If you are applying to graduate school, you probably already know the four major points you are expected to cover in your statement of purpose:1
- Your specific area of academic interest (research topic you want to work on or scientific question you want to answer).
- How your past education and other experiences have prepared you to be successful in the graduate program.
- What you hope to achieve in the graduate program.
- Why that particular school is the best place for you to pursue your interests.
Here, then, are the more subtle elements of writing a winning personal statement. These are the boxes the reviewer is looking to tick:
- Good communications skills (esp. writing skills) — Whether you're in liberal arts or science, grad school will have you writing a whole lot. A lot of science majors underestimate how much these skills will help their application. Plus, there's a good chance you'll be expected to teach at some point, so if you have any prior teaching or tutoring experience you should mention it.
- Hard working and motivated — You can't just say you're "self-motivated" like every other boob writes on their resumé. You have to offer an anecdote or evidence that demonstrates your motivation. For me, this was an anecdote about the DARPA Grand Challenge where we lost due to our reliance on GPS sensors. This motivated me to want to solve the problem of robot navigation without GPS.
- Understanding of the field — If you don't have this, spend a week reading whitepapers and Wikipedia articles. This will give you enough keywords to let you talk conversationally in terms that an insider will recognize. It will make a big difference. Google Scholar and CiteCeerX are your friends.
- Reasonable expectations about what you will achieve — Don't tell them you're hell bent on being the next President of the United States. That's childish and unrealistic. Present a balanced perspective that shows ambition, optimism, and hopefulness, but also restraint.
- A focus on research — This will differ from field to field, but in most fields what they really want to hear about is research. Like teaching, if you have any research experience it should feature prominently in your essay. In addition to the research you've already done, they'll want to hear about the research you plan to do in grad school. Show that your plans are focused by being specific, but also show that you are open to other possibilities. Ideally, you should already know the scientific question you want to answer. If you don't know this, then you should be able to present some ideas to show that you're already thinking about problems (though this is less important for an MS). If you haven't done any research at all, you're in serious trouble unless you have impeccable grades to make up for it. So dig deep. Find anything that remotely resembles research. You need to prove to them that you can do research on your own, without guidance.
- Finally: How are you going to stand out?? — How are you going to stand out in the admissions officer's mind?? What will they call you to remember you by? "Oh, that's the librarian who's interested in accessibility of information," or "that's the guy who went backpacking in Europe," or "the guy who competed in the DARPA Grand Challenge." This doesn't have to be something academic. It just has to be the one thing that is really, truly unique, interesting, and memorable about your essay. It doesn't even have to be a significant moment in your life. It just has to be something that the mind of the reviewer can latch onto, something so they will still remember and identify you after reading hundreds of essays just like yours (no problem, right?).
One last tip: Try to write your essay so that it still reads the same if a reviewer reads only the first sentence of each paragraph—sometimes this is all they will have time to read! (In case you didn't notice, that is how I've written this post!)
Finally, you should read the following books. Whereas I've only tried to give you the overall themes you should strike upon, these books will give you the in-depth view. Try to find them at your local library.
- Graduate Admissions Essays, Fourth Edition: Write Your Way into the Graduate School of Your Choice, by Donald Asher
- How to Write the Perfect Personal Statement, by Mark Alan Stewart
- Getting What You Came For, by Robert L. Peters
- A PhD is Not Enough!, by Peter J. Feibelman
- Taken from this page in UBC's well-written FAQ for applicants.