PhD personal statements

I started writing my personal statements. Why is the word “statements” written in plural? Because there actually are two documents that I dub personal statements and there are only two schools I I’m applying to that ask for the “secondary personal statement”: the University of Minnesota and the University of Michigan.

The ubiquitous personal statement, or, as I call it, the “primary personal statement”, is the document virtually every PhD program (and most graduate programs) asks for, which outlines one’s background and research interests. Per Princeton’s physics department, here’s a sampling of questions one should address in a primary personal statement (paraphrasing from physics):

  1. What background […] have you had that is beyond the usual curriculum of [your field’s] major and that you think is important for us to know?
  2. What research experiences have you had? If you made significant or original contributions, please explain what they are and, if relevant, how they have influenced your interest in [your field].
  3. (Primarily applicable to experimental sciences): Are you planning to do experimental or theoretical [research], or are you undecided? If your […] coursework, [work] or research experience has influenced you in this decision, explain how.
  4. What kinds of [research] are you most interested in pursuing in graduate school, and why? What has influenced you in your decision?
  5. The research program of our faculty is on the web. Give examples of groups and faculty with
    whom you might be interested in working.
  6. What special aspects of your personality, talents, interests and skills make you think that you will be a good [scholar]?

That said, here are some dos and don’ts to go with what should go into the primary personal statement (of course, much of this is also applicable to the secondary personal statement): Do:

  • Proofread. It goes without saying but it shouldn’t be neglected.
  • Keep it simple. It is easy to over-write a personal statement in an attempt to impress the admissions committee.
  • Use specifics. The reader will be more likely to remember your application and your personal statement if you use specific examples to support statements in your SOP (and SOD).
  • Treat the personal statement(s) as you would an admissions interview. When the department doesn’t interview applicants it is your best chance to make your case for admission and to communicate important information not contained within all other documentation.
  • Make your personal statement responsive. Individual schools may ask you to provide specific information in your statement. Be sure to respond accordingly.
  • Follow directions. If a school asks for a 500-word personal statement, try to stay close to that limit. If a school asks them for 1-2 pages, give them 1-2 pages. Don’t try to cheat using small font. (although LaTeX users can find it quite tempting to use a document type with small font for the body; I myself have both personal statements written in 9-point Nimbus Roman) If there is no limit specified, the standard is usually the aforementionned 1-2 pages, especially when departments may call for much higher limits (UChicago sets a limit of 2,500 words, while Tufts sets a limit of 1,200 words).
  • Write about yourself, your interests and goals. This is what the primary personal statement is for. The secondary personal statement, while giving you another chance to do so, will be discussed later.

But there definitely are things you shouldn’t do on either personal statement. Don’t:

  • Submit a narrative of your résumé. While it is OK to expand on one or two items in it, especially if they help you answer any of the major questions outlined above, simply re-hashing your résumé won’t help.
  • Rely too heavily on spell check. Even the best automated spell checks are not perfect with respect to grammar, so, while it is good for the first run, it shouldn’t be your only check.
  • Submit a personal statement addressed to another school. Even if there are two or more schools on your list that have the same constraints to meet, the same prompts, at least change the names of the schools and the professors of interest! Graduate schools are aware that applicants are applying to multiple programs, but the committees want to feel that you’re special to them.
  • Write the statement with the goal of telling schools what you think they want to hear from you.
  • If you have the opportunity to write addenda for a given school (many schools don’t afford you such opportunities), don’t use the primary (or even secondary) personal statement to address something negative.
  • Ramble. Your essay must have a central theme.

Some fields are fields where the personal statement can only count so much (e.g. law); after all, one can only be so original in this format. In those fields, the personal statement is considered a “threshold credential”, like the TOEFL when it is needed, where a poorly written SOP will hurt you but, past a certain point, it won’t help you. And the threshold to meet must show the admissions committee that at least you care about pursuing a career in that field. In other fields, like business, personal statements are given almost as much weight as a GPA. Which leads to the secondary personal statement, also known as a diversity statement. Adapted from the NYU Pre-professional advising center (the original is written from the perspective of a law school diversity statement):

  • It is an (most of the time optional, but, for the UMinn-Twin Cities PhD application, it is mandatory) essay submitted in the application. Be sure to carefully review the application instructions from each school, as they may have differing writing prompts.
  • It is a statement on how their background and life experience would contribute to diversity within a graduate school community and to a school’s commitment to training individuals in an increasingly diverse society.
  • It should not be any more than one page or 500 words, whichever is shorter. Carefully review the school’s application instructions for specific details.
  • Like the [primary] personal statement, the secondary personal statement is a writing sample.

Now that we know what a diversity statement, or a secondary personal statement is, here is a list of what you must consider when writing your secondary personal statement:

  • Think about your upbringing and experiences to determine any and all aspects of diversity.
  • It is not just for underrepresented minorities.
  • It is not just about race, [ethnicity or socioeconomic status].
  • Consider your background, place in the family and culture in which you were raised, and how that contributed to [what you are today].
  • You may also discuss in what ways you did not fit into mainstream culture, how culture impacted your life, as well as any other social identities not discussed prior (gender, sexual orientation, health status, religion or ability)

If at all possible, have your personal statement(s) reviewed externally; a fresh set of eyes will be helpful even after you edited your personal statements multiple times.


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