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Graduate School Personal Statement


Since I am applying for grad schools,  I went through the same quagmire faced by many other applicants: I could not fathom what to put in my personal statement. For professional guides who write books on “how to pen a grad statement” and for professors who read more than a dozen personal statements the answer is obvious: just answer the question.

After writing so many papers in your undergraduate classes on topics that were either loosely or specifically defined, why is it so hard to answer a few questions asking you what are your research interests, what motivates you to go into a field, and what are your plans?  In my experience, the process of cutting down the unnecessary out of your application and answering the question is rather simple. The problem is that when you read the statement in which you so pragmatically cut down the crap, you see it dull and unimaginative, so you think that you should tailor it, add some poignancy, an inspirational story, maybe even talk about your grandmother’s illness. From then on your statement goes through a series of transformations and ends up utterly diluted. But is this a bad thing?

There are mixed opinions on that. Some, such as  Dr. Isis, FemaleScienceProfessor, and Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde, who are all in the sciences, took a more utilitarian approach, where what matters most in an applicant is not the desire to take on a field, but the ability to do research. Definitely, you do not want an applicant who has the goal to find a cure for cancer but who lacks the capacity to do that. Hence, the advice from this side of the camp is to be specific and to the point, surely not a task at which Miss Congeniality excels:

Video1: Yeah, yeah…sue me for stereotyping.

Others disagree. A personal statement should certainly cover thoroughly the questions required by grad schools, but it is ok if it includes something more than that.  A personal statement is often a good chance for professors to know who your usual self is. After all, professors are working with grads for about five years, and it could be difficult for them to get along with a brilliant student who nonetheless cankers at any mishap. Additionally, a personal statement allows applicants to reveal some of the challenges they went through. Death of a close family member or friend is a very tragic event, and for some people it is life-changing. Being part of a disadvantaged group or background is another experience that is also probably prevalent in grad statements, and mentioning it often does point that an applicant shows persistence in difficult situations. Hence, this side of the camp has nothing against the “grandmother’s Alzheimer story.”

Where are those who are still working on their essays left? Since I received so many mixed opinions, I think that it would be hard to make any statements here. The Higgs boson is more likely to be discovered than a guide that guarantees you a successful grad statement.  Hence, I have only a few tidbits that you might not find elsewhere:

1. Read anything you find about the program of your interest. I recommend tracking down any articles or forums that describe the departments you are applying to (its labs, professors, etc.). This helps you when you want to tailor you application.

2. Read a couple of articles by professors under whom you would like to work and mention your interest in their area when you write the essay. Make sure to be genuine, otherwise you might end up with what you ask.

3. If are at a disatvantage because of your grades, lack of research experience, or low GRE scores, then explain why. Do this only if you have a good reason, such as heavy workload at your job, not because you feel like you need to come up with rationalizations. They will notice when you make noisy excuses.

Do not ask me to share my statement. Only after five years I will have the lucidity to judge whether it is something so embarrassing that is worthy to be shared or not.
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  1. January 12, 2011 at 3:07 am

    Most what i read online is trash and copy paste but you definitely add value. Keep it like this.

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