What is a personal statement?
A personal statement (statement of purpose) is an essay that comes in one form or another: it is either a response to specific questions (Why do you want to be a part of our program? What personal and academic experiences have led you to this point? What are your plans upon completion of our program?, etc.), or it is a general statement summarizing who you are and why you want to go to graduate school. Either way, the personal statement provides you with an opportunity to sell yourself to an admissions committee through clear, concise and persuasive writing. A strong personal statement can tip the scale for a student whose application packet is lacking in other areas. A weak one can have equal effect in the other direction.
Think long and hard about what you want to say. Ask yourself some questions to get things started (many of which you considered in making the decision to go to graduate school):
Why do I want to go to graduate school?
Where/when did this ambition originate? What/who were the greatest influencers in my decision to pursue this goal?
What do I want to be able to do at the end of this program that I can’t do with a BA/BS?
What experience do I have in this field?
What have I done as an undergraduate student to prepare myself for this graduate program?
How will I contribute to the collective experience of the admitted class? How am I different from every other student who will apply for this program?
Why is this the right program for me?
What do I know about this particular school, their programs and their faculty?
When you write
Be concise! Make every word count. Don’t force your reader to sift through the fluff to get to the substance. A powerful statement will lose impact if your reader is annoyed by your excess verbiage.
Don’t tell the committee things they already know. They already know about their program and about their field(s). What they don’t know about is you and how you will fit with this program.
Tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. A good statement of purpose has flow. It engages the reader and leaves her with a sense of who you are both academically and personally. But…
Don’t be a TMI writer. Don’t reveal things about yourself that are simply irrelevant or that may cross the line between appropriate and inappropriate for your audience. This is not the time or place to talk about your personal problems as a motivation for going to graduate school.
Avoid trite and meaningless words and phrases.
What the committee will look for in your statement
Excellent writing is imperative! No spelling/syntax/punctuation/grammar mistakes are allowed. Have multiple people read your essay before you submit. Fresh eyes notice things that you might overlook.
A strong statement is more than just good writing style. Content is equally important. Your essay must pull the reader in early and hold him or her until the end. Tell your story with confidence and conviction.
Did you answer the question(s)? This is a pet peeve of many admissions committees. Don’t lose sight of the original question by allowing your essay to follow a path that may lead you (and your essay) astray, no matter how compelling you might believe your message to be.
Do your words convey academic and emotional maturity? This is particularly important if you are applying to a Ph.D. program or to one in which the students tend to be older upon admission.
Does your essay indicate a realistic understanding of the career field for which you’re headed?
Have you demonstrated evidence that you know their program, and that you’re familiar with their faculty and their areas of expertise?
If there is an obvious shortcoming to your application materials (low GRE scores, a semester of poor academic performance, etc.), the personal statement can serve as an opportunity for you to explain these irregularities. If you choose to do so, it is very important you make clear that 1) the “problem” was one that had a finite duration of time, 2) you have recovered from it (if this is appropriate) and 3) it will not impede your performance in graduate school. One paragraph is plenty of space to devote to this. Explain, but do not make excuses, and move on.
Before you submit
Have your statement read by at least three different people. This should include someone who knows you personally, someone who knows you academically, and someone who may be getting to know you through the application process. These people could be a close friend, your academic advisor and someone in the career center (your graduate school advisor). This will allow feedback from three different perspectives.
Make sure you have not exceeded any word/space/character limits set by your school. Don’t give them a reason to not read your essay before it’s even in their hands. Follow all submission directions to the letter.
Words and phrases to avoid without explanation* and some to simply avoid, period
appealing to me
I like it
I can contribute
meant a lot to me
I like helping people
outside the box
outside of my comfort zone
*chart adapted from [https://career.berkeley.edu/grad/gradstatement.stm]