How To: Write a Personal Statement
Once your CV is prepared, generally the next thing you need to begin working on for graduate school applications is a personal statement. Personal statements give you an opportunity to tell a story about how you got to where you are, and where you want to go professionally. Writing a good personal statement can be very difficult, and there are several common mistakes I find when students have asked me to review their drafts. I want to address some of those here, and go over what exactly the personal statement should include.
The first mistake, and by far the most common, is repeating a lot of information that is stated on the CV. Personal statements have fairly short length requirements, so you want to make the most of the limited space you have. By repeating information that is on the CV (generally by discussing labs and specific tasks that you've done in those labs), you're basically wasting the space. In addition, it makes the personal statement very boring to read.
Instead, you want to make sure that your personal statement tells a story. You want to discuss where you started, what events took place that got you to where you are, and how it all comes together into a cohesive path towards your desired career. For example, you don't want to just say:
Instead, try to discuss how the experiences relate to the narrative.
A key piece of creating and maintaining this narrative is to always tie your experiences back to your story. How does being in a lab further you along your path? How did your experiences at one time help you to choose your experiences later? And ultimately, how do your experiences help you to know that you want to be in their program?
In addition to being much more relatable and giving a much stronger argument for why you're a good fit for the program, having a good narrative makes your personal statement much more memorable (in a good way). You are ultimately competing with a lot of very similar personal statements, so you want to make sure you tell your story, not the story of a student who did some stuff and is now trying to get a graduate degree for uncertain reasons. When your story is memorable (in a good way), reviewers will remember you and be more interested in meeting you in person for an interview.
However, there are some caveats. There are some topics that you should generally avoid in your narrative. For example, if part of the reason you want to pursue a graduate degree is because you have struggled with a mental illness in the past and you want to help others who are having similar struggles, most people I know agree that you should leave that detail out. While there is nothing wrong with that situation being true, it can give the wrong impression (especially when applying for a clinical program). So give some thought to the topics you're considering for your personal statement, and use your best judgement.
Also have someone review your story to see if they disagree with any of the content that you've decided to include.
The next most common mistake I see in personal statements is for people to use the word "I" very heavily. I understand that it's a personal statement, and you are writing about yourself, but I recommend trying to keep the number of times that "I" shows up in your personal statement to 10 or less.
The reason to keep "I" as infrequent as possible is because it a) gets old quickly, b) reduces the quality of your writing, and c) decreases the extent to which the reader can identify with what you are saying.
Instead, try to use "me," "my," etc. to tell your story. In order to do so you'll have to rearrange some sentences, but they usually end up better as a result. Think about a story you read where the character is the narrator; they do not say "I" frequently, which allows you to relate to the narrator and get wrapped up in their story. You want to have the same effect on the readers of your personal statement.
Finally, the last point I want to make isn't so much in response to a mistake that I commonly see, but a tip that is helpful and many people don't use at first.
When writing your personal statement, create a template that covers ~75% of the length requirement for the personal statement. In that ~75%, you'll tell your story up to the present, which will remain the same across applications. The last ~25% should be written uniquely for every program you apply to, and it should tailor your projected future to the goals of the program in order to demonstrate good fit.
Re-writing that last ~25% every time helps in a couple of ways. First, it reduces the likelihood that you'll accidentally use the wrong school or professor name (which is perceived as badly as you'd expect). Second, it helps to make sure that your narrative really ties into that specific program, rather than feeling like a cookie-cutter ending.
That's all I'll share here, but it should be plenty to get you started! Have any questions about what I've written? Want to see a post about how to prepare any other materials? Let me know in the comments!