Things to Avoid in a Personal Statement – Part 5 of 5

No doubt about it – when writing a personal statement for a grad-school application, there are a lot of choices to make when deciding what to include. Many positive elements must be there for the statement to make a good impression, and some of those elements or features were discussed in a recent posting. Here, I want to give a bit of advice on the kinds of things that one should avoid in a personal statement, at all costs.

First of all, do not try to guess what the admissions committee is looking for in a personal statement. There is no particular response that they are looking for, and it is always obvious when a student is trying to guess at what is expected. This will undoubtedly make an applicant appear naïve, uncertain, or immature – and such an impression will typically spoil an entire application.

In most cases, it is a mistake to refer to academic achievements or other accomplishments prior to college. To mention the fact that you obtained an A+ in every high school class while you were also captain of the basketball and football teams would create the impression (probably accurate) that you do not know the difference between relevant and irrelevant information. Participation in varsity sports as an undergraduate will seldom be of any relevance.

A common mistake is to be effusive about the passion one has for a particular field of study. No one other than you really cares about your intrinsic interest in the field, so long as you have enough motivation to succeed in the program. The admissions committee should be able to infer from your letters of recommendation whether or not you are motivated enough.

Do not include boring platitudes or generic statements, and discuss frankly any significant weakness that needs to be addressed, such a poor grade or test score. Do not offer weak excuses, as they usually backfire and cause damage to the impression one makes on others. Do not exaggerate your previous accomplishments.

So you don’t risk offending anyone, avoid discussing anything in your personal statement that may be considered to be controversial. Avoid politics or anything that would reveal your own political biases. The same goes for religious views; they do not belong in a personal statement.


  1. Hello Sir, I have a question regarding your post. I attended university for the first time when I was 30, therefore, I had an entire career prior to finishing my degree. I am wondering if the achievements from this time period are to be mentioned in my personal statement. I realize that my situation is not the norm and I am looking to get your thoughts on this. Thank you.


    1. Thank-you for the question. I think you should mention those past achievements, but how you do so depends on how relevant they are to explaining your motivation for deciding to go to university, and/or your preparedness for graduate school. At the very least, I would suggest you include a sentence or two to indicate that you did have this previous career, even if it is not very much related to what you are studying now. Many university professors actually prefer to supervise graduate students who are a bit older and who have significant life and work experience compared to the less-experienced 20-somethings who are still living with their parents. A potential graduate supervisor and the members of a graduate admissions committee will be looking at your personal statement to get a picture of who you are and why you want to go to graduate school, and why this particular program. If you had any specific experiences or life developments during your previous career that helped you decide to go to university and study whatever you are studying, then you should mention those things and how they influenced you.


      1. Thank you for the reply, Dr. Mumby. Although I do not see my age as a hindrance for being accepted to a graduate school, I certainly want to approach it in a tactful manner. Your blog is a great resource for students.


  2. there are exceptions to the rule of politics and religion. If you are applying to a city planning program although you may not mention a particular viewpoint you may mention a work or volunteer experience because it may be relevant. Religious organizations are non profits so you have experience working with non profits. Same would be true of a politically related experience . I don’t understand why people are so prejudiced against talking about 2/3 of what shapes our lives. You cannot hide your affiliations all the time certain jobs or experiences will reveal them.


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