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.

 

One thought on “How to write a personal statement for a grad school application”

  1. All good suggestions. One way of defining your interests is to pose one or more (reasonable) research questions you wish to address. You’ll eventually need to do this as part of your dissertation research so might as well get a start.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s