Do’s and don’ts of graduate school personal statements

Grad student
The personal statement, or statement of purpose, is perhaps the most important element of a graduate school application. What makes it somewhat elusive is that there isn’t a formula to follow: instead, applicants have considerable freedom to craft arguments, unique to their life experiences and compositional flair, for why they should be admitted to graduate school. Consequently, personal statements vary significantly. Notwithstanding, there are some general guidelines to follow and pitfalls to avoid, which I’ve divided below into “do’s” and “don’ts.”

Do’s

Do read the prompt carefully

Most graduate schools ask the same three basic questions, in so many words: Why do you want to study this subject at the graduate level? Why do you want to study at our
university? Why are you qualified? Now, in some cases, the prompt may go further — for example, asking applicants to indicate which faculty they wish to work with or the intended topic of their thesis or dissertation (by the way, these are great points to include in a personal statement, whether asked explicitly or not). In short, be sure to read and re-read the prompt to ensure that you’re responding to it fully.

Do write concisely and vividly

Some personal statements have word limits — and, even if they don’t, it’s advisable to write concisely, choosing your words meticulously. It’s helpful to follow a funnel approach to composition, starting by jotting down notes in a brainstorming session, cherry-picking the best ideas, organizing them into an outline, and, finally, writing a first draft. For most writers, the funnel approach helps keeps the prose tight. But it’s not over. Once you’re satisfied with the substance of your writing it’s time to evaluate the economy and style of your language. Can you make the same point in fewer words? Is there a more accurate word for an idea? What about incorporating figurative language, such as metaphors or similes?

Do provide specific examples

It’s easy to fall into the trap of generalities: “I’ve always loved physics from since I was a kid”; “I believe that your graduate program is the best in the country”; “I want to research astrophysics in my dissertation”; and so on. Instead, focus on explaining the “why” of your assertions one or two levels deeper. For example, you might describe a specific moment in your life that inspired you to learn more about your field, or the specific faculty, research interests and facilities at a university that make their program stand out. Always push yourself to be as specific as possible, as it makes for the most compelling writing.

Don’ts

Don’t be self-congratulatory

It’s easy for smart, ambitious people to wittingly or unwittingly adopt an arrogant tone in their personal statement, since they’re being asked to discuss their qualifications for admission into competitive graduate programs. The best way to avoid this pitfall is to describe your accomplishments factually, without making inferences about your greatness or unlimited potential. It’s perfectly permissible to discuss awards, distinctions or lofty goals—just don’t extrapolate that into a grandiose style of writing. Take confidence knowing that your potential will shine through on its own without the need for embellishment.

Don’t be verbose

Verbosity has no place in a personal statement — or any writing, for that matter. It’s the flip side to writing concisely. Avoid using “big words” when simpler ones will suffice. Similarly, avoid writing long, convoluted sentences, when short declarative sentences will serve, or employing advance punctuation when a simple period is more appropriate. Every applicant wants to sound impressive and educated — but not at the expense of tight and legible prose. As Shakespeare said, “brevity is the soul of wit.”

Don’t assume all schools are the same

The strongest applicants demonstrate deep knowledge of a particular graduate program. For example, it can be thoughtful to name specific faculty members whose classes you’d like to take or with whom you’d like to work because of a mutual research interest. In a similar vein, if a faculty member has published a book or article in a scholarly journal that intrigues you or aligns with your research goals it may be valuable to mention. For applicants looking at science-based programs, such as physics, there is often specific laboratory equipment or access to technology that differentiates one department from the next. For instance, the University of Hawaii offers astrophysics students access to its world-class observatories, the Mauna Kea Observatories. Take the time to read each school’s web site, brochures, and, if possible, communicate with faculty by email, telephone, or in person. But don’t show off your knowledge of a school’s program for the sake of it; instead, try to learn more about those areas that genuinely captivate your interest or align with your goals.

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Giulio Rocca

Giulio Rocca

Giulio is the founder of GradSchoolHeaven.com, an online resource for
graduate school applicants. Giulio has attended Harvard University (M.B.A.), the University of Hawaii at Manoa (M.A. English), and the University of Pennsylvania (B.S. Economics).

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