Most schools are interested in why you want to go to graduate or professional school (e.g., do you have a good reason why you have chosen graduate school or are you applying because you have nothing better to do after graduation). Therefore, you need to communicate that you are a focused, dedicated student who has clearly thought out this critical decision.
Graduate schools also want to see that you are articulate, intelligent, and capable of effective written communication since your writing ability reflects your academic capabilities. Graduate schools (including Law and MBA programs) place a premium on quality writing because you will most likely be required to do a great deal of writing in school.
Since most of a graduate school application concerns numbers, statistics, and short descriptive pieces of information-GPA, standardized test scores, résumés, etc.-your personal statement provides you with an opportunity to offer schools a glimpse into the person behind the numbers. A compelling statement can be a great boost to your application, while a poorly conceived or weakly written personal statement can severely hurt your application.
Begin with a period of self-assessment. Identify those specific experiences that have influenced your decision to attend graduate school, such as classes, lab experience, internships, volunteer work, work with a professor, personal experiences, and summer jobs. You want to write about experiences that make you unique and separate you from the rest of the candidates.
Look at sample personal statements. There are two books in the Office of Academic Advisement's library, Writing Winning Personal Statements and Graduate Admissions Essays: What Works, What Doesn't, and Why.
Always answer the questions asked. Some schools will ask very general questions, others will ask more specific ones (e.g., discuss experiences outside of the classroom that have influenced your decision to attend graduate school).
Avoid writing a résumé in prose (a narrative version of your résumé). You might want to include a résumé as part of your application, but you certainly do not need to list everything you have ever done. Your personal statement is not the place for it. Remember that it is an essay. Your personal statement should have a clearly defined theme and focus. There should be transitions between different parts of the essay and there should be an introduction and conclusion. Your personal statement is not an informal chat, a letter, or a résumé; it is an essay.
When writing your personal statement you should consider the following.
Identify those experiences that have influenced your decision to attend graduate school or have formed you as the person you are today. Identify those characteristics that make you suitable for graduate-level study. One of your goals is to avoid writing a very generic statement that any candidate could have written (e.g., "I am very determined; I work hard; I am a committed student..."). You need to distinguish yourself from other applicants by highlighting those experiences that make you unique.
This is hard to do, but you need to show an admissions committee that you are more than just a good student. This is the opportunity to talk about personal experiences that have shaped you. It's okay to talk about your family or friends, about a summer job, or about a volunteer experience that really affected you. Make sure you connect your personal experience to the larger themes and ideas of your essay.
Fully develop key points
The hallmarks of good writing include clarity, development, good use of detail and examples, and a sincere voice. Too often students do not provide a full discussion of their experiences.
Avoid writing statements like "My internship at a local mental health ward was also very rewarding." This communicates very little. Identify the hospital, the type of job you were doing, who you reported to, the specifics of a case you worked, the lessons you learned there, and how these experiences are relevant to your graduate school choice.
"My work as a peer tutor in the Academic Resource Center allowed me to better understand the various ways students approach writing assignments. I was able to classify students according to the drafts they brought in... I learned that revision techniques need to be tailored to the learning styles of individual students."
Be aware of words/phrases that don't say anything
Avoid the pitfall of over-using words such as significant, important, of great interest, great experience, motivated, and driven. In and of themselves, these words aren't necessarily bad, but they can often become a substitute for specific and focused writing. For example:
"My senior thesis was very significant in my development; it influenced my decision to attend graduate school."
"My senior thesis on the intertextual relationships between Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray compelled me to discover other great literary relationships."
Target the school
Identify what it is about the school that attracts you. For example, "The English Department at the University of Massachusetts appeals to me because of its strength in the field of literary theory. In particular, Professor Smith's seminal work in semiotics and deconstruction..." This might mean doing a little research as part of the application process.
Revise, revise, and revise
You probably haven't had to ever write anything resembling a personal statement before, so don't expect to get it right the first time. You might need to write a couple drafts before you're ready to begin refining the prose. We strongly recommend that someone-a professor, advisor, or the director of academic advisement-review your personal statement with you.
Explaining low grades/low test scores
If you feel compelled to explain a bad semester/year or a reason why your standardized test scores are low, consider whether the personal statement is the best place to do it. If such an explanation can be smoothly integrated into the body of the essay, fine, if not, you might add an addendum in a different part of the application. Also, be objective and even-minded when explaining these areas. Graduate schools do not want to hear whining. They would prefer a mature and balanced approach.
Explaining your weaknesses
Be careful when graduate schools ask you to do this. Identify weaknesses that have already been able to overcome, or suggest weaknesses on which you can offer a positive slant. Don't reveal something that will sink your application.
Cardinal Sins, or "Never Do This When Writing a Personal Statement"
Never send a personal statement that contains grammatical or spelling errors or a personal statement that misidentifies the school for which you are applying. In an age of computers, students sometimes forget to change the name of the school. For example, you might write, "The English Department at the University of Massachusetts appeals to me because...", when you are actually sending the essay to the University of Connecticut.
Never over-exceed length limits. If the school asks for only two pages, two and a half pages might be okay, but four pages is not. On a similar note, don't change font and margin sizes to cram more material onto a page. Admissions personnel recognize this immediately and it annoys them.
Here are samples of personal statement topics about which Saint Anselm students have written.