Tips for writing a graduate school Personal Statement.
January 5, 2004 11:24 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to hear some tips involving the questionably important Grad School Application Personal Statement. The program I'm applying for does require a Master's Thesis, and while I've got a decent idea of some areas I'm interested in, obviously I've got nothing specifically pinned down (more inside).

So aside from personal experience, what's expected in a personal statement? I've looked at some of the research areas of the faculty and there are a couple of profs that I'm specifically interested in piggy-backing off of. Should I mention them by name? How specific do I need to be about my prospective area of research? And most of all, I could definitely use some tips on how to start this damn thing. Thanks.
posted by Ufez Jones to Education (14 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
if i were you, my hightest priority would be to come across as reasonably human. a little wry humour. next on the list: motivated, curious and smart - show you understand what the problems in the area are. i have no knowledge of this form or american grad schools (so ignore me), but in the uk and chile, at least, you're not expected to have a clear direction from the start. i would have thought this was even more so in the usa, where they keep teaching you stuff for years.

another thing that once worked for me was to do a little diagram showing the areas i was interested in, how they connected, where i stood, and what i could contribute to. obviously, i'd scanned the appropriate brochure before to see what the interests of the people there were and focussed on those (but that was a while ago, in more innocent times, when doing diagrams on computers was still something that surprised people).

if you can do it, something hand-written that looks good might be an effective way of standing out from the crowd.

oh, how shallow we are. good luck.
posted by andrew cooke at 11:58 AM on January 5, 2004 [1 favorite]

Since you are unaware of the politics of the departments to which you're applying, I'd avoid mentioning profs by name.
Instead, I would try to get across the idea that you are interested in working in a sub-field in which the department is particularly strong. You should consider looking at the sort of work that gets done by people in that sub-field - for example, if they all do quantitative studies of voting patterns, you may not wish to suggest that you'd like to do a qualitative, narrative analysis.

Beyond that, I think it's more important to show that you "get" what grad school is about: i.e., becoming aware of the philosophical issues that pertain to your field; working your way through epistemological, methodological, and onotological issues and coming up with a loose set of commitments, etc.

I'm sure it would be helpful if you let us know what field you're applying in.

On preview: in North America, no hand-writing. Ever. :-)
posted by stonerose at 12:05 PM on January 5, 2004

you see - you would be different! but maybe you should avoid the green ink.
posted by andrew cooke at 12:09 PM on January 5, 2004

is hand-written okay if it's done in color-changing glitter pen?
posted by kaibutsu at 12:13 PM on January 5, 2004

Response by poster: I'm applying for a joint masters program in Public Affairs and Latin-American Studies. The school that I'm applying to has a great research institute with a wide-variety of ongoing projects, so jumping in or creating a modified version of one of them shouldn't be a problem. I've got some great work experience in Public Affairs and more personal experience with Latin-America than your average gringo, both of which I'm sure they'll want to hear about, but I'm not really sure how to begin and where to go on the goals and desires within the field part. And the opening paragraph is giving me splitting headaches just thinking about it. Thanks for the advice so far though. Looking forward to more.
posted by Ufez Jones at 12:14 PM on January 5, 2004

Man, I'd rather break all my toes with a ball-peen hammer than ever again have to write a grad school application personal statement, and trying to get the sucker started is certainly the worst part. You have my sympathy!

That said, since you have actual work experience in the field, one way to launch the thing might be by briefly recounting some part of that experience, and then talking about how it sparked interests/raised questions/illustrated research opportunities that in turn led you toward grad school.

I spent a couple of years in a Public Affairs MA program, and they *are* more practice-oriented (for lack of a better term) than most traditional academic disciplines, so your having work experience will almost certainly work in your favor, especially if you can use your statement to demonstrate how it led you to your current academic interests. (And then, as others have said, to talk about what you're interested in doing in grad school.)

Good luck!
posted by Kat Allison at 12:32 PM on January 5, 2004

I just did a PhD application (in CS). I'd break it up into sections -- and deal with one thing at a time:
  • Executive Summary (save this for last, but put it first -- just a few sentences to refresh the committee's memory each time they try to move your app from pile to pile).
  • Personal Narrative
  • Accomplishments (awards, publications if you have them, speaking engagements, etc.)
  • Why [name of institution] ?[optional, some programs ask for it explicitly]
  • Intended Research Focus [also optional, but generally a good idea]
  • I'd disagree with the above comment to leave out specific professors. Even if there are political things afoot in the department (i.e., somebody on the admissions committee hates somebody on the faculty and you mention him or her by name), this probably will not disqualify you. In fact, I think it will help. Your application will seem better researched, and your rationale in applying will then be obvious. Plus, they'll probably give it to him or her to read and comment on -- most graduate work, certainly at the PhD level, but also at the master's level as well, is with a particular person. So I'd say it's best to mention her by name and how you'll apply her theories to x, or integrate them into y, or other specific stuff. Remember, an application statement is not a contract to do particular research. Once admitted you can do anything -- change your focus, study with anyone, work on something that you didn't even know about until you got there and started talking to people. But, that being said, it's good to look focused and like you already know some things about your disicipline (which it looks like you do). I'd second the advice to start with your professional accomplishments. This is stuff you can write easily since you know it well. Then segue into the research angle that you'd like to tackle.

posted by zpousman at 2:32 PM on January 5, 2004 [2 favorites]

</li>. (sorry)
posted by zpousman at 2:33 PM on January 5, 2004

What zpousman said. Also, if you have any professors you're fond of, beg them to review your personal statement. I went through four or five drafts, and it was damn well worth the effort.

A major thing to remember is to email the professors you're interested in, and see if they're even taking students. If you can talk to them, you can get a little bit more info about their current and future research, and how well they're willing to be flexible about your ideas. Emailing can tell you a lot of information. If the professor doesn't bother to respond, or assigns the response to a grad student, he may not be someone who works with his students closely, and you can decide if you want to deal with that.

Most importantly, they now know you, at least a little. At my lab, we've already had one grad student come by for a day or two. I remember her, and so does my professor. If she applies, she's more likely to get in here, because we know her now. We've spent time figuring out where she would work, and what she would start off with.
posted by stoneegg21 at 2:41 PM on January 5, 2004

Forget the personal narrative, no one wants to hear about how you dreamed of becoming a Latin American Studies scholar when you were five. Your CV will show your experience. The admissions team wants to see that you have purpose in becoming a serious scholar, so you should lay out your research aims as clearly as possible and why that department is the best possible for you. In that vein, DO mention specific professors by name and why they are appropriate for your studies. Here is where you can work in a bit of your experience: telling how your experiences (briefly) make you a better, even ideal, candidate for their department.

Then revise revise revise, and definitely make contact with the professors and arrange a visit; that is crucial.

If you'd like people to read over and comment on your drafts, feel free to email me; my address is in my profile; I'd be glad to read it.
posted by The Michael The at 8:13 PM on January 5, 2004 [1 favorite]

Just for a variety of opinions, I've gotta disagree with The Michael The.

I did the med school process last year, and did, hmm, 17 revisions to my personal statement until I finally got it right. (Obsess much? Of course, otherwise I wouldn't be here in the first place.)

The personal narrative is vital. It's the only thing that can really set you apart from the other applicants. It gives the admissions committee an idea of who you are. What makes you tick.

The idea of the personal statement: you want to show them who you are, give them a little flavor of your personality, but most importantly (IMHO), show them how you process the world. How you think, how you learn, how your mind interprets and processes life. That sounds very academic and analytical, but it doesn't have to be explicit--it probably shouldn't be. Take an experience that made you interested in either LAS or PA (or both), and tell the reader why you acted the way you did, what the experience made you think about, in terms of your life, your future, etc.

I like to picture the adcom rep reading my app at 3 in the morning in his bed by candlelight. He's absolutely exhausted, but decides to read my statement, and *I've* got to keep him awake. In that vein, your first statement needs to be intriguing and interesting. Maybe even a little mysterious or incomplete, such that the reader has to keep reading to get the rest of the picture.
posted by gramcracker at 8:54 PM on January 5, 2004 [1 favorite]

So aside from personal experience, what's expected in a personal statement?

They probably want to see someone who's bright, motivated, and will do work in their discipline.

I've looked at some of the research areas of the faculty and there are a couple of profs that I'm specifically interested in piggy-backing off of. Should I mention them by name?

Yes. Indicate that if admitted, you'd like to work with Foo doing Bar, because Bar is clearly an important problem in the discipline for reasons X, Y, and Z.

How specific do I need to be about my prospective area of research?

As specific as you can be in a brief statement; take a paragraph or two if it's a one-pager. They won't expect you to know everything about the field, or you wouldn't need to go to grad school for it. But they'll presumably want to see evidence that you give a shit about it, and that you can think analytically.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:34 AM on January 6, 2004

Let me also disagree strongly with what stonerose said.

Applying to a grad school is not winning a prize (except maybe law, medicine, or MBA); it's making a match between a student, a department, and a few profs. If the department you're interested in all do voting studies with new and exciting variants of probit and they reject your application because you said you want to do qualititative work on the social significance of the market square, they're not being nasty. You're not a loser in that case. They're doing you a favor -- they won't be able to teach you what you want to know, and they're saving you from spending a few years finding that out the hard way.

You should be honest and forthright about what you want to do and how you want to do it, to the extent that you know that at this point.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:44 AM on January 6, 2004

Maybe the med school process is different from that of a more academic department*, or maybe gramcracker and I are using different interpretations of personal narrative. Every professor I've spoken with has advised against "I love X because Y" undergrad-style essays. They're not looking for people that love X, they want people who will be X scholars, and tell what they will study, why they're qualified to study it, and with whom they want to study. I took the latter direction, and it worked out very well for me, landing me in a very high-ranked department with, more importantly, my first-choice professor. I know others who went the former way of a more personal narrative, and it didn't work out for them, unfortunately.

*NOT a knock on med schools, just a recognition that they are fundamentally not like more academic departments. Really, doctors kick ass.
posted by The Michael The at 9:31 AM on January 6, 2004

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