When talking about your past in a personal statement, you want to focus on those events that have led you to this point in your academic and professional career. This is not a place to discuss formative events from your youth, tragedies you experienced while in high school, or humorous but random stories about your first part-time job…. Unless, that is, those stories somehow connect to your decision to pursue graduate studies.
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Talk in specificities, not generalities
Other good stories to tell are those that give insights into how you became passionate about the particular field of study you have chosen to pursue. As most people understand, graduate school is interesting in that such a massive variety of different fields, from classical literature to mechanical engineering, are all covered under the umbrella of “graduate school.” Because of this, your personal statement needs to focus on your motivations in your particular field of study, not on more general academic or professional accomplishments.
Share specific experiences
When discussing your past, sharing specific experiences is an excellent way to color your statement with compelling stories. Rather than simply saying, “I did this” and “I studied that,” you can share details of individual experiences that occurred while undertaking various jobs and courses. Then, you can broaden your discussion to show how that specific experience is representative of a broader period in your life.
Take the following statement for instance:
“I have excelled in a rigorous schedule of relevant courses throughout my undergraduate career.”
Such a comment, though it may seem important, really doesn’t provide any information beyond what the reader already knows – if this wasn’t the case, you wouldn’t be pursuing a graduate degree in this field. Instead of making such points, show how your experience has been unique and formative. You might try saying something like:
“While completing a rigorous schedule of undergraduate courses, I forged a strong bond with my adviser and began collaborating with him on an independent research project.”
It's even better if you can mention exactly what the independent research project is, to further elaborate upon your own unique expertise and experience.
Mention what got you started
Lastly, don’t forget that you’ve most likely had formative experiences related to your particular field in places other than academia. If you’re pursuing an advanced degree in history, perhaps you could share a brief story about how your passion for history was sparked by a novel about World War II. Or if you’re applying to a program in chemical engineering, you could mention your childhood fascination with chemicals and how you always used to ask what they were made of. The most important thing to keep in mind is that you are telling your own unique story – nobody else is going to have the same one, and you shouldn’t try to make your experiences conform to some standard that you think is appropriate or typical.