The personal statement, along with the interview, is one of the only items in your application portfolio that offers admissions officers a glimpse of who you really are. Grades are a measure of your erudition and work ethic. GRE scores speak of your potential. The personal statement, however, is the closing argument of your application and should be respected as such. There are a few simple rules to crafting your personal statement that anyone can follow without the message sounding formulaic and fake.
Why You? Be classy, but don't be modest. Showcase what you consider your most winning qualities to be and offer a highlight reel of your greatest achievements. You want to be sure that you stand out--admittedly a gross understatement. But how? The easiest way to highlight your qualities and accomplishments is to give a vivid description of a signature moment in your life. My own personal statement would almost certainly mention the three years I spent teaching abroad in Istanbul, Turkey as well as the lessons and insights gleaned from that experience. A close friend of mine centered her statement on the trials and poignant moments of her hike down the Appalachian Trail. You don't have to have done anything so unusual but there must be a few formative experiences in your past that explain where you've been, who you are and, most importantly, where you are going.
Why Them? Admissions officers read thousands of personal statements and so they can tell in 30 seconds or less if the essay is a recycled statement that the applicant probably sent to a dozen other schools. Just like in the dating world, remember that no one wants to feel like a consolation prize. Do your research on the schools to which you are applying, particularly the specific program you plan to study. Make sure your statement telegraphs your excitement at being able to work under Professor So and So on his important project to study X, cure Y or explain Z. You should also highlight what you most look forward to about the campus environment, student body and facilities. This element of your essay will be easier to write if you have the next key element down: a vision of your future.
What do you plan on doing with your secondary education?
Admissions advisors and consultants are fond of sharing a harsh truth about grad school applications: no one cares how much you enjoy your field of study. Admissions officers want to know that you have a pretty good idea of what you plan to do with your graduate education. As a master of your field, you will move beyond simply reading about other people's research and begin to contribute your own. Your essay should articulate a fairly specific vision and make your understanding of this distinction clear.
What happened sophomore year?
Your personal statement also serves the specific purpose of giving you a chance to explain why your grades early on might not have been up to code for a few semesters. Here you should explain any extenuating circumstances that may have affected your education or talk about the growth process that allowed you to master your college work load in the closing years.
Who else wants to read this?
You should read, edit, reread and edit again. You should also allow others to read your personal statement: particularly those that know you and are familiar with the process of applying to graduate school. You don't have to make every correction suggested--you still want the voice in the essay to be authentically yours--but you do want to get a sense of how others perceive your writing.
Rich Carriero is the Academic Manager for GRE and GMAT, which provides one-on-one GRE tutors nationwide. He has 15 years experience in the test preparation industry.