying to. These directions will help establish a roadmap for your Statement of Purpose (often referred to as an SOP) or Personal Statement.

The two types of essays share some common elements, but have different areas of emphasis. Both documents should answer three key questions:

Why do you want to go to grad school?

What do you want to do in grad school?

Why do you want to go to this particular school?

What’s different between the Personal Statement and Statement of Purpose is how much you focus on each of the above questions!

In the Statement of Purpose you will spend most of your time answering the question of what you want to do in grad school. You will focus on the type of research you want to do and the academic questions that you want to explore.

When you write a Personal Statement you will spend most of your time answering the question of why you want to go to grad school. You will be telling your story of what led you to apply and where you want your career to go after grad school. In both pieces of writing you will answer the question of why you and this graduate program are the perfect fit!

Here’s a quick overview of the key features of these two forms of writing:

Key Feature Statement of Purpose Personal Statement
Statement’s Content Provide your academic and professional background.

Focus on what you want to research in detail

Show why you’re a good fit for the program and school.

Tell the story of what led you to apply

Give a quick overview of what inspired you to pursue your field of interest.

Share relevant experiences, challenges you’ve overcome, and your accomplishments.

Formal or Informal More formal Less formal
Average Length 2-3 pages 1-2 pages

Statement of Purpose

Just by looking at the table, you can see that the statement of purpose is a more formal statement that you write to highlight why you’re applying for that specific program. In a statement of purpose, state what you’re trying to pursue through your desired program, and highlight why you’re a good fit.

Your statement of purpose should be written in a formal tone, so keep this in mind while writing your draft. Include a quick overview of your educational and professional trajectory as well as past influences that have directed you towards your current path.

Personal Statement

When writing a personal statement, establish why you’re applying for the program through your personal experiences and other aspects that motivated you to choose your program. Since writing a personal statement doesn’t require as formal of a tone, you can use your creativity to highlight what makes you an amazing fit for the program.

Write about your personal experiences, qualities, passion, and skill sets that you possess that will help you stand out from the rest of the applicants for your chosen program. Be specific and share examples of work you’ve done in the field and what’s drawn you to it.

Statement of Purpose vs Personal Statement: When Do You Write One?

The quick answer to that question is: it depends on what your program or chosen grad school requires. There are instances when a university requires a statement of purpose or a personal statement or even both.

To know which one to write, review your application requirements and take note of the type of statement the admissions program is asking from you. If you’re unsure as to which type you should be writing, check out the FAQs section of your chosen grad school’s program to see if they have specified the type of statement you need to write.

Summing It All Up

Now that we’ve established the difference between a statement of purpose vs personal statement, it’s time to wrap up our discussion. When preparing for your grad school admissions, check for any required essays and determine the type of statement they’re requiring from you.

For each type of essay, highlight what makes you unique and a great fit for your chosen program. Write a quick draft first highlighting your achievements and milestones using the tone expected from each type of statement. Allow enough time before reviewing your draft and editing it for its final form.

After completing your statement of purpose or personal statement, double-check your other requirements before submitting them to the grad school admissions team. The right grad school for you is the one that aligns with your values from your personal statement and the one where you’ll get to showcase the skillsets you’ve highlighted on your statement of purpose.


  • Shar Gayangos

    Shar loves helping students prepare for their upcoming aptitude exams including the SAT, ACT, GMAT, and GRE. She has also been helping students understand and appreciate math as a tutor and has also helped mathletes prepare for their upcoming competitions as a math coach in the past. She now focuses her time to help EdTech companies and educational websites with their educational content and resources and has been doing so for five years now. Through these articles, she's helped students feel confident and prepared before upcoming exams. In her free time, she enjoys creating free math graphics, participating in online communities seeking help with their math prep and lessons, and offering pro-bono assistance for students within her community. Connect with Shar through LinkedIn or read about her work on Rubik's cube.

  • Jen has tutored and helped create and teach Admissions classes at Magoosh for the past four years. She is an alum of UCLA and a PhD Candidate in History at Emory University.

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