How to write a personal statement for a grad school application

There is a bit of an art to writing a personal statement for a graduate school application. Here’s how to do it.

Applying to a graduate program means filling out a lot of paperwork–and writing a thing or two yourself. One of those things is called a personal statement, and there is a bit of an art to writing one.  Here’s some advice for doing it.

The first thing to know about a personal statement is this: it’s not actually personal.  Your goal in a “personal statement” is not to tell the admissions committee who you are “as a person,” but rather to take advantage of this opportunity to speak to them to show that you would be a good fit for their program.

What that means: you want the admissions committee member who is reading your statement to finish saying this to themself: oh–they could work with our faculty member Dr. Zipf [insert some actual faculty member of the institution in question, unless you’re applying to my institution].   (The pronoun themself is explained in the English notes below.)

How you lead them to that happy conclusion: don’t tell them, but show them.  Here are some things that you can do:

  1. State that you are interested in one or two specific areas of research of that department.
  2. State that you became interested in the/those topic when doing a research project on that topic…
  3. or, if you have not done research on that topic, then that you got interested in it/them while doing research on some other topic and coming across a paper on the topic by some member of the faculty of the department to which you are applying.
  4. List some areas of specialization within that topic or some related topics that you would be interested in working on, where those specializations or related topics are actually areas of research that members of the department to which you are applying work within.

Why I say one or two: you very much want to avoid a situation where (a) only one person in the department works on a topic, and (b) you don’t know it, but that person is getting ready to retire/move to another institution/begin a three-year period as the Associate Dean for Reproducibility, or something.  You avoid that situation by either (a) talking about a topic that two or more people in the department actually work on, or (b) talking about more than one topic.

Now, you may be asking yourself: what if I can’t find anyone in the department who works on my area of interest? The answer:

If you cannot find anyone in the department who works in your area of interest, then that department is not a good fit for you.

…and that’s exactly what the department wants to know.  In fact, if you apply to a graduate school and they don’t accept you, it is entirely reasonable to assume until proven otherwise that they’re not rejecting you, but just don’t see their department as the right place for you.

Need to know how to ask for a letter of recommendation for graduate school?

Click here.

This post is written on the basis of my time on the admissions committee of a medium-sized graduate program in computational biology.  If you have other perspectives/opinions on the subject, please add them to the comments below!

English notes

When you get deep into the weeds of the English language, one of the things that you run into is dialectal variation in pronoun use.  For example:

Dative pronouns in conjoined subject noun phrases: In the Pacific Northwest region of the United States, if you have a subject with two more people joined by a conjunction (e.g. and or or), then the pronouns are in the dative form, not the subject form.  For example, look at these contrasts:

  • I’m going to the store.  (subject)
  • He’s going to the store.  (subject)
  • Me and him are going to the store. (dative)
  • Him and me are going to the store. (dative)
  • Anaïs is going to the store. (subject)
  • They are going to the store. (subject)
  • Anaïs and them are going to the store. (dative)

Even in the Pacific Northwest, you don’t have to talk this way–it’s pretty regionally specific, and people will understand you just fine if you say he and I are going to the store.  But, if you are in that part of the country, you have to be able to understand it.

Atypical reflexive pronouns: Other oddnesses have to do with the reflexive forms of pronouns.  For example, in my dialect, the third-person plural forms they/them/their are used if you don’t know the gender of the referent.  Straightforward enough–that usage goes back centuries in English. But: in a reflexive context (i.e. when the subject is doing something to itself or for itself), you get a variety of forms, depending on number:

  1. You want the admissions committee member who is reading your statement to finish saying this to themself: oh–they could work with our faculty member Dr. Zipf [insert some actual faculty member of the institution in question, unless you’re applying to my institution].  That is obscure enough that it does not even show up in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary.
  2. My aunt and uncle bought themselves a new copy of the compact edition of the Oxford English dictionary. This plural form is totally standard American English.
  3. My aunt and uncle each bought themselfs a new pair of sunglasses. …and that one, again, does not show up in Merriam-Webster.

This raises a question: how would someone who doesn’t speak a dialect like this say (1) and (3)? I’m pretty sure that in (3), they would say themselves.  But, (1)?  I don’t know another way of saying it–native speakers?

The picture at the top of this post is of Oxley Hall on the Ohio State University campus. I had the pleasure of getting a master’s degree in linguistics there in the 1990s. Mostly we hung out in the basement analyzing spectrograms, but we would occasionally sneak up into the tower.  Fun.


Jokes that can’t be translated

Sucking the joy out of language for 30 years

Things written in [square brackets] are in the International Phonetic Alphabet.

French: A farmer in Picardy takes his pig to the vet.  The vet says to him: c’est tatoué?  The farmer says: ben sûr c’est à mwé!

English: What’s black and white and [rɛd] all over?  A newspaper.

American Spanish: How is a cat like a priest? Ambos [kasan].  

The French joke relies on a regional dialect where oi is at least sometimes pronounced wé rather than wa.  The vet asks the farmer is it tattooed? in standard French, but the farmer understands it in the regional dialect as is it yours?, and answers of course it’s mine!

The English joke relies on the homophony between the color red and the past tense of the verb to read.  This riddle puzzled the shit out of me when I was a small child, which in retrospect I should have realized meant that I was never going to be a very good linguist.

The Spanish joke relies on the American Spanish non-distinction between the pronunciation of and s.  (“American Spanish” means Spanish as spoken in the Americas, i.e. South, Central, and North America.)  A cat casa (hunts), while a priest caza (marries).  They’re written differently, and in Spain (and maybe some upper-class American dialects, but I can’t swear to it) are pronounced differently, but they’re pronounced the same in the Americas.

Sucking the joy out of language since 1989,

Beauregard Zipf

English notes

vet: This word can mean two things in American English:

  • veterinarian, as in the joke.  Examples:
    • took my dog to the vet just to find out he’s sick af (af = “as fuck,” an adverb meaning “a lot”)
    • My dog hates going to the vet.
    • Ask a cat vet online now
  • veteran, or former member of the military.  Examples:
    • She and other vets said there’s frustration that the President is quick to claim credit for successes and happy to bask in the reflection of the military’s luster but doesn’t follow through on tough issues. 
    • Vets groups decry hatred, racism in wake of Charlottesville violence (Source: headline here.  Charlottesville is a city in North Carolina where the president of the United States of America defended a white supremacist rally at which an anti-racism protester was killed.)
    • The veteran’s voice is crucial to changing the hate rhetoric directed at Muslims. “When I served in the United States Marine Corps, I took an oath to the Constitution of the United States. There is a First Amendment, which respects religious tolerance and freedom of speech,” stated John Amidon, Vietnam vet and member of Veterans For Peace.

Picture source:

What computational linguists actually do all day: The variable reuse edition

I know, I know–computational linguistics seems like the most glamorous job in the world, right?

Dearly Beloved Colleagues,

I just spent several frustrating hours trying to fix a bug in my code.  In the end, the bug was purely a logic bug, and it was purely the product of poor variable-naming.

Code is the instructions that you write in a computer language, for a program to execute.

Here’s what happened.  I’m writing the world’s simplest script–I just need to read in some files that contain values for features for individual files–or, to put it better: for individual papers that I want to classify.

script is a kind of computer program, typically one that does a relatively simple task.

…and, with that, I think you can already guess what happened.  I was opening files that contained features that I had extracted from other files, and I reused a variable name.  Consequently, once my script reached some critical length, I could no longer keep track in my own head of the code that I was editing.  So, my test cases found a simple bug, and in the process of fixing that bug, I got myself so confused that I was mixing up the “files” in the sense of “papers that I’m classifying” and the “files” in the sense of “files containing feature values from papers,” and the next thing you know, several hours have gone by.

variable is something in a computer program whose value can be changed.  It’s the opposite of a constant, which is something whose value cannot be changed.  For example, the number is a constant–its value will always be 3.  On the other hand, a computer program might contain something called length_of_word, intended to store the length of some word that you’re looking at, and that length could be anything, in principle.  (Really?  How about 0?  Or a negative number?  This kind of unstated assumption is one way that computer programs can go wrong.)

This is one of those things that gets fixed by (1) printing out my code on actual paper, noticing the same variable name in two clearly-marked-off-as-different sections of the code, and thinking “Zipf, you might be even more stupid than you knew…”; (2) sitting in the Philadelphia sun with a pack of cigarettes and a quality zombie novel for a while (Déchirés, by Peter Stenson–the zombie apocalypse comes and the only people who survive are meth addicts–I think you can come to your own conclusion about the metaphor a lot quicker than I fixed my code); and then (3) you go back and look at the code and you see immediately how you managed to confuse the heck out of yourself.

My error here was in reusing my variable to store two different kinds of information.  This is a classic error in computer programming. I either didn’t notice that I was doing it when I moved from the first part of the program to the second part, or more likely, noticed it but didn’t think that it would be a problem because the script was relatively short and simple.  The problem with variable reuse is not for the program itself; rather, the problem is for the programmer, because variable reuse is a great way to confuse yourself.  That’s exactly what I did–bad Zipf, bad!

Happy Saturday from Penn Student Housing, where either the kid in D3 is going to stop throwing rotting chicken in the communal trash can or he’s going to wake up with it in his bed,


I notice that I’ve been writing a lot of whiny posts about computational linguistics lately.  In fact I LOVE my job, enough so that I am probably one of the happiest people you know–or don’t know.  Want the English-language version of Déchirés?  Here it is: Fiend.  I read it three times in English before I read it in French, so it MUST be good, right?

Billet-doux: love letter

This is a love letter.  It’s not to my grandmother, although it could be.  My favorite memories of her: sitting together on her front porch in the morning, sharing a cup of coffee and a cigarette, talking about nothing–or just not talking at all.

Prévert in Paris, 1946. Photographer: unknown. Cat: unknown.

This is a love letter.  It’s not to Jacques Prévert, although it could be.  I’m usually up at daybreak, and sometimes as the sun peeks over the horizon I’ll go outside to have a smoke and read his Encore une fois sur le fleuve.  I’ve read some of his poems so often that they form a sort of soundtrack in my head as I walk the streets.  In his photographs, he looks like the uncle you always wanted–a face that you can tell is just barely hiding a smile, a cigarette in his hand–or just hanging from his lips.

This is a love letter.  It’s not to my grandmother, although it could be.  When she died, I found her long white evening gloves and her cigarette holder.

This is a love letter.  It’s not to my grandfather, but it could be.  One of my mother’s friends told me this about him: his apartment was nothing but books and cigarette smoke.  

This is a love letter to cigarettes.  Yeah, I know: they’re gonna kill me.  Hell–if I didn’t smoke, I might live two years longer!  Two years against some connection, any connection, with the French grandfather who had my mother when he was as old as I am now (very), and died before I was born.  Two years against Jacque Prévert in my head when I walk the streets in Paris, or anywhere in the world, really.  Two years against that memory of my grandmother, the warm Florida mornings, the ashtray that my father made for her in summer camp.  Seems like I come out ahead on this one.

The picture at the top of this page is not my grandmother, but the American actress Carol Landis, photographed in 1946 for a Kislav glove ad.  Photographer: unknown.

English notes:

To walk the streets: be careful with this one.  It can mean walking nowhere in particular–not flâner, as it connotes a certain intensity and solitariness that is lacking in flâner.  It can also mean living by prostitution–compare the noun streetwalker, a prostitute qui fait le trottoir.  Yet another meaning: to be free after a time in prison.

  • How I used it in the post: I’ve read some of his poems so often that they form a sort of soundtrack in my head as I walk the streets.
  • With the “out of prison” meaning: Many are outraged that the convicted killer will be walking the streets after spending just two years in prison. (Source: the Farlex Free Dictionary.)
  • With the “prostitution” meaning, in a slightly different construction: 52 and still working the streets.

French notes:

le billet-doux: an old term for a love letter.  I understand that you can use it for comic effect.  But, compared to la lettre d’amour, I like the sound of billet-doux much more.  Doux: it just sounds…right.  (Phil dAnge, can you comment?)

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