How to write a personal statement

About a year ago, I served on the graduate admissions committee for my department.  I have two memories of the process.  First are the weekly Jimmy Johns roast beef sandwiches provided by our committee chair.  Second are the “personal statements.”  I must have read hundreds of personal statements.  But I enjoyed every one.  After months adrift in a sea of GRE scores and GPAs, reaching the personal statements was as welcome as reaching an inhabited island.  Finally, human conversation.

I heard many anecdotes from childhood:

When I was seven years old, I disassembled a VCR.  That’s when I knew I had to get a Ph.D. in computer science.

And many admirable goals:

I am applying because I want to save the world, and also the rain forest.

And even compliments:

Your graduate program is an unparalleled fount of scholarship unmatchable in its innate intellectual beauty.  Your professors: supreme exemplars of learning and enlightenment!

By and large the essays were fun to read, if occasionally bizarre.  But there was a problem.  They rarely ever told us why we should extend an offer of admission.  They were even less likely to explain why we should offer funding.  Almost all of the essays painted a good picture of the applicant.  Almost none told us what we needed to know.

What was missing was a description of how the applicant planned to fit in our program.  Here is what a Ph.D. student can expect to do: write research papers.  In the first year, he or she may take a few classes and participate in a research project in a small way.  In the second year, the student will work full time as a “second author”, engaged in a research project led by a professor or a senior graduate.  The student will usually do little writing until the third year, at which point writing will absorb a majority of the student’s learning energy.  Learning to write a research paper is extremely difficult, given the peculiar form expected by good research venues.  Years four and five will also be dedicated to obtaining results and struggling to write about those results.  By year six this should be (mostly) mastered, and the student will hopefully be ready to graduate.

A personal statement needs to demonstrate that the author is aware of this process.  The author should provide as much evidence as possible that he or she is prepared to begin, and will be successful.

So forget the anecdotes and lofty goals and compliments.  Start your essay by telling the committee what they are trying to find out:

I would make an excellent Ph.D. student in your department because…

Then explain your reasons and give your evidence.  A good reason is an aptitude for research, good evidence is a summer spent at an NSF REU site.  A good reason is a desire to learn scientific writing, good evidence is a published paper with your name on it.  A good reason is a relevant technical skill (such as programming), good evidence is an internship with a relevant company.

Avoid bad reasons.  Straight A’s do not guarantee admission because graduate research work is very different from undergraduate class work.  Athletic and study abroad experiences make you appear well-rounded, but are unrelated to the work you want us to pay you to do.  Keep your discussion of these to a minimum.

Do not make excuses for your weaknesses.  If your GPA is low because you bombed your first semester in college, explain how you learned and matured, not how “difficult” the transition is.  And by all means, ask your recommendation letter writers to help you.  If you have low GRE scores, a trump card would be a third-party letter explaining that you were instrumental on a project, and that the scores do not really reflect your abilities.

So whatever it may be called, the “personal statement”, the “statement of purpose”, the “application essay”, realize that the committee is working hard to find a place for you.  Help them discover how successful you will be.

* privacy note: the example quotes above are archetypes, not actual quotations.

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