No doubt about it – when writing a personal statement for a grad-school application, there are a lot of choices to make when deciding what to include. Many positive elements must be there for the statement to make a good impression, and some of those elements or features were discussed in a recent posting. Here, I want to give a bit of advice on the kinds of things that one should avoid in a personal statement, at all costs.
First of all, do not try to guess what the admissions committee is looking for in a personal statement. There is no particular response that they are looking for, and it is always obvious when a student is trying to guess at what is expected. This will undoubtedly make an applicant appear naïve, uncertain, or immature – and such an impression will typically spoil an entire application.
In most cases, it is a mistake to refer to academic achievements or other accomplishments prior to college. To mention the fact that you obtained an A+ in every high school class while you were also captain of the basketball and football teams would create the impression (probably accurate) that you do not know the difference between relevant and irrelevant information. Participation in varsity sports as an undergraduate will seldom be of any relevance.
A common mistake is to be effusive about the passion one has for a particular field of study. No one other than you really cares about your intrinsic interest in the field, so long as you have enough motivation to succeed in the program. The admissions committee should be able to infer from your letters of recommendation whether or not you are motivated enough.
Do not include boring platitudes or generic statements, and discuss frankly any significant weakness that needs to be addressed, such a poor grade or test score. Do not offer weak excuses, as they usually backfire and cause damage to the impression one makes on others. Do not exaggerate your previous accomplishments.
So you don’t risk offending anyone, avoid discussing anything in your personal statement that may be considered to be controversial. Avoid politics or anything that would reveal your own political biases. The same goes for religious views; they do not belong in a personal statement.