Here's what I always tell students who come to me for advice: whenever you begin writing a formal document, you should first think about it from the reader's point of view. What is the reader looking for in that document? If you were the reader, what questions would you want answered from that document? What wouldn't you want to know?
A personal statement substitutes for your personal presence in front of the selection committee. The members of the committee already have your transcripts, the application forms, the letters of recommendation and other supporting documents they need: so most of their questions regarding your qualifications, achievements and eligibility have already been answered. Now they want to know you as best as they can without having you physically present for them to talk to.
If I belonged to an admissions committee, I would like your personal statement to satisfy me that:
- you're really interested in a particular PhD program and you have good arguments for choosing this university over others
- you've educated yourself about the program, you know on what your area of interest is and you want to matriculate in this particular program for real, justifiable reasons
- you know what you are getting into and have the maturity to handle the pressures of a PhD program
- you have the personality and commitment to dedicate yourself and keep yourself motivated for the years you will need to complete your coursework, take your comprehensive, conduct research and write a dissertation
If your personal statement interests me and answers most of my questions, I would shortlist you for an interview.
So how would you transmit yourself, your interests, your best character traits, your suitability, your focus and your intense desire to get admission into this particular PhD program in the limited number of words you are allowed?
First, study the application form carefully and note down exactly what is asked: what are the specific aspects the form wants you to address? Note also the word limits you're restricted to. You should realize that there is a good reason why the application form is set that particular way and you must adhere to all the requirements as closely and completely as possible. The only way you can stick to the word limit and satisfy the admissions committee's requirements from your personal statement is to focus on what is asked of you in the way the demand for your personal statement is framed. Leave every other extraneous detail out.
- Second, look at the list of questions I've mentioned above and ensure that your personal statement addresses them either directly or indirectly.
- Third, make sure everything you write is honest and sincere and conveys your passion for the subject you propose to study.
There are certain other things you could keep in mind, though these are less important.
- Don't write and send your personal statement in a day. Sit on it for a while. Then take some time to revise, refresh and rewrite it until you're satisfied every word counts and that you've said exactly what you want to say the way you wanted to say it.
- Make it error free in every way: spell check, grammar check, check your punctuation and arrangement and then re-check it all over again.
- Be specific instead of making vague, general statements on your personality and interests. Mention particular events and instances that illustrate and prove your statements.
That said, your personal statement for a Phd program should be precisely that--personal. It should sound like you and communicate your unique qualities and experiences as a person. Don't try to impress with your vocabulary and diction. Style only matters if you impress with your evaluation of your self. Your only objective when you write a personal statement is to convince the selection committee to ask you for an interview.