I worked at the Writer’s Workshop at my undergraduate institution, and we saw a LOT of personal statements for everything from scholarships to job applications. The personal statement, although intended to be a chance to express yourself through writing, is actually a very a formulaic piece of writing. Although there are a few instances where an admissions committee might be interested in a creative statement (for example, the undergraduate essay prompts from the University of Chicago), most personal statements are merely exercises in which an applicant demonstrates that he or she knows what the admissions committee is looking for.
One of the biggest pitfalls of the personal statement is that students think they know what an admissions committee wants to hear, but they really waste precious space discussing things that won’t earn them an acceptance.
Here is some general advice on what to include (and what not to include) in your personal statement:
1. You do not need a “hook” like you may have been taught in middle school. No quotations, no “I loved to read since childhood.”
2. The only exception to the “no personal stories” rule is if you have a specific instance of something that got you interested in your field of concentration (i.e. after reading X piece of theory, I began to think about Y, which lead to the topic of my undergrad thesis etc.)
3. If you mention something on your CV, your personal statement must answer a question that is not evident just by reading the CV. Your CV gives the AdCom a laundry list of your experience, publications, relevant course work etc, but it requires the AdCom to interpret why a particular experience is important. For example, your CV says “taught Writing 101,” your personal statement should say “Writing 101 prepared me to balance teaching with my graduate studies by…”
4. The hardest part: finding a balance between being too specific and too broad. Use your research experience and interests as examples of the type of work you can do, not as the only topic you love and want to research, or are capable of researching.
5. As much as you may think that blaming your undergraduate institution for not handling your transfer credits as you hoped might help compensate for a less-than-stellar GPA, expressing any negativity is one of the worst things you can do. I once had a student come to me with an application for an education program in which she spent most of her statement berating the institutions she attended and their educational systems. Every institution has its organizational issues. These are things you challenge after you’re in, not when you are vying for one of just a few spots in the club.
6. Answer the question that is on their minds directly: are you a good fit for this program? You can talk about how special you are until you are blue in the face, but the reality is what one AdCom member finds relevant and interesting may not impress the next. But program fit is the question they are all trying to answer. If you can answer that effectively enough to convince them and you have the grades and letters of rec to back up your claims, you may have just earned yourself an acceptance.
I can’t post this article because the link I have to it is through my student subscription, but if you can access it, check out “The statement of purpose in graduate program applications: Genre structure and disciplinary variation” Samraj & Monk, 2008. They bring up a very interesting point – that the success of specific content strategies in personal statements is a “semi-occluded” genre (i.e. there is little to no numerical data, and most of it is confidential). It is worth a read if only for the testimonies of Admission Committee members, since these serve as a good reminder of your audience.