The personal statement is perhaps the most difficult component to prepare for a graduate or professional school application. Like your letters of recommendation, the personal statement provides a basis for evaluating whether you have the qualities needed for success in a particular graduate program. It introduces you and presents those qualities that make you an excellent candidate for graduate school in general, and for the program you are applying to in particular.
Admissions committees look closely at personal statements with an eye to discovering things about you that are not available elsewhere in your application. It is their opportunity to see how you think, and how well you express yourself. For most graduate programs you should think of your personal statement as a substitute for a brief personal interview with the admissions committee.
You should expect to spend days or maybe even weeks preparing several drafts before coming up with a good final product. If you spend only a few hours writing your personal statement, then it is almost certain to be a poor one. And none of the other components of your application will compensate for a poor personal statement.
There are two general formats for the personal statement. The most common format is the open-ended biographical essay in which you are free to explain whatever you think the admissions committee should know about you. An alternative format adopted by some programs is to have the applicant write a short essay in response to one or more specific questions. Some applications may include multiple essay questions. Keep in mind that even programs offering the same degree can have vastly different requirements when it comes to the personal statement.
It is critical that you read the instructions carefully. One of the common mistakes that students make is to try to guess what the admissions committee is looking for in the personal statement. There is no particular response that they are looking for, and it is always obvious when a student is trying to guess what they are expecting. This will diminish your personal statement and can end up spoiling your entire application.
You should have a long-term orientation with respect to your career plans and you need to indicate how graduate school fits logically in those plans. Be specific in your reasons. This will require that you can explain your future objectives in light of your past. Accordingly, much of the content of your personal statement will be a recounting of select and relevant aspects of your past.
You will probably be applying to several programs, and it is important that each personal statement you send reflects that you have done your homework and understand what the program has to offer. Although there will be a great deal of overlap in the content of the statements you send to different programs, you must not simply send the same statement to each program. Your opening paragraph should be specially catered to each program, and should state why you are applying to this particular program; a brief story that explains why you want that career.
Source: “Graduate School: Winning Strategies for Getting in With or Without Excellent Grades,” Dave G. Mumby, Ph.D., 1997