Oh, so you'd like it if I just wrote your personal statement for you? I'm sure you would. Well, you twisted my arm. I may not write it for you, but I'll tell you what to write... and what not to write.
- Do be succinct. Remember that the admissions committee has to read hundreds of these, even after they weed out obvious poor choices. Brevity is of the essence. Sure, they are interested in your writing skills, but don't be overly florid. These are scientists. For the most part, keep to the facts.
- Do write about your research experience. Clinical psych programs are research vultures. If you have research experience (which you do, right?) write about it. But don't write about it in too much detail. They'll ask you about it in an interview if you can intrigue them enough, and too much detail takes up space in an essay that should be succinct. Of special note should be papers published, studies done entirely on your own, and studies in which you gained an exceptional amount of experience that is relevant to your topic of interest... and theirs. This is if you've done a lot of studies, though. If you've just done bits and pieces of a few studies, by all means, talk it up. But if you must choose, choose published, self-directed, and high-density studies. I was a co-author on a study that gained a lot of media attention, and I didn't even mention that one - it wasn't as relevant and there wasn't enough room. And probably nobody would have cared, to be realistic :)
- Don't write that you want to be a therapist, clinician, or the words "I want to help people." I made this mistake once, too, and it literally cost me an interview at at least one school (they told me about it). Remember: you love research. Say it. Even if you have the vaguest dream of being a clinician, this is not the time to bring it up. Yes, they train you to be a clinician. But they want you to do their research. If you want to be "Dr. Whoever" and you want to be primarily a clinician, and you want to completely avoid research, maybe look into getting a PsyD.
- Do write about what inspired you into the field of psychology. Especially if you have a good story, and you can keep it short. I had a terrifically lame story about that, but I had a very cute and touching story about what made me want to study schizophrenia. So I started the essay with it. Yeah, it's seems a little unprofessional, but they want to get to know the "real you." The real you as it relates to psychology, that is. I repeat, though: KEEP IT SHORT!
- Don't write in detail about your personal psychological issues. Unless you are John Nash or Kay Jamieson, it's unlikely that the average professor is going to be impressed by your own mental illnesses. It's true that many of us in the field of psychology are here because we overcame problems of our own. This is not the time to flaunt that, however. You want to show how stable you are, not how unstable you've been. Just don't risk it. In fact, even dwelling on friends' or relatives' illnesses is not the best idea. You can bring up friends/relatives, though, if it's part of your story or they ask about personal experiences. Just don't perseverate on it.
- Don't be bland. It's hard not to be bland when you're writing about how you analyzed somebody's data, or there are bunches of technical terms. Go ahead and write a bland personal statement first, just stating what you've done. Then, go back and inject some passion into it! Write about the amazing things your research could do for the world. Write about your personal philosophies of science. Hell, just go to a thesaurus and put in some jazzier wording. Or find a friend who you think is a very exciting, passionate person and ask them what you can add to make your statement more exciting, while still sounding utterly professional.
- Do tell a story. You know how they always tell you to write papers like an inverted triangle - really general to really specific? Try writing a statement like a story. First, the story of how you got interested in psychology. Then, just write in sequence about your life as it relates to your graduate aspirations. I wrote about what got me interested, then undergrad, grad school, my job, why I wanted to go to that school, and why I wanted to work with that specific person. It can make a nice buildup. It's not the only way to write a statement, but a good thing to try if you're stuck. Just remember...
- Don't dwell too much on your past. You may have had amazing experiences in psychology that brought you to the grad-school-ready person you are today. But try not to spend an inordinate amount of your application talking about your past, or you may not end up with enough room to talk about your future. And your future is what your potential graduate school is going to reap the benefits of. Talk about your past for maybe half the statement, but leave lots of room to talk about your future at that particular school - why you like the program, why you like that professor, and emphasize not only how dedicated you are to their topics of interest, but how you can contribute...
- Do write about your research ideas! If you have a few good ideas, or can even brainstorm a few for the purpose of your personal statement, by all means, include them! This is the absolute best advice I ever got for writing personal statements, and I saved the best for last. Professors love to hear that you're reading their research and related research, that you've given it some thought, and that YOU might be holding the torch that brings their research into the next generation. Learn about that professor's research interests, read their papers, and come up with some ideas to suggest. Be humble about it, of course - you're not a researcher yet - but show that you do have ideas, and that you're not shy about making suggestions. Show them that you have a brain and you're not afraid to use it.