As any graduate admissions counselor will tell you, your personal statement is one of the most important parts of your grad school application. The personal statement not only distinguishes you from the crowd, but also shows the seriousness of your intent and describes your research interests. It’s not so difficult to write a stellar personal statement, however – after all, there’s nothing easier than talking about yourself. With a bit of planning and reflection, you’ll be able to deliver a clear summary of your achievements and plan for the future.
By the time you sit down to write the personal statement, you should have asked yourself a number of serious questions:
- What do you want to study, and why? How did you become interested in the field?
- Why this specific school and department? What characteristics appeal to you?
- What personal strengths or accomplishments distinguish you among your peers?
- Are there any issues in your academic history you’ll need to explain (e.g. periods of poor grades, disciplinary actions, etc.)?
It’s very important to be honest with yourself in this part of the process. If you don’t have a real passion for your field of study, your essay is likely to reflect those reservations in subtle ways and succeeding in grad school will probably require a grueling struggle. Likewise, doing prior research on your target school and department is important, because you’ll want to ensure the program to which you apply is a good fit for you. If you can give honest and helpful answers to the questions above, you’re well on your way to a winning personal statement.
The personal statement is essentially divided into three parts:
This is simply a brief paragraph that identifies the program to which you are applying, and the reasons for your interest in that program. You’ll be discussing your research interests more specifically later. For now, just present your area of interest – especially if you will be applying for a specialized study track or interdisciplinary program – in general terms.
2. Describe your background and qualifications
Here is your chance to show what qualifies you for the program, by describing your interests, past research experience, academic achievements, and professional experience. This section should be more than a laundry list of details about your life. Rather, context is important and the statement should include information relevant to your future studies: how your undergraduate education or professional experience prepared you for graduate study, your intellectual influences, your career interests, and your intrinsic qualities are all appropriate material to draw upon.
Keep in mind that – except for some business programs – grad school is all about research, and if you have research or laboratory experience, have had work published in academic journals, or have presented papers or posters at conferences, it is especially important to include those things here.
3. Relate your research interests and goals
For the second main section, describe what you intend to do in the program. This is the place to describe your research interests in detail. While your undergraduate program was meant to give you a broad introduction to a discipline, graduate studies usually track students into a more or less specialized area of research within the discipline. What interests you in the field specifically? What questions from your prior studies have stuck with you?
It is worth taking the time to do a bit of prior research into the scholarly output of the department to which you are applying. What journals does the department publish? What papers have the professors written? Which ones resonate with you? Most of this information will be for your own reference, but if possible, you should mention the names of one or two professors in the department that you’d be interested to work with and explain why their expertise will help guide your own research. Take a look at the research centers sponsored by the department, and if you see any that are especially suited to your interests, express interest in working with them.
Finally, take a couple sentences to summarize your main points throughout the essay.
- Clear and concise introduction:
- Program to which you’re applying, including any specialized track;
- Reason for interest in that program;
- General area of research interest.
- Full description of background and qualifications:
- Be picky about what you choose to share;
- Keep content relevant to the specific program;
- Be especially sure to describe research or lab experience, even if it’s in a different field.
- Clear statement of research interests and goals:
- Have a clear idea of what you want to study before applying;
- Do prior research on the scholarly output of the department and faculty;
- Find a couple faculty members or department research centers matching your interests, and describe (very briefly) why you’d like to work with them.