Information compiled by the GradSchools.com team - last updated August 2010
Research the school you are applying to carefully:
A wealth of information is available on-line as well as through talking to alumni or school faculty. Most schools will provide information about what they expect from applicants, and knowing this can help you to structure your essay.
Understand your audience and the purpose of your essay:
A graduate admissions committee generally consists of professors in the specific program to which you are applying, and sometimes students who are currently enrolled in the program. While your essays will be read in context with the rest of your application, they are your opportunity to set yourself apart from your fellow applicants. Understand that what the committee is looking for may vary based on your field of study. (For example, applicants to a literature program will find their style and diction much more closely examined than the average applicant to a physics program).
Know the question being asked:
The importance of this cannot be overstated, but it is still often overlooked. While you want to express your unique attributes and talents, always remember that you are doing so within the framework of the questions on the application.
Brainstorm fully and narrow down your topics gradually:
You need to identify your unique experiences, influences, and abilities. This process should include a consideration of your long and short-term goals, what characteristics describe you, and what transferable skills you possess; it should also include an examination of your background and accomplishments both personally and academically.
Select your topic based on all of these factors. You want a topic for your essay that will paint a complete picture of you and help you to stand out. Specific application questions may only require one topic, but more general personal statements usually cover two to four subjects. You are seeking to say something meaningful in your essay that will help the reader to know you better by the time they are finished reading. It is vital that in your quest to accomplish this you stay grounded in details that are concrete rather than using vague generalities.
The next questions you need to ask yourself are more specific.
Why have I chosen to attend graduate school in this particular field and through this particular program? What are my qualifications for admission? What is different, unique, or note-worthy about my life story? Not only are the answers to these questions good to know for yourself, they are also invaluable to the process of writing your essay. In this section we will discuss some of the themes that work well with different questions and how your answers may fit into those themes. Though I have broken this down by different questions, realize that as your essay develops these categories will overlap, and you should structure by topic and expound on insights as they develop.
Why do you want to go to graduate school?
Early Exposure to Your Field: Pursuing graduate school in a particular area may have been a long-term goal, and you certainly want to mention what led you to that goal. However, avoid cliches and generalities such as, "I have always wanted to" Instead focus on specific events that encouraged your interest. You also do not want to focus solely on your initial reason, but include more recent experiences that have caused your continued interest.
Goals: Obviously, graduate school is a way of accomplishing certain goals, and admissions committees generally like to see that students know what they plan to do with their education. If like many people your long-term goal is to work in academia, differentiate yourself by stressing your particular interests or research goals. If your goals are not academic, once again stress the specifics of what you would like to accomplish.
Research Interests: Here again be careful to read the application carefully. Some schools may want a statement of purpose describing your specific research interests instead of, or in addition to, your personal essay. You can assume here that a faculty member will be reading such a statement, but be careful to still make it accessible to non-specialists as well. Write in such a way that your enthusiasm for the subject is clearly communicated.
Particular school/program: This is where your research into the school becomes vital. While most schools will tend to have similar curricula, different schools have different strengths. Knowing the research interests and work of various faculty members may influence your decisions in selecting a program as well as particular organizations or activities that are available to you. By including these motivations in your essay you not only demonstrate that you have thoroughly researched their school, but you emphasize why you will be a good fit and a valuable addition to their program.
Why are you qualified for this program?
Research Experience: Because research will be foundational to your time in graduate school, focusing on your research experience is very important. Be specific. Your experience need not have been a massive undertaking. If you worked with a professor for a year, you could focus on a single project in depth. The vital thing to remember is to demonstrate your enthusiasm for the subject and to focus on your growth or success.
Field Experience: If your program is more practically oriented, field experience can be as important as research experience. Once again the goal is to focus on specifics and describe a particular challenge or project that you faced, how you met that challenge and the skills, and perspective you gained through your experience.
Unrelated Work Experience: There are various skills that overlap different fields or are universally applicable. If you have strong experience in a different field you should discuss it though it is beneficial to tie it back to your current objectives as much as possible.
Extracurricular Activities: The same idea applies here as with unrelated work experience. Use your experiences to demonstrate specific qualities that will help you in your graduate work.
It is very important when considering this question to avoid regurgitating facts listed elsewhere in the application. Details of your active roles are vital.
Why are you exceptional?
Since this pertains to what is unique to you, it cannot be broken down into four or five categories as easily as the other questions. Admissions officers are generally trying to assemble a diverse class so it is important to highlight your differences. While all types of diversity may help, your goal should be to identify how your unique background will allow you to contribute to the academic community. Here are some ideas that may help you get started.
If you have an unusual background ethnically or religiously for example, you could consider what you have learned from those experiences or beliefs that may contribute to your academic goals.
If you have particular hardships you have overcome that have given you a unique perspective or goals you could describe those. Be careful when discussing past difficulties or mistakes, however, that you end on a decisively positive note.
If you have extensive experience in a field different from the graduate studies you wish to pursue, you could explain how that would gives you a unique perspective, and possibly a specialization, within your academic endeavors.
Finally, it may be enough to simply provide a detailed account of a personal experience. By telling a story that is personal, you can communicate something that could only have been written by you. In all of this, it is important to not focus only on the past. Tie everything into the future. Clearly communicate your goals as a participant in the program and what you hope to do with your education after graduate school.
You have the opportunity to really introduce yourself and show your school why you belong there. So take advantage of it.