For most people who need to do it, writing a personal statement for a graduate-school application is an unpleasant experience. There can be tremendous stress and self-doubt involved in the process. All the anxiety surrounding the personal statement is understandable, and it’s even somewhat justified. Sadly, despite someone’s investment of time, effort, and anguish, the personal statement is also the part of the application that ultimately does in a lot of the unsuccessful applications.
There are a lot of different reasons why a personal statement can make a bad impression, but generally speaking, a personal statement that makes a good impression will have at least three key features: selectivity, originality, and clarity.
The general idea behind selectivity is that you must include the right kinds of information, and also that you must refrain from including irrelevant information. Your choices will show whether or not you have good judgment. For example, it would normally be a mistake to describe the details of your academic history, unless it is to highlight something that is especially unique. The people reading your personal statement can look at your transcripts if they want to know details about your academic record.
Originality is important, because a run-of-the-mill personal statement will not help you stand out from the crowd. You need to grab the readers’ attention at the outset and hold their interest to the end. One of the most difficult things you are likely to face when preparing your personal statement is just getting started. Remember, it takes time to be creative, so be patient. Ideas will come, eventually. Do not be afraid to start over if a plan you had no longer seems good, or if you think of something better.
Clarity refers to how well you express your ideas in writing. Your statement should be logical, and it must be written with proper syntax and grammar, and free of spelling mistakes and typos. This is not just because a spelling mistake will make the reader think you cannot spell; a statement that contains these types of errors will make you appear unprofessional and careless.
Proofread, edit, and work on every sentence and passage until you are confident that you are expressing yourself in the most unambiguous and concise manner. People looking at your application want know about your writing abilities. Even just a single grammatical error, spelling mistake, or poorly worded sentence can leave a bad impression. If there is a word limit, be sure not to go beyond it. Do not try to impress the reader with your vocabulary. Importantly, you must not rely only on the spell-checking function on your computer.
Have a friend read your personal statement and ask for feedback and advice. If possible, ask this same favor of one of your professors, one who knows you well and whom you feel comfortable asking for the extra favor. Ideally, this should be a professor who is also writing a letter of recommendation for you, because he or she may then refer to your personal statement when preparing the letter.
Wondering how long your personal statement should be? Check out the next part of the series.