Normally, the length of a personal statement will be dictated by the application—500 words or 800 words are typical limits, as are one-page or two-page limits. If you’re given, say, a count of 1,500 words, you need not write to the maximum length, but to compose only one-half of the word count might be an opportunity missed. In any case, what matters most is that the material you present conforms as closely as possible to these word or space restrictions—parts of your application might literally not be read if you violate the rules—and that your presentation is aesthetically pleasing and easy to read. To achieve these goals, I promote the following tips:
- If your personal statement is a stand-alone document within your application, open it with a simple heading such as “Personal Statement for Janet Lerner.” Thus, if your documents would get separated somehow, they could more easily be reassembled.
- If there are any pages to your essay beyond one, number them, and perhaps include your name on those pages as well.
- Choose a publishing font that is highly readable, such as Times or Bookman. Some fonts allow for more tightness to the text, which is fine as long as the essay remains readable. Ideally, use no more than a 12-point size and no less than a 10-point size, favoring the larger, and use the same font size throughout the document.
- Allow for ample enough margins that the reader isn’t distracted by cramped-looking text. Margins of at least one inch are standard.
- Single space your text, skipping a line between paragraphs. You can indent paragraph beginnings or not, as long as you’re consistent.
At times, especially when you fill out an application electronically or have to cut and paste, word limits will be defined by physical space. In such a case, keep enough white space between your text and the application text that the material isn’t crowded, and choose a font different from that used in the application if possible. Also, if your application is electronic and requires you to cut and paste text or conform to a word or character count, check the material that you input carefully to be certain that it’s complete and reads just as you wish it to. In some cases, you may lose special characters or paragraph breaks, and words over the maximum allowable count may be cut off. The safest practice is to proofread anything you send electronically within the very form in which it is sent.
Other online sites that give space to the subject of length and form in personal statements are these:
“Applying to Graduate School: Writing a Compelling Personal Statement,” from the International Honor Society in Psychology
“FAQs for Writing Your Graduate Admissions Essay,” from about.com