Tailor your statement for each school you apply to. A strong personal statement indicates that you’ve researched the program and are applying to it because it has particular qualities that appeal to you. Is there someone on the faculty whose work has inspired you? Are you interested in the prospects for cross-disciplinary work with other schools in the same university? Is the school located in a city or region that makes sense for your research or career interests? Say so!
Be concise. Length is a tricky aspect of personal statements. When word or page limits are stated, they are often brutal. (Many law schools limit personal statements to about 500 words.) Your first rule is to observe whatever limits are specified in the application. If no limits are given, keep your statement to about 1,000 words (4 typed pages, double-spaced) at the absolute maximum. Remember, your statement is one of hundreds that the admissions committee will read. A long, rambling statement will be remembered – for all the wrong reasons.
Be focused. The length restriction on personal statements may mean that you don’t have room to include everything that you would like to. Decide what points are most important to your application and let the rest go. It’s better to explain three points clearly and in sufficient detail than to shoot off a bulleted list of fifteen unrelated points.
Don’t bring up high school. Unless there is something genuinely outstanding about your high school achievements – say, you were part of a science team that achieved a breakthrough in cell research, or you led a student strike that drew nationwide attention to unfair suspension practices at your school – don’t refer to anything earlier than college.
Don’t just tell ‘what’ – tell ‘so what.’ Many applicants make the mistake of simply listing what they did in school or in their extracurricular activities, without saying why or how that experience influenced their thinking or life choices. Just saying “I was a member of the pre-med honor society” doesn’t tell an admissions committee much about the applicant. Saying that “My active participation in the pre-med honor society made me realize what an extraordinary and gifted group of people are committed to medical careers and reinforced my desire to become part of that community” does.
Don’t go overboard in describing your future plans. You do want to give the admissions committee the impression that you understand what the degree you are applying for can lead to, and persuade them that you are well-suited for that career. You don’t want to give such a detailed road map that you come across as unrealistic or inflexible.
Don’t gloss over obvious shortcomings in your record. There’s a piece of advice out there that says you should never acknowledge any weaknesses in your application because it will only draw attention to something the admissions committee might otherwise not have noticed. It’s bad advice. Admissions committees will notice a weakness in your record, with or without your help. The wiser thing to do is to acknowledge the problem and explain why it should not be seen as a predictor of your performance in graduate or professional school. Sometimes the only place to do this is in your personal statement. It’s better to use a separate space for this purpose, if your application provides one. But if your only choices are either to address a glaring weakness in your personal statement or to say nothing about it at all, use your personal statement. Keep your explanation short and the overall tone of your statement confident and upbeat, but don’t leave your readers with any reason to assume the worst about whatever the shortcoming in your record is.