How to reflect on writing a personal statement
Writing a personal statement can be so painful. I think my grad school personal statement began with my elementary years. I cannot read it without cringing. Remarkably, I still made it to grad school. So you can write a less-than-ideal essay and get into grad school. But an excellent personal statement can really help to articulate why you are the mature student the department wants to admit.
But how do you do that?
The personal statement is a reflective essay. That means you need to reflect on your goal which ostensibly is to attend graduate school. Please tell us why you want to spend a huge chunk of your twenties toiling in lab instead of making stacks of cash at Bain or Chevron. We know you have other options so hopefully you have good reasons to go to grad school. You want to convey that you know why you are choosing to go to grad school and what you will get out of it. Sometimes students have compelling, unusual personal stories that drive them to grad school, sometimes it’s just curiosity. To me it doesn’t matter which, but it should be clear that you know why you want to go.
To help with this reflective part, I put together some questions for reflection. I can’t answer these for you, only you know the answers.
Imagine you are at a party (yeah, it’s a science party) and someone asks you these questions. How would you answer them? Remember, you have to say these out loud to a real human person.
Why are you interested in research and going to graduate school?
What research interests you?
Are there any interesting, vibrant stories related to the above two questions?
What research experience (s) do you have? What did you do? Why did you choose this? What evidence of productivity and success can you offer (presentations (where?), awards, publications, other)?
What did you learn through each experience? How did that lead you to the next step and to where you are now?
Tell me about a problem you solved? How did you do it? Were there any unexpected challenges? Or tell me about a problem you want to solve? How do you propose to do it? Why hasn’t it been solved already?
Can you explain the arc of your research interest and experience (e.g. how did you get to where you are?)
In the future, what research are you interested in doing? Why this research? Are you aware of who is doing that type of research in this department? What about their research interests you?
What do you hope to get out of grad school? What type of career do you envision beyond grad school and what type of impact do you hope to have in the long-term?
Ok, so that’s the reflective part. If you’ve answered these questions, you should be ready to use the answers to compose a compelling personal statement. Good luck!