The Personal Statement - Content and Format

It is very important that you capture and maintain the reader’s interest from beginning to end.  This can be a formidable task, but if you are one of the few applicants who will compose a unique and interesting personal statement, you will have made yourself a memorable candidate.

Your statement should read like a story.  You should be able to cite specific experiences that made you interested in a particular career.  Do not be afraid to include information that is of a very personal nature – after all, it is a personal statement.   Find an interesting angle from which to tell your personal story, using experiences or people who have shaped who you are today.

Do not waste time and space describing the classes you have taken and the kinds of grades you have achieved, unless it is to highlight the fact that you have taken certain courses that make you especially well suited to that graduate program, or if you need to explain why a grade or GPA does not reflect your true abilities. Referring to academic achievements or other accomplishments prior to college is, in most cases, a mistake.

Avoid controversial subjects, because you don’t know who will be evaluating your statement or what attitudes they have.  Also, this is not the time to be cute – this makes you appear insincere or not serious about your application.

Avoid saying the same old things that everyone else says in their boring and unmemorable personal statements.  Be original – but not peculiar or bizarre.

Of course, your statement must be written with proper syntax and grammar, and free of spelling mistakes and typos.  It is helpful to have a professor who is also serving as one of your referees read your personal statement so that he or she can keep in mind the content of your personal statement when preparing his or her letter.

Keep your statement reasonably brief.  If no page or line limit is given, keeping your statement to no more than two pages is almost always enough.

If you are applying to graduate school in a research field, then you need to make a convincing case for the area in which your prospective supervisor does research.  It should be apparent from your statement where you are expecting to fit in eventually.  
You should actually read some of this person’s papers, and refer to them in a way that demonstrates that you really know about his or her work. 

In summary:  Your goal is to write a personal statement that will leave the reader with a positive and memorable impression of you.  Read any requirements for the personal statement, and follow them carefully.  Show self-confidence, but don’t have delusions of grandeur.  Explain any extenuating circumstances that may inhibit your candidacy.  Show your knowledge of the program, and if appropriate, the particular supervisor you wish to work with.  And do all of this in a brief, succinctly written fashion.  

Source:  “Graduate Schools:  Winning Strategies for Getting In With or Without Excellent Grades,” Dave G. Mumby, Ph.D., 1997.