Personal Statement

The Personal Statement Part 1:

Ok, this is the rough one. A personal statement can be the most intimidating part of the entire process of applying to grad school. You are being asked to bare your soul, and prove why you should be in their program, right? Well, kind of…

The reality is that there are a lot of different purposes for the “personal statement” or the “professional statement” or the “statement of intent” (all of these mean slightly different things, but not enough to worry about right now, we’ll go into differences at the end of this section. On one your statement is to show of your accomplishments and your achievements as a college student and as a person. On the other hand the statement also shouldn’t be just a list of things you’ve done. This can be good news if you’re worried that you haven’t done enough, but it’s also important advice even if you have you have a ton of stuff to put on your CV.

Let’s think about this from the perspective of the people who are going to be reading your application.

Applications for grad programs typically go to the department you are applying to directly. There are usually a small group of professors (occasionally with a grad student or two) who are on the committee to read and decide on all of the applications that the department receives. For small departments that may mean only 10, 20 or 30 applications. For larger departments they may have a few hundred applications to read.

So if we’re imagining the world in their shoes, and they have a stack of 100 applications to read, what is going to make one stand out? Let’s tick off the list.

  • GPA – Sure a super high GPA is a nice plus, you worked hard to get that 3.7 and you should show it off. On the other hand, after reading 30 applications how likely is it that the readers will remember GPAs, even outstanding GPAs? Pretty low. That may be bad news if you were counting on your GPA to get you in, but my guess is that for a lot of you, you are more worried about your GPA keeping you out. For the high GPA people you should take this warning, numbers are just numbers. After reading a stack of applications a 3.75 GPA blends right in with a 3.2. Your GPA matters, but don’t count on it to do any work for you, that’s still your job.


  • GRE scores: see above. If you meet the minimum, apply. There may be some strategy in terms of where you apply if you know that some of your schools receive a high number of applications and you have a lower GPA. That shouldn’t discourage you from applying to the school but you should be realistic about the mix of schools you apply for. If you have a 3.1 GPA and a middle of the road GRE scores, then there is still a chance that you can get into that Harvard program you’re dreaming about. But you should also have a couple other schools in the mix who might not receive 400 apps for 10 spots, I don’t care how high your numbers are, those odds suck for everyone, even the genius with a letter of rec from Obama.


  • Letters of Rec / Personal Statement: This is where you have a real chance to shine. From the perspective of that person reading 100 apps, what is going to stick in your mind more, a GPA, a GRE score, or a powerful personal story (which is what an essay is) backed up by personal and personal letters of recommendation. Well, let me ask you this, do you remember your childhood phone number? My guess is maybe… Do you remember the plot to the first Harry Potter book? My guess is yes. Our brains remember stories and the emotions associated with those stories a lot better than raw numbers. Stories have a structure, they have a plot and they have a point. These are all things your statement should strive to have, and they are all things that a reader will remember after they’ve put down your application.


For all of you this should be good news. Your GPA may be super high or just OK, but all of that work is in the past, you can’t change it. The work for the statement and the letters is still ahead of you, you can still control that, work on it, perfect it. The work you put in on your statement and letters are your biggest advantage, they are the thing you can most directly control and they are where you should focus the majority of your work during this time.

OK, so we’ve established that this statement is important, but what is it? Your statement is essentially a story where all aspects of the story point to the same conclusion, you belong in this graduate program. On a personal level, on a professional level and on an academic level you are a sure bet to do well in the program and be an awesome (insert your major here, physicist, chemist, sociologist, social worker, etc…). It should be in part a demonstration of why you are going to be good at the thing they are training you to do, and that you are prepared to start and to do well in their program.

How you do this changes depending on what type of program you are applying for. A lot of my students go on to either programs in social work or sociology and so most of the applications and statements I work on are focused on the skills needed for those fields. For both of these fields the background of the individual matters. For sociology your background is way to show that you can do a type of sociological analysis of your own social location and that you’ve thought about the ways that these experiences have prepared you for the type of work that a social scientist does. For a social worker your background can go a long way toward showing the experiences you’ve had that have helped build empathy, understand the importance of the work you will be doing, and prepared you to deal with the issues that your clients will be going through.

For other fields the personal background may be less important. I imagine that a PhD program in chemistry may not put as much weight on personal background or experiences but that’s a guess. The best idea is to go talk to people in those programs. Talk to people at your university who applied and ask them how they did it and if they would share their applications.

More to come soon, this is a big section so hold on!