What is the difference between a 'statement of purpose' and a 'personal statement'?

If you are applying to study in the UK you will probably have heard the terms ‘statement of purpose’ (often abbreviated to SoP) and ‘personal statement’. They are essays that you will be required to write as part of your application to study at university in the UK.

Whether you are asked to prepare a ‘statement of purpose’ or a ‘personal statement’ will depend on the level of study you wish to pursue and the university to which you are applying. The terms ‘personal statement’ and ‘statement of purpose’ are often used interchangeably and the difference between the two documents is not always clearly defined. However, here we provide a brief overview what is meant when universities talk about these documents and what they expect to see written in them.

Personal Statement

Generally speaking, a Personal Statement is a statement about ‘you’. You should focus on you and your personal attributes, your interests and achievements (particularly related to the subject area), and why you are an ideal student for your chosen course of study.

A personal statement is what you will be required to prepare if you are applying via UCAS, and universities find they are a good way of assessing an applicant’s suitability to study at undergraduate level.

When applying though UCAS you are required to prepare a single personal statement for up to five university applications. So, the document will need to be relatively general in terms of your curriculum interests (to cover variations in courses and curricula across different universities). Also, undergraduate courses are fairly broad in nature with applicants not expected to have yet taken a really 'deep dive' into specific subject topics.

Having said this, highly selective institutions (such as Oxford, Cambridge, UCL and Imperial) will expect you to demonstrate a very keen curiosity around the subject area and evidence the interest you have taken in the subject beyond the classroom. These universities have no shortage of students applying with top grades so they want to see that you are ‘more than just grades on a paper’.

Personal statements can also be a place where you can flag up any personal circumstances that may have impacted on your studies, for example, your school may not have offered standard tests and qualifications, you may have had health issues or caring responsibilities, or you may have moved school or even country numerous times. These are all things which can help university admissions staff to contextualise your application (especially where there are apparent gaps or weaknesses).

Statement of Purpose

A statement of purpose (SoP) is more commonly used at postgraduate level. A SoP should have a more in-depth focus on the subject area and can be quite narrow and specific. You should ideally write a separate SoP for each course to which you apply. This mean you should tailor each SoP to the specific curriculum content of your chosen course. You can make reference to unique facilities, teaching styles and the research undertaken by the university department or academics under which you hope to study.

A strong SoP will describe your aptitude and motivation to study. It should be clear that you are well prepared to study at a higher level as a result of your previous academic performance and your interest in the subject beyond the lecture room. It should also be forward looking, highlighting how you will make use of the knowledge and experience you gain after you graduate and how the course will help you achieve your professional career goals.

Some universities will specify what you need to include in your statement of purpose, for example you may be required to highlight an area of research that you would like to focus on for a master’s research project. I would, therefore, suggest that you check any specific requirements on the university’s own website and even reach out to academics or recent students to find out more about the active research areas around the course.

In summary

Don’t worry too much about the terminology of 'personal statement' versus 'statement of purpose'. Instead, think about what universities are looking for at different levels of study. For example, if you already have a bachelor’s degree, several years professional experience, and are looking to specialise at postgraduate level, you would expect your essay to look very different to that of a 17 year old applying to university for the first time with more limited experience and knowledge of the subject.

Finally, be sure to check out any specific requirements on the relevant university’s websites and be sure to download our Free Template showing you how to draft a winning Statement of Purpose!

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Rachel Burgon
Co-Founder & CEO
Published on 23 November 2021
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