Statement of Purpose
The statement of purpose or something like it is required for every graduate school application, though some schools will call it a research statement or a personal statement, which is actually something different (see below). If an application requires a single essay, no matter what they call it, it is the statement of purpose. The question prompt will read something like this one (taken from Michigan's application in 2005):
"The Statement of Purpose should be a concise, well-written essay about your background, your career goals, and how Michigan’s graduate program will help you meet your career and educational objectives."
Many professors, department websites, applications, and current graduate students will tell you that the statement of purpose is the most important part of the application. While the statement of purpose is the best way for the admissions committee to gauge your writing skills, it is quite different from the college admissions essay, or the law school personal statement. Admissions committees will not be looking for the most well-written essay with the catchiest introduction. Rather, the reason they say the statement of purpose is important is that the research interest match between you and the program is the most important factor for admission, and your interests are revealed in the statement of purpose. In addition to making sure your interests and experiences are aligned with the program's offerings, the statement of purpose is a way for the admissions officers to see how you think, either by your evaluation of your prior research experiences and coursework, and/or by the new ideas that you present as possibilities of what to pursue in graduate school and beyond. Here are some tips for the personal statement.
The personal statement is a requirement for a small percentage of graduate programs. It is not the same as a statement of purpose. If you are reading this section because your application instructions ask for a personal statement and no other essay, odds are the application is actually asking for a statement of purpose and you should read the previous section.
A personal statement prompt will read something like this (taken from the University of California--Berkeley in 2005):
"Please provide a statement about how your personal history or experiences have influenced your intellectual development and future goals. This statement can include a discussion of educational and cultural opportunities or of circumstances that deprived you of these; family background; economic circumstances; special interests and abilities; and community or social service involvement, especially as they intersect your academic goals and intellectual pursuits."
You may wonder why some schools ask for this essay, and what information to put in it. It may help to understand the history of this statement at some schools. Like most institutions of higher education, the public schools in California and Michigan are dedicated to maintaining diverse environments that serve students from a variety of backgrounds as opposed to just the most elite and privileged ones. However, these states have laws prohibiting any kind of affirmative action for underrepresented or oppressed groups. In order to legally achieve their goals, California and Michigan schools implemented the personal statement, in which they could learn more about the applicant and his/her background, as well as how that background could positively contribute to the University. Other schools have occasionally followed suit simply to acquire similar personal information, even without the same legal restrictions on admissions.
If you are someone who has overcome barriers to higher education or you have helped break down these barriers for others, you should talk about that in your essay. The main purpose of this essay is to identify those individuals. Mentioning this information may substantially help your chances of admission and/or access to scholarships. On the other hand, the goal is not to make yourself appear as unfortunate or as saintly as possible; doing so will rub committee members the wrong way and will make you sound like a whiny brat or arrogant. Rather, if you have had unusually fortunate educational opportunities (e.g. study abroad) you should mention them if they fit in your overall narrative, and express that you are grateful for them. Your chances will not be hurt if you have a privileged background. Just respond to the essay prompt to the best of your ability. Most committee members will use this essay to get an idea of your personality and to evaluate the clarity of your writing.
I am someone who came from a privileged background and at the time I did not have a wealth of community service experience. I used the essay to talk about how I was a late bloomer academically, but how cognitive psychology (my field) made me excited about learning. I then talked about my extra curricular and leadership activities in college, my interests in and experiences with teaching, and my desire to inspire other late bloomers to reach their potential.
At this time, there is no example personal statement on the website (I felt mine was a bit too personal to share beyond what I've said already!) but depending on demand there may be more specific tips for tackling this essay, including possibly an example statement.