Writing Graduate Admissions Essays
One size is unlikely to fit all, and may not fit any! Don't expect to be able to write a single essay that approximately answers all the schools' questions; instead consider each school's question or prompt, and be sure to address all their specific points. Think of admissions essays as if they were your first essay tests for the school; you know not to overlook nuances in writing exam answers in your major, right? Give yourself time to do so in grad school essays, as well.
If you are simply asked to write a "personal statement" without specific guidelines, the following steps may help:
1) In some cases you might start by capturing the reader's attention with an anecdote that illustrates your interest in the field. If possible, tell a concrete story with specific details drawn from your experience. Thus, if you had an internship that confirmed your interest in this field of study, describe the experience in a couple of sentences. For example, "Last summer, as an intern at Ford's Theatre in Washington, I held a lock of Abraham Lincoln's hair in my hands. As I looked at it, I was able to imagine the Civil War and Lincoln's own assassination. I knew, then, that I wanted to pursue museum studies." At the same time, avoid a tedious description of the path you took to get to that interest. ("I came to Hanover intending to be pre-med, but...") and avoid beginning with the words, "I've always wanted to be a _______." Note that writing about an anecdote is not an effective approach if you don't have a formative event to describe. If your interest in the field evolved slowly, that's fine, too, but find a different introduction.
2) Discuss your own professional goals. While you are not committing yourself to a specific direction, writing as clearly as possible about your intended career path can help the reader determine if their program is the correct setting for you. Therefore, the more your goals align with options made possible by their particular degree, the better.
3) Demonstrate the appropriateness of your background. Admissions committees look for evidence that you understand the nature of the field, or better still, have personal experience in it. Thus, if you are applying to a professional school program (e.g. medicine, law, business, social work, environmental management), you should mention the experience you have in the field through paid employment, volunteering, classes, job shadowing, research grants, leadership activities, etc. However, if you plan on attending graduate school (e.g. to earn a Ph.D. or Master's degree in an academic discipline), the most related experience you can gain is through actual scholarship; in this case, you should mention the research experience you have, such as a senior thesis or directed study. Describe the presentations you have made, publications you have written, collaborative research you have conducted with faculty or others, conferences you have attended, and student memberships in academic societies. Finally, both for graduate and professional school, be sure to describe clearly the strengths that you will bring to the program.
4) Demonstrate your interest in that specific school by mentioning the aspects of its program that appeal to you. Be as specific as you can. The correspondence of your research interests to those of the faculty is of particular concern to graduate schools (but not to professional schools). Familiarize yourself with the curriculum, specific courses offered, reputations, strengths, and weaknesses of the program (the Career Center can help you research this!)
Finally, give your Statement of Purpose to faculty for their input and bring it to the Career Center for review. If a length is not specified, it is customary to restrict yourself to about 2-3 pages of 12 point, double-spaced (flawlessly produced) type.