Writing the personal statement

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Image of writing tools: pen, paper, and computer keyboard.

Photo credit: Pete O’Shea, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The National Council on Public History has a wonderful guide for students applying to graduate school, but it offers limited advice on how to write your personal statement. Prospective public history graduate students could benefit from insights about what graduate faculty are looking for in these short essays.

In this post, we will draw from our experience directing the Public History Program at the University of Colorado Denver, but are confident that these suggestions will be useful no matter where you apply. CU Denver graduate student Lee Bishop offers their perspective in italics at the end of the topics we cover.

First, the basics:

  • Unless otherwise indicated in application guidelines, we suggest using no more than two single-spaced pages with clear paragraph breaks.
  • Rather than discuss your passion for public history, stick to the specifics outlined here.
  • Don’t be afraid to compose multiple drafts and to get feedback from a couple of trusted professors or professional public history contacts.

Educational and professional background

Icon of Diploma from the Noun Project https://thenounproject.com/icon/50349

Image credit: Jorditebe, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Some students will be applying to graduate programs with extensive coursework and internship experience; others will not. What matters in your statement is not how much experience you’ve had, but that you are clear about your educational background and how it shaped your interest in the field.

Think of this section as an intellectual autobiography. Was there a class you took that inspired you to pursue public history? A job that cemented your interest in museum education? A historic house you researched for a course that left you thinking you could interpret it better for the contemporary moment? Note that these questions cover your educational and professional background. Avoid stories, for example, about tourist experiences you may have shared with your family or friends. Explain how you intellectually came to the field of public history.

When I first started writing my statement, I was worried I had no experiences to talk about. But once I got going, I found that I ran out of room for everything. Hopefully, you’re going to grad school because you’re interested in pursuing this field, so you’ll probably find public history showing up more in your past experiences than you expected. Even seemingly unrelated experiences (that internship I did with Girl Scouts) might be relevant when you take a closer look (during the internship, I wrote a badge program on local women’s history).

Professional goals

The strongest statements we receive contain clear professional goals and articulate how and why our program will allow the author to succeed. The authors may explain, for example, that they seek a career as a curator in a small museum and follow up by explaining how specific courses or internship possibilities at our institution align with those goals. Not all applicants need to state such a clear career trajectory, but the more specific an applicant can be, the better. Prior to crafting the statement of purpose, make a list of your career goals and the knowledge and skills you want to acquire and refine in graduate school.

Maybe you noticed some holes in your resume while you were writing that last section. It can be a great show of self-awareness to name the skills you’ve still yet to learn. If you already know everything, then there’s no reason to invest in grad school.

Icon of Magnifying Glass from The Noun Project

Timothy Dilich, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Research individual programs

Not all grad programs are the right fit for you, so be sure to enumerate why you are applying to a particular program. In short, the statement should explain why you are a good fit for that program. For instance, our colleagues in the Public History Program at Colorado State University specialize in Cultural Resource Management (among other areas). If you are applying there, your personal statement should attest to your interest in CRM.

By contrast, we do far more work with museums at CU Denver. If you are applying to our program but write all about CRM, it will be clear to the readers that CSU would be a better fit. This is the reason that every personal statement should note the specifics you are seeking in a grad program. Are you eager to pursue a museum studies certificate? Would your already extensive museum work experience be strengthened by coursework in digital history, a particular program strength at CU Denver? If you know the answers to these or similar questions, address them in this section. The key is to take time to do the research and reflect upon it.

This was the advice I could have benefitted from the most. Truth be told, I wanted to go to CU Denver because it was close to home, so I hadn’t considered the “why here?” question much before writing my statement. Researching for my statement offered me a great opportunity to consider how and if the program’s strengths matched my personal goals.

One great resource to help you learn more about your prospective programs (and narrow your search) is the NCPH Program Guide. But you should also talk to your prospective professors. Don’t hesitate to email them with questions, or even to call them. In doing so, you will gain information to write about in your statement and demonstrate your commitment to the program.

Promoting yourself for unique opportunities

Show familiarity with the program you are applying for by commenting on specific experiential or financial opportunities about the program that made you want to apply. At CU Denver, for instance, we offer a competitive paid fellowship that pairs students with different departments at History Colorado, our state historical society. Our department website and application materials describe this fellowship. An applicant to our program would do well to name their interest in that fellowship or similar opportunities. The more detail you can give about how a potential scholarship or fellowship might fit into your program of study, the more convincing you will be as a candidate. Also, be clear if you are excited about research and teaching assistant opportunities.

When it comes to promoting yourself, don’t be afraid to talk yourself up. Your statement is your time to shine, not your time to be humble, so steer clear of qualifiers like “I think” and “I hope.” At least in this statement of purpose, you will!

Addressing professors or program directors

Your application will be stronger if you can show that you’ve researched faculty members. In this portion of the statement, you should name specific professors you anticipate working with as well as why you’d like to work with them. You might even mention specific courses that these professors teach that you would benefit from taking. Naming professors in a personal statement does not mean you are tied to them indefinitely; instead, it shows you’ve carefully perused the faculty webpages and understand the department’s specialties.

It’s a lot like the academic version of internet vetting your best friend’s crush. But this time, it’s totally cool. A quick Google search brought up a recording of a presentation Dr. Kopp gave last year on Cascade hops, and Dr. Gross has her own website, which I definitely used when writing my statement.


We’d like to encourage our colleagues at other institutions to be gracious when encountering quirks in statements of purpose, precisely because many prospective students get so little guidance or may even receive conflicting advice from advisors or mentors.

For prospective students, we hope these recommendations show how the document can be enlightening to graduate admissions faculty—and hopefully to you, as well. Careful crafting of the statement should help you better understand both why you are applying and what you hope to get out of your graduate school experience. As professors who read these each year, we approach the documents with excitement; we are always eager to see what excellent students we will get to meet.

~Peter A. Kopp is associate professor and co-director of the Public History Program at the University of Colorado Denver.

~Rachel Gross, an assistant professor and co-director of the Public History Program at the University of Colorado Denver, is finishing a book on the history of the outdoor industry.

~Lee Bishop is a masters student at the University of Colorado Denver and an Educator Performer at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

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