When Personal Statement Instructions Differ


A student who is applying for admission to PhD programs in philosophy has noticed that at some universities, what the university’s graduate school asks applicants to include in their personal statements differs from what the same university’s philosophy department asks applicants to include.

He asks:

When one submits a personal statement/statement of purpose, does one include in it those things that both the individual program and the graduate school require? 

It might seem that one should err on the side of inclusion, but doing so may make the statement worse by diluting its message or making it seem overstuffed or rushed. That’s especially so for statements sent to departments or schools that put word limits on them.

Here’s an example the student provided from a school to which he is applying:

The Philosophy Department asks for a statement of purposes that merely consists in “a statement of your academic goals and interests.” However, the Graduate School says that the writing statement should include (i) information about the candidate that cannot be expressed quantitatively; (ii) the reasons that the candidate is undertaking graduate work, their ultimate plans, how the candidate happened to select for their desired field; and (iii) details about the candidate’s preparation, their strengths and weaknesses as a student, any academic honors, scholarships, etc. So one might be confused about how much info should go into their statement of purpose when applying to this school.

While much of what the graduate school is asking for here could probably be fit under the heading of “academic goals and interests,” not all of it can. Should applicants massage as much information as they can to fit under the narrower instructions? Should they include more than that?

My advice would be to contact the department in question and ask. It may be that they don’t even know about the discrepancy. But if one cannot get a helpful answer from the department on this, I would err on the side of writing for the department, as it is the graduate admissions committee, composed of members of that department, who will be looking most closely at your application materials. Readers are asked to share their thoughts on this. Thank you.
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