It’s the night before the application deadline and Jamal has completed all application forms, requested transcripts, and asked for letters of recommendation from his professors and research mentor. One last piece needs his attention, however: the personal statements. One application states, “ Discuss how your past educational, research and/or work experience(s) will contribute to your proposed studies.” Another application asks, “What are your career goals and how do you see our program supporting your goals?”
Jamal thinks, “I’ll write up a quick one-pager of my life story and send it to all the programs I’m applying to. The review committees won’t even look at it. Anyway, I’m a science major, not an English major.”
Jamal’s approach to writing a personal statement is risky; he is making several assumptions that could jeopardize his admission to graduate school. In my capacity as program coordinator of undergraduate educational research programs, I have learned what admissions committees are looking for in a personal statement. I am aware of the mistakes students commonly make and offer suggestions about how to present yourself effectively.
What is a personal statement and why is it important?
A personal statement (also known as graduate school essay, statement of interest, statement of goals, among other names) is a document, submitted as part of a graduate school application, that describes your abilities, attributes, and accomplishments as evidence of your aspirations for pursuing a graduate education and, beyond that, a career in research. This is your chance to stand out from all the other applicants.
An important quality of a graduate school personal statement is how well it communicates professional ambitions in personal terms. It outlines a career-development plan including previous experiences, current skills, and future goals. Faculty reviewing graduate school applications want to know that you have a personal commitment--the deeper the better--to the path you desire.
What is the structure of a personal statement?
Your personal statement should clearly express your understanding of what graduate school is about and how the graduate degree will build upon your previous experiences toward the attainment of your career goals. The outline below is just a guideline, a suggested structure. You can follow it precisely or devise a structure of your own. But either way, make sure your personal statement has structure and that it makes sense.
The Introduction--Set the stage for the rest of your essay. Begin with a hook (i.e., a personal anecdote that relates to your career path, a unique perspective on your academic career, or a statement that clearly summarizes your level of commitment) that will draw the reader into your story. Once you lose a reader, he or she is gone for good. On the other hand, don’t get too creative or humorous; you may offend someone inadvertently.
The Body--Describe your experiences, professional goals, your motivation for attaining these goals, and how you intend to get there. Discuss the research project(s) you’ve been involved with intelligently and clearly: identify your research area, state the research question you were addressing, briefly describe the experimental design, explain the results, state the conclusions, and describe what you gained from the experience. If you have not been directly involved in hands-on research, describe other experiences you’ve had that have influenced your career path, how the graduate degree will advance you toward your career goals, and why you feel you would be adept at such a career. Provide evidence of your progress and accomplishments in science, such as publications, presentations at conferences, leadership positions, outreach to younger students, and related experiences that sparked your interest in specific areas of science. Since this section--the body--demonstrates that you can communicate science effectively, you should devote the bulk of your writing time to it.
The Conclusion--Once you're done with the body, it's just a matter of wrapping things up. This is a good place to reaffirm your preparation and confidence that graduate school is right for you. Explain what contributions you hope to make--to science or society--and how a graduate degree will help you make that contribution.
Questions to consider
The following questions will help shape your personal statement. Address the ones you feel are most appropriate to what you want to convey to the review committee. Most of these questions will be addressed in the body of the piece, but one or more may help you structure the article as a whole.
Why should the admissions committee be interested in you? Why might you be a stronger candidate for graduate school than other applicants?
How or when did you become interested in a specific area of science? Was it through classes, readings, seminars, work, or conversations with people already in the field? What have you learned about the field and about yourself that has further stimulated your interests?
Are there any gaps or discrepancies in your academic record that you need to explain?
Have you had to overcome any unusual obstacles or hardships in your life? How have these experiences shaped your professional growth?
What personal characteristics do you possess that would tend to improve your chances of success in the field (i.e ., persistence, determination, good problem-solving skills, a knack for collaborative--or independent--work)? Provide evidence.
What experiences, skills, attributes, both in and out of the lab, make you qualified?
Tailor your personal statement to the institution and program you’re applying to. Be certain your statement is in line with the program’s mission and focus. Describe why you want to work with specific faculty members in that particular program. If you’re interested in studying obesity, for example, be sure that institution or program has researchers working on obesity.
Describe your research concisely and leave out minute details (e.g., 1M solution of NaCl was added to the master mix at 50oC…).
Stick to the length guidelines specified in the application. If there aren't any length guidelines, keep the document to about 2 single-spaced pages of typewritten text, no more than 3 pages.
Proofread for spelling, punctuation, and grammar errors.
Give your essay to at least 3 other people who will provide feedback and suggestions for improvement. Consider all feedback and revise accordingly.
Don’t use slang.
Don’t use abbreviations unless generally known in the scientific community (AIDS and DNA are fine, but spell out other, discipline-specific technical terms instead of using abbreviations).
Don’t make up experiences you’ve never had or write what you think the review committee wants to hear.
Don’t send in a first draft.
Write it yourself; don't steal--or borrow--someone else's words.
Don’t say you want to help people, want to cure cancer, or use other clichés. A desire to help humanity can be a plus, but only when expressed in very specific terms.
Things to keep in mind
Here are three points that you should be aware of while writing.
Remember your audience. Applicant review committees are composed primarily of faculty from the department you are applying to. They may be familiar with some terminology but assume that they are not familiar with all aspects of your research project. Faculty read many--sometimes hundreds of--applications. Make your statement unique.
If you are submitting applications to multiple programs, each personal statement should be customized for that particular institution and application. Ensure that each personal statement includes the correct name of the institution or program and states faculty member's names correctly.
Ensure that you address specific questions posed as part of the personal statement portion of each application for different programs.
The personal statement is an important part of your application package. Developing one is a process that takes time, persistence, and revision. Start early and take it seriously. Remember, the statement is a reflection of you. Don’t be like Jamal. Use it to your advantage and it will land you an interview with your program of choice. Happy writing.
More from Careers
Brian Rybarczyk is director of academic and professional development at UNC Chapel Hill's graduate school. He has a Ph.D. in pathology and laboratory medicine from the University of Rochester.
I recently went to lunch with a college friend who has been deciding whether she wants to apply to graduate school. Her other considerations: medical school, working in the private sector, getting a government job, or applying to Masters of Public Health (MPH) programs. She’s 24, extremely bright, and not locked into any specific career path. The options are limitless. So how do you decide your next step?
My advice to her was to write the application essays and cover letters to any programs and jobs she was seriously considering. Yes, this is extremely time-consuming. Some of us hate to write; it’s tedious and frustrating, so writing 5 documents to programs you might not even apply to seems like a waste of time. But when I was trying to figure out my next step, the graduate school application was extremely useful in identifying why I liked science, what I wanted from a career, what research interested me, and what opportunities existed at research universities across the globe that would help me achieve my goals. Researching the internet and taking mental notes on what programs interest you are effective at guiding a decision. But the process of developing written, cogent arguments that convince both readers and yourself that you should attend specific graduate programs can be extremely enlightening. The most successful graduate students are motivated to answer research questions that are tremendously interesting to them. What better time to start figuring out what you want to study than while writing your application essay?
I tell you this anecdote not to convince you to write an essay for every potential program or job you are considering. Instead, I hope to convince you that the application essay is not meant to be a hurdle to your next step. Use this writing opportunity to help you make the best decision for you. If you’re really struggling to write a compelling argument as to why you should join a program, perhaps that program is not best for you. I was uncertain if I wanted to attend graduate school when I began the application process. But the essay writing process convinced and excited me about a future in STEM. I hope that with the following tips, you too will make an informed decision about your next career move.
Focus on some of your interests, not all
If you’re like me, your intellectual interests aren’t constrained to the research of a single department. The personal essay, however, is meant for clearly convey the research topics you’d be interested in committing five years of your life to. There are two approaches to identifying which topics to express interest in. Some applicants might have already identified what projects they’d like to work on during their Ph.D. If that’s the case, the applicant should carefully identify universities who carry out similar research since it only makes sense to attend a graduate school where those projects are possible. Alternatively, if you’re not entirely sure what you want to study, browse through faculty research descriptions and discuss what about specific laboratories excite you. It’s risky writing about research that is not necessarily studied at the university you are applying to; however, part of the beauty of working in academia is that new projects are born daily. If it’s something you’re passionate about and driven to initiate, include it in your essay. Your creativity and enthusiasm may put you at a competitive advantage.
Anecdotes are sometimes more insightful than explicit commentary
The introduction to my graduate school essay started with a childhood story (a clichéd approach, but I’m a strong believer that childhood hobbies are revealing). As a child, I was obsessed with watching tadpoles and butterflies undergo metamorphosis. Later, I convinced my college roommates to let me contain spring peeper tadpoles in our apartment (I didn’t know this was a weird request until my business major roommate told me it was). During my undergraduate studies, I performed developmental biology research, which inherently complemented my childhood interests. It seemed only natural to start my essay describing what had fascinated me when I was 7.
Childhood stories are common but hardly a requirement. Readers will enjoy some form of anecdote that shows how interested you are in a specific subject. Coursework, scientific publications, extracurricular activities, conversations with professors, film, and art are all great places to draw inspiration from to show your passion for STEM. Convince your readers of your interests, rather than just stating what they are. Explanations as to how you became interested in certain things are best.
Focus on results
When writing undergraduate admissions essays, creative storytelling is applauded and rehashing your resumé is discouraged. When writing your STEM graduate school application essay, however, it is important to highlight your accomplishments. Scientists are results focused. That isn’t to say you can’t include stories or creative descriptions that express your passion. But if you’re going to discuss past research experiences, be sure to mention relevant skills obtained, publications, posters, talks, or awards. Affirm your ability to communicate, produce publishable results, and ask meaningful, relevant scientific questions.
Confidence is better than doubt
It might feel tempting to hint at your uncertainty about attending graduate school in the personal essay; however, the best essays convince your school of choice that you’re confident their program will help you achieve your goals. If you are uncertain (which we all are to some degree), approach the personal essay as an exercise to convince yourself and others. Of course, be truthful. But the tone of the essay should be confident as you explain your rationalization for applying to their program.
Research the University beyond the laboratories
One way to show that you’re serious about a program is to identify very specific qualities that make you want to attend that university. Identifying specific laboratories you’d like to join is a good start. But take it a step further and pinpoint specific resources, collaborations, courses, research paradigms, and university policies that make you excited to take part in their research community. Graduate schools and their respective universities have countless resources that can expand your skillset and establish multidisciplinary perspectives. Show that you’ve done your research about the program by expressing what sorts of things you’d participate in if accepted to the program. Not only will you show that you’ve done your research (as good PhD students do), you will also show that you are interested in science beyond the laboratory. Mentioning these programs is also a great segue for sharing your career goals, especially if you hope to use your STEM education in policy, science writing, education, or biotechnology. Graduate schools are interested in well balanced students who can apply what they learn in the classroom and the laboratory to future positions in academia and the private and public sectors. The personal essay is a great way to show your potential to make a difference outside the lab.
Yes, writing can be time-consuming and tedious. The application essay, however, is the perfect opportunity to figure out and outline what YOU want to do both in graduate school and your future career. Use this writing opportunity to be productive: explore what makes you excited about science and formulate a plan on how a graduate program can help you accomplish your goals. Not only will this writing process help you become a better applicant, it will help you figure out exactly what scientific questions are worth committing a lifetime to.