As I review drafts of personal statements from prospective graduate school applicants, some issues arise over and over. The drafts often seem like resumes in narrative form, lists of activities without much context or meaning. This article highlights the points of feedback I most frequently provide, focusing on ways to add substance to your personal statement.
Why do you want to go to graduate school? Why do you like this particular graduate program?
Ask yourself “why?”
The competition for entry into graduate programs is increasing. Your graduate education requires a large investment of other people’s time and money. It’s up to you to convince the admissions committee that if they let you in, that time and money won’t be wasted.
The best way to achieve that is to convince the committee that you have a vision—that admission to their graduate program is an obvious and useful next step in your career trajectory. But before you can convince the admissions committee, you need to figure it out yourself: Why do you want to go to graduate school? Why do you like this particular graduate program? If you don’t have a convincing answer, maybe you should wait a while—maybe look for a job in a research lab and apply for admission in a year or two, when you have a clearer vision of your future. A clear conviction that this graduate degree will move you toward your career goals is essential.
We’ve all had experiences that sparked interest in a new area of research or changed how we think about science. Such experiences are important for conveying your basic science story—for convincing the admissions committee that you have a vision of your future that has emerged over time. You need to show that your record of success in college and research isn’t random but, rather, a record of opportunities exploited as you work toward a desired end: the particular career in science that you’re pursuing.
Even much older scientists spend some time exploring, and that’s OK; there’s no need to try and hide your explorations. But your application will be much stronger if you can convince the graduate admissions committee that you have an increasingly clear vision for your future and a plan for how to get there. So place your experiences in context: Why did you decide to participate in that summer research program? Why did you choose your undergraduate research mentor? Why did you spend extra time in the lab despite a heavy course load? Why did you attend and present at a national conference, and what did you learn from that experience? How did your engagement with mentors shape your scientific identity? How does graduate school—this particular graduate program—fit that bigger picture?
Enhancing a description of your research
I use the metaphor of the hourglass to help writers shape a description of a research experience: big, small, and big. Start with the big-picture background, move toward the specifics of your project, and then connect the two together: How do the results of your research contribute to the field? Your ability to explain this clearly and succinctly—to place your particular research in context—demonstrates your command of the big picture. You need to communicate the rationale for pursuing a particular question and choosing a specific experimental approach, and you need to explain why the results matter. Describe your role in the project and what you learned about science from experience. A strong personal statement may also include a proposal for next steps in the project, which demonstrates that you are forward thinking, an important skill as a future graduate student.
Graduate studies are expected to develop advanced cognitive skills. When asked, “What skills do you bring to the table?” many young scientists respond with a list of laboratory techniques they used in their undergraduate research projects. Those skills are valuable, but that list isn’t what the admissions committee is looking for. Analytical thinking, problem solving, and synthesizing and evaluating information are among the higher-level skills needed to be successful in graduate school. Your essay should convey your progress toward mastering such skills. Here are some questions that may help you to achieve this, along with some skills that your responses should demonstrate:
- What experience do you have working in a collaborative environment? How do you contribute to the effectiveness of a team? (Skills: team science, collaboration, communication)
- How have you demonstrated your commitment to seeing a project through to completion? (Skills: project management, initiative, leadership)
- Have you encountered opportunities to solve problems? What strategies have you employed? How did it turn out? (Skill: problem solving)
- What alternatives have you proposed to address a research question? Were your alternative approaches successful? (Skill: critical thinking)
Motivation, maturity, independence, and enthusiasm for and commitment to science are crucial to success as a graduate student, so they should come across in your personal statement. There’s no formula for conveying these intangible traits, but providing examples of your character, work ethic, and professionalism will help highlight them.
Addressing challenges and deficiencies
Many students have faced personal and professional challenges. Personal or family health issues, child care issues, financial crises, and so on may have affected your academic progress or state of mind, contributing to deficiencies in your academic record or productivity. An applicant can write about these challenges in the personal statement, but it’s important not to dwell on them too much. The best approach is to describe how these challenges were addressed and what you learned from the process. Emphasize how you managed them and continued to make progress.
A generically written personal statement won’t get you far in the application process. It won’t sound authentic, and it won’t be convincing. Just like a cover letter for a job application, graduate school applicants should tailor their personal statements for the programs they are applying to. Here are a few suggestions.
- Highlight an area of research that the program is strong in, and describe how it matches your scientific interests.
- Identify faculty members, collaborative groups, institutes, initiatives, projects, and resources that fit your research goals.
- Explain how a program’s structure fits your expectations and needs. You may choose to emphasize options for course selection or sequence, the interdisciplinary nature of the program, flexibility for arranging lab rotations, the program’s length, support for academic and professional development, or the presence in the program of particular researchers.
Get critical feedback
Obtaining feedback on your personal statement (or any piece of writing) can be intimidating, but feedback is essential for creating a polished and readable document. Asking a best friend for feedback may result in a canned response—“sounds good,” or “I like it”—which isn’t helpful. Instead, seek feedback from trusted scientific peers, advisers, and mentors. Reading critiques of your writing can be disheartening and frustrating, but such feedback will continue throughout your career and is important for improving your communication skills—so get used to it.
You may find that comments on your personal statement vary widely and even contradict each other. Pay attention to all of them, and decide for yourself whether they make sense—but if there are consistent patterns in the critiques, i.e. the same suggestion made by all (or most) reviewers, that is certainly an area to revise.
To receive more meaningful constructive feedback, it may be helpful to ask your reviewers questions, such as these:
- Is my personal statement convincing? Do you believe I really want to go to graduate school—to this graduate school—and that I understand why I want to go?
- Are the examples appropriate? Does the statement hook the reader in and make them want to read more?
- Does it answer the essay prompt?
- Are the explanations of the research experiences clearly understandable for a nonexpert?
- Does it convey the skills that I’m developing as a future scientist?
- What about the writing? Is it well organized? Does it make sense? Are the transitions effective?
Precision is an important part of science, and no graduate program is interested in candidates that don’t take (or appear to take) their admissions process seriously. An error-riddled essay sends precisely that message: Either you aren’t precise or you don’t care. Even a single typo can be a turnoff. So try to eliminate all obvious errors.
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Even if you follow all this advice, I still can’t guarantee that you’ll get accepted to all of your dream graduate programs—that depends on the quality of all the work you’ve done up to now—but I can guarantee that your personal statement will improve and that you will look like a more authentic and substantial candidate. Good luck.