Tips for Writing a Standout Personal Statement

If you’re planning to apply to Ph.D. programs this fall, hopefully you’ve — at the very least — thought about starting to write a personal statement. For many students this is one of the most daunting aspects of the application process; however, having a strong personal statement can really set you apart amid a thick stack of applicants and, later on, can give you confidence going into your interviews. Here are some tips from my experience applying to graduate school, with the hope that they can make your own writing process a little easier.

  1. Be aware of the specific personal statement requirements for each school (or program). If you’ve read my previous post on applying to graduate school then this may sound familiar, but it is absolutely crucial that you read the prompt thoroughly, be aware of precisely what it is asking you to write about and make note of any word or length requirements. If your essay fails to address the prompt topic or is longer than the word limit, this may suggest to the admissions committee that you don’t pay attention to detail or follow directions well — first impressions that you don’t want immediately associated with your application.
  1. Tailor your statement to each school you apply to. Although I used much of the same content for all of my personal statements, I had a different iteration for every school that I applied to. This was partially because different schools and programs have different personal statement prompts, length requirements, etc.; however, this is also an opportunity to show specific programs or schools why you are interested in them. Research the faculty at each school, and find a way to tie in how their research fits with the interests you have highlighted elsewhere in your personal statement. This shows the committee that you are interested and engaged in the application process and that you’re already thinking about how your experience and background could add to the science at their school.
  1. Think about a time when you were excited about science. When I first sat down to write my personal statement, I struggled to come up with a cool or exciting moment that I felt captured why I wanted to be a scientist. What I didn’t realize was that for most scientists those moments were something small, or seemingly insignificant: an observation, interesting lecture or experiment that piqued some inherent curiosity that they didn’t know was there. I ultimately chose to open my personal statement with an anecdote about an independent project in a sophomore-level analytical chemistry lab, which was the first time that I collected new data and the first time I understood how exciting and exhilarating scientific inquiry can be. Although the independent project itself wasn’t anything groundbreaking — a partner and I simply measured and compared levels of vitamin C in organic, frozen and nonorganic strawberries — it was the first time I had a gut feeling that scientific pursuit could be not only interesting but fun. Remember that the people reading your application had one of those moments once too (that’s why they’re professors!), and they likely have an eye out for students who have that same excitement and passion.
  1. Set yourself up to succeed in your interviews. Often, your personal statement will be given to the professors who are scheduled to interview you prior to the actual interview. Although you certainly shouldn’t expect every professor to read the whole thing, I would say that more than half of the professors who interviewed me made clear references to my personal statement and/or indicated that they had read or skimmed it. This means that you can use the personal statement to your advantage, based on the content you choose to include or highlight. If you have a unique research experience that you love to talk about (e.g., working in a lab in a different country or using an odd model organism), then you can emphasize this, and if it piques your interviewer’s interest, they may choose to steer the interview conversation toward that topic. Try to stay away from mentioning projects or experiences that you would not be confident discussing in detail with a professor, and keep in mind that anything you talk about in your personal statement becomes fair game for an interviewer to ask about, for better or for worse.
  1. Edit, edit, edit. Send your personal statement to as many people as possible — your mom, undergraduate research advisor, older sibling, a graduate student mentor from your summer research experience — to get feedback. You want it to be interesting and readable (the committees will be reading a lot of essays) but also appropriately technical and scientific. It’s important to get the details right and be confident in the final, finished copy.

Keep in mind that the personal statement is a great opportunity to showcase what it is that makes you special and why you want to pursue science in a graduate-level setting, and it gives the admissions committee one of their first, most intimate impressions of you. If you can convey your excitement about science in an interesting and engaging way, you might just find yourself with a long list of interview offers come December.

Happy writing!

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