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Grad School: How Do I Write a Personal Statement?

2014 January 9

Grad School Series: Applying to Graduate School in Industrial/Organizational Psychology
Starting Sophomore Year: Should I get a Ph.D. or Master’s? | How to Get Research Experience
Starting Junior Year: Preparing for the GRE | Getting Recommendations
Starting Senior Year: Where to Apply | Traditional vs. Online Degrees | Personal Statements
Alternative Path: Managing a Career Change to I/O | Pursuing a PhD Post-Master’s
Interviews/Visits: Preparing for Interviews | Going to Interviews
In Graduate School: What to Expect First Year
Rankings/Listings: PhD Program Rankings | Online Programs Listing

So you want to go to graduate school in industrial/organizational (I/O) psychology? Lots of decisions, not much direction. I bet I can help!

While my undergraduate students are lucky to be at a school with I/O psychologists, many students interested in I/O psychology aren’t at schools with people they can talk to. I/O psychology is still fairly uncommon in the grand scheme of psychologists; there are around 7,000 members of SIOP, the dominant professional organization of I/O, compared to the 150,000 in the American Psychological Association. As a result, many schools simply don’t have faculty with expertise in this area, leading many promising graduate students to apply elsewhere. That’s great from the perspective of I/O psychologists – lots of jobs – but not so great for grad-students-to-be or the field as a whole.

As a faculty member at ODU with a small army of undergraduate research assistants, I often find myself answering the same questions over and over again about graduate school. So why not share this advice with everyone?

This week, I’d like to cover one of only two parts of a graduate school application that you have direct control over: your personal statement.  This sometimes called a “statement of research interests” or “entrance essay” or similar.  The core problem is always the same though: you need to write a page or two about yourself.  So what do you write?

Before you get started, you need to plan.  You shouldn’t just dive into a personal statement, because it says several things about you, and you want to make sure those messages are on target.  Here’s what it says, and here’s what to do about it:

  1. This is the best quality of formal writing that you are currently capable of.  
    • The situation: Graduate school involves a lot of writing.  A lot.  You will be writing proposals, you’ll be writing term papers, you’ll be writing theses, you’ll be writing journal submissions, and on and on.  Despite this, most graduate programs don’t explicitly teach you how to write – instead, they assume you learned it in college. As your potential mentors read your application, they’ll in part be thinking, “just how much work is it going to take for this person to become a decent science writer?”
    • The solution: Treat your personal statement like a formal paper. Remember everything you’ve learned previously about how to write. You should have an introductory paragraph, several paragraphs of specific content (each with an appropriate topic sentence that explains the purpose of the remainder of that paragraph) and a conclusionary paragraph. You should ensure there are absolutely no spelling or grammatical errors. You should ask someone that doesn’t know you very well – and preferably someone who is a good writer – to read it over and tell you what they think.  Often, your college or university will have a career services unit that will help you with this if your academic advisor won’t (or can’t) help.
  2. This explains why you are applying to graduate school (in I/O psychology).
    • The situation:  A lot of people apply to graduate school for terrible reasons. The most common terrible reason is, “I finished college and didn’t know what else to do.” This is pretty obvious in an unfocused personal statement, because it’s hard for you to explain exactly why you are going to graduate school. You need a good reason, and you need to explain it well. The reason this is important is because people without good reasons burn out. Grad school is hard.  I like to refer to it as “trial by fire.” If you don’t come in with long term goals that you are fully committed to, you aren’t likely to finish – and that means advisors aren’t going to want to spend their time training you only for you to leave after a year.
    • The solution:  You really need to sit down and think about why you’re going to graduate school. This is different for every person, so there’s no single right answer here. Maybe you’ve always dreamed of being a professor. Maybe you’ve worked in human resources before and want to make it better. Maybe you just want to make a difference in the lives of employees and see applied I/O work as the best way to do that. All of these are fine answers – but your personal statement needs to explain your answer and how you came to it.
  3. This explains why you are applying to this particular graduate program.  
    • The situation: It’s fine if you want to apply broadly – in fact, I recommend it. But that doesn’t mean you can get away without doing in-depth research on each school you are applying to.  Faculty want to know why you applied to their program.  A single, untargeted, generic personal statement sent to a dozen different programs is one of the worst things you can do with your personal statement.
    • The solution: Remember that applying to graduate school is very unlike applying to college: you’re not applying to take classes, you’re applying to work with a particular faculty member (or perhaps a few faculty members).  If you have particular, targeted research interests, you need to say what they are, which faculty members you want to work with, and why.  If you don’t have particular, targeted research interests, that’s fine too, so you should say that – but you still need to explain why you applied to this particular program. Did you talk to graduate students already in the program? Were you recommended to apply by your advisor due to the quality of the program? Something else? No matter what, you should have a different personal statement for every school you apply to. Don’t ever say you’re targeting a school because it is convenient to you (e.g. near family, lets you keep your job, etc.). If something like that is your only reason, you shouldn’t apply there.
  4. This explains how you’ve prepared for graduate school.  
    • The situation: Something you’re likely hear a lot in I/O graduate school is “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.” One thing that faculty want to know is how – specifically – you have prepared yourself for graduate school. This also speaks a bit to #2 above.
    • The solution: If you’ve been following my blog’s advice since your sophomore year or earlier, you should have a lot of information to talk about here. You need to discuss what you learned in each research lab you’ve worked in and how this experience prepared you for graduate school. If you worked on particular projects that inspired you in your research interests, describe a specific anecdote or two (e.g. a particular research challenge you faced) and how you solved it and learned from it.

There are a few common problems with personal statements:

  1. Your statement is not your life story. While your 8th-grade teacher may have had an amazing influence over you that eventually led you to I/O psychology, it’s not very relevant to your application. Traumatic experiences (e.g. the death of a family member) are the same way.  Although your great-grandfather’s death may have inspired you to do something with your life, it doesn’t really have much to do with your I/O career path.  For each paragraph (and thus every sentence), you should ask: does it help the person reading this statement accomplish one of the four objectives listed above? If not, get rid of it.
  2. Your statement is not an opportunity to get creative.  Remember point #1 above. This is a formal paper. It is the closest thing to scientific writing of yours that the selection committee is likely to see. Creative narratives, clever use of spacing, etc. make you memorable, but not in a way you want to be memorable. You want to be memorable for your qualifications. Don’t start your statement with a quote or cliche; for example, I cringe every time I see, “Life is a marathon” at the start of someone’s statement.
  3. Your statement should be about what you think and what you know, not what you did. When you apply to graduate school, you’ll also turn in a curriculum vitae (the academic equivalent of a resume). This should say which labs you worked for and when. It should also cover which classes you took. Don’t waste space in a personal statement reiterating this information; assume that the people reading your application have already seen your vita and build from there.
  4. Your statement is not exhaustive. Even if you have a ton of information that you want to share, and even if the program doesn’t provide a specific page limit, you should keep your personal statement under 2 pages.  Maybe 3 if what you’re including is exceptionally compelling. Writing your personal statement should be an exercise in brevity – sharing as much critical information as possible in as small a space as you are able.

There’s no single “right way” to write a personal statement, but these guidelines will give you a good start to make a compelling argument for your acceptance.

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32 Responses leave one →
  1. Rachael permalink
    December 15, 2014

    Do you know where I could find an example of a personal statement for industrial organizational psychology? I’ve read numerous examples of psychology personal statements but none that are IO oriented.

    • December 15, 2014

      A good statement is honestly very different from student to student – and I’m afraid I don’t have any examples of good IO statements specifically.

  2. Mark McDowell permalink
    November 16, 2015

    Thank you for the information in which you provided. I am currently working on a statement of interest for a class in my junior year. I currently have an A.S. in Chemistry and recently changed my major from Pre-Med to Psychology. I unfortunately have not had much research experience, but plan to in the up and coming semesters. I also have not had any intern experience outside of time spent in preparation for medical school requirements. I guess what I am wondering is if that information is appropriate to share in this document, or if since it does not relate to I/O Psychology if it should be left out. My other concern is that with my on the job experiences that I have had as a nontraditional student, would they be a good topic for discussion. I have grown quite fond of finding ways to help a business thrive and make things more smoothly for coworkers, and felt that I/O Psychology would be a better option for a career over Medicine. If you can share any information, I would truly appreciate it.

    Thank you for your time.

    • November 16, 2015

      Anything is appropriate insofar as it explains how it a) makes you ready or b) makes you familiar with the realities of I/O research and practice. So anything that helps make that case is fine. Just remember that I/O psychology is about the science of employees in workplaces, so you don’t really want to talk about “making things smoother for coworkers” in general unless either what you did was research based or it specifically triggered you to learn about and apply I/O psychology on your own. You definitely don’t want to mention the experiences you haven’t had – focus on what you’ve done, learned, and gained from the experiences you have had, as long as they’re relevant to I/O.

  3. January 20, 2016

    Hi Professor Landers,

    I was wondering if you recommend any text books on I/O. I was looking for something particular that explains all the job titles that can come from an I/O degree but anything works.



    • January 21, 2016

      The book I use for my own I/O courses is Work in the 21st Century: An Introduction to Industrial and Organizational PsychologyLandy and Conte’s Work in the 21st Century. A new edition is coming out in 2016 though, if you want the newest of the new.

      Job titles though is a different problem, and a difficult one to answer. We generally get jobs based upon job requirements (i.e., have you been trained in the skills needed) rather than titles – the titles can vary dramatically. “Consultant” for example could be an I/O job or something completely different. That is probably why most I/O jobs are located through personal networks – I wouldn’t ever recommend an I/O even look at Monster or an online job board.

  4. May 3, 2016

    Hi, your blog proves to be very eduactive and informative.
    I had my bachelors degree in english and sociology but i want to defer and have my masters in I/O psychology. I took a semester course in I/O during my undergrad and became hooked and intrigued about the course. I have no thesis on it or any form of research work based on it. I am currently working but it does not have anything to do with i/o. What I want to know is, will that affect my statement of purpose, although i do really want to pursue a career in I/O psychology.

    Thank you.

    • May 3, 2016

      You will certainly need to explain in your statement why you are qualified and motivated to pursue an I/O graduate degree with an atypical background, yes.

  5. Mark McDowell permalink
    May 3, 2016

    Dr. Landers,
    Thank you for your response. My next question is related to statistics. Due to stats and research being a large part of the I/O field, are there any other Stats courses that you would recommend taking besides 2600 (College Statistics) and 2700 (Statistics for Behavioral and Social Sciences), that will better prepare me for a career in I/O?

    Thank you for your time.


    • May 4, 2016

      In most cases, the department bringing you in will require you to take any advanced statistics courses you need then. However, you can demonstrate your ability to succeed in such courses by taking basically any advanced stats course you can find now and are qualified for, preferably at the graduate level. The most relevant to I/O that are potentially within an undergrad’s level are likely psychometrics and regression. If you are incredibly comfortable with stats, you might even try a multilevel modeling course or structural equation modeling course, but those are way, way advanced. I would regardless recommend you talk to someone in your program first about what classes are available and what they think you could take. You’ll need permission from any graduate level instructors directly (they are not something you can just sign up for).

      For comparison, you have currently taken the equivalent of the first month or so of graduate level stats. So adding courses you would likely or could take as a graduate student certainly builds your credentials, but it’s not required. Most students applying will have basically what you have now.

  6. Steve permalink
    August 20, 2016

    Dear Professor,

    My biggest concern is talking about my personal interests within IO Psyche. At this point I feel very naive because I have only taken one intro class on IO and organizational behavior. My first question is what are the main aspects of applied IO psyche? I know of training and development, OD, HR, but what else is there? Second, I know of these fields but I don’t exactly what they do in these fields because I have never had hands on experience. Is it ok to say that I am interested in a field but it can very well change? Basically, what are the main aspects of IO and how can I get more exposure.


    • August 21, 2016

      I would suggest you review the textbook from your I/O psych class – there are many areas, and they’ll all be listed there. The activities are what you’d expect from that list. For example, organizational leadership might believe they have a motivation problem among line employees, so I/O psychologists are tasked with figuring out what the problem is and how to solve it. That generally involves reading academic research literature, developing surveys, running statistical analyses, writing reports, and making presentations/recommendations.

    • Steve permalink
      August 21, 2016

      In the work force, is each area narrowly focused? For example, can someone with a focus on training also be involved in selection analysis?

    • August 21, 2016

      I/Os are often generalists, but it depends on the job. At best, I’d say positions tend to focus more toward either the I or O side. A lot has to do with the training you receive in graduate school; programs tend to have particular strengths, based upon the particular expertises of the I/O faculty that staff them.

    • Steve permalink
      August 21, 2016

      So when apply for grad school, when I write my personal statement, is it okay to say that I am interested in X but have other interests as well that can end up over taking X? In other words, is it better to be myopic or broad? My concern of being broad is that grads school may see me as someone who doesn’t have any sort of direction

    • August 21, 2016

      Well, it depends a bit on whether you’re talking about Master’s or PhD applications.

      Master’s applicants are not expected to be very narrow, although it’s good to have some particular interests that the school you are applying to has plans to teach you in.

      PhD applicants should have much more specific interests, but even so, it is good to have a balance. For example, if you say “the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do with my life is study X” and then the faculty member that researches X leaves the university that year, or isn’t taking students that year, or any number of other things – you’re automatically out of consideration. So I would just recommend being honest. If there’s something your life would not be complete without, say that. If there are things you’re interested in but you’re open to anything, say that. With a bit more formal language, anyway. 🙂

    • Steve permalink
      August 21, 2016

      Thank you. I do plan to apply for a masters and I do have interest in training and development. However, is it a fair assumption that while I will learn about training and development, I will also be exposed to other “I side” areas such as psychometrics, leadership selection etc. Is there a chance that in my career I can work on the “O side” such as OD, motivation, etc. even if I was trained more on the “I side”?

    • August 21, 2016

      That will really depend on the specific coursework in the program – you should check the course titles of what is standard in their program – that’ll give you a good sense of it. Two years isn’t enough to cover all of IO in depth, so you’ll definitely be getting some topics and missing others.

      Also, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere on the site, be sure to apply to at least 10 or so schools. There are too many reasons you may not be accepted at any particular school that have nothing to do with your qualifications to risk applying only to one.

    • Steve permalink
      August 21, 2016

      Also, for what its worth, the school I plan to apply to is SF State which is IO balanced.

  7. Steve permalink
    August 21, 2016

    Thank you Dr. Landers.

  8. November 10, 2016

    Hi! Thanks so much for making this blog, I have been following your advice throughout my undergraduate career! It would help me a lot if you could answer these questions I’m having:

    1. What are Ph.D programs specifically looking for in terms of publications? Can you give me a number of conference presentations that would be a good number to aim for? Do symposiums carry more of a weight than posters in your admission decision? Also, what about SIOP papers that are under review during the application period?

    2. How common is an undergraduate thesis, and how much weight would one carry?

    • November 10, 2016

      If by publications you mean “paper accepted to a peer-reviewed scientific journal,” the answer is “any.” In any given year, there are probably less than 5 PhD applicants nationally that have accomplished this. Book chapters and papers published in undergraduate journals are slightly more common but still impressive at the undergrad level.

      For conference presentations, it depends on which conferences you’re talking about. For SIOP, symposia vs. poster matters only if you aren’t first author – in which case any position on a poster will probably be more impressive than a non-first-author role on a symposium submission. But it depends a bit on what you specifically did on the project, which you should describe in your personal statement anyway. If you have any accepted SIOP submissions on your vita, you are probably in the top 5% of applicants. If you have 2+ you are at the very top. Submitted SIOP doesn’t count for much – however, if you have submissions on your vita that turn into acceptances after you have submitted your application, you should email the program director/any faculty you wanted to work with to tell them that as soon as you know.

      Undergraduate theses are a pretty common way to get research experience. It’s actually very common in liberal arts colleges for all undergraduates planning on graduate study to complete one. In university settings, that expectation varies a lot. But as a result of that ambiguity, it’s not very interpretable by itself – if you want it to make an impact credentials-wise, you really need to do something with it (e.g., turned into a undergrad conference presentation, SIOP presentation, book chapter, undergrad journal, full publication, and this list is roughly in order of impressiveness).

  9. steve permalink
    January 17, 2017

    What size font is okay to use if no specifics were given? 11? 12?

    • January 17, 2017

      I would stick to APA 6 formatting, personally. But it doesn’t really matter as long as it’s legible if printed.

  10. steve permalink
    January 23, 2017

    Hello Dr. Landers,
    Could you differentiate I/O areas of interest, research interests, and career goal?. I ask because in my answer for I/O areas of interest is training and dev and I give examples of why it is important in the work place and give examples. However, I feel like this overlaps with why a career in Training is my career goal.

    • January 23, 2017

      Your area of interest is training.

      Training is not a research interest. Your research interests are the specific topics you want to study within your area of interest. To have a research interest, you need to know about training research and what research questions would be interesting to you. For example, it might be something like: given a successful training program, how do you increase rates of training transfer?

      You can’t have a career in “training.” That is not something I/Os do. What you might mean is a practitioner career advising training designers, or a practitioner career measuring and implementing training-based organizational change initiatives, or an academic career studying the mediational processes involved in online training effectiveness. Or something else entirely. If you don’t know the difference between those, you need to talk to an I/O in a meeting about the types of jobs I/Os actually get. 🙂

    • steve permalink
      January 23, 2017


      Sorry for being vague. My research interests were motivation and how we can motivate employees in online training programs as well as implementing a reward program. As far as a career, I was thinking of a career in training and development manager, creating programs, coaching, or even consulting. Not too sure yet. Is a career in training and development too vague?

    • steve permalink
      January 23, 2017

      my main question is that my interests in training and development are due to the career reasons. However, this overlaps with why I want a career as a training and dev manager, people specialist, consultant, coach, etc.

    • steve permalink
      January 23, 2017

      One more question. What did you think I meant by career in training?

    • January 24, 2017

      When you say you want a career in training, I interpret that as you wanting a career as a trainer. If you want to manage trainers, you should say that instead.

  11. December 22, 2017

    Dr. Landers,

    I’d like to first thank you for allowing access to this information as it has helped me tremendously in applying for grad school.

    As of now, I am a senior undergrad getting ready to apply I/O Masters programs in a month. A lot of schools that I am applying to list a prerequisite of having a B or better in Behavioral Statistics.

    I took stats freshman year (big mistake) and got a C as a result. To make up for it, I retook Statistics this fall semester. As a result, I didn’t do much better, I got a C+.

    I do not believe this reflects my knowledge and proficiency on the subject; I’m an RA and have performed many data analysis for many research projects without difficulty. I also have a recommender that can attest to that.

    Is it worth it to still apply to these schools? Is there a way for me to address this in my Personal Statement?

    Thank you!

    • December 28, 2017

      If it’s listed as a “prerequisite” probably not. You’ll likely be removed from the list by a secretary before the selection committee even sees your application. If it just says “preferred” (or similar), then it’s not quite so black and white, and you might as well still try. But I will say that a C+ in stats is going to be a big red flag for your application; you’ll want to explain it (convincingly) in your personal statement, regardless.

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