How to Craft a Great Personal Statement for Grad School

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Just as summer break wraps up, grad school application season arrives. You’re probably sorting through different programs and beginning to think about writing a personal statement. How do you winnow down your entire life story into two or three pages of spell-checked exposition that impresses administrators?

Personal statements are critical to your full application. They have the power to justify a poor GPA or emphasize an already good one. They can tell admissions committees what you dream of doing, rather than what you've done. They showcase your abilities and personality.

Your transcript can’t convey curiosity and perseverance, but your personal statement can unveil how you designed a clever spectroscopic experiment to explain weird voltage measurements in your electrochemistry lab. It’s your chance to share the stories and highlights of your life that have prepared you for graduate school.

Jahan Dawlaty, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Southern California, says the best approach is to “make it anecdotal, personal, informative, and not a duplication of your CV.”

If you've never seen one before, check out a couple of annotated examples from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. What you'll find is that these personal statements typically flow in chronological order, and they present the most important points as early as possible. They describe why you are where you are, some recent experiences, and some of your ambitions for grad school and beyond. They also describe why you are interested in a specific program. You should always customize your statement to each program you apply to.

But beyond that, they all look different. Some people begin with a story; others begin with a statement declaring why they are applying to this specific school. It's all fair game. Because at their core, the best essays are personal. And we’re here to give you tips on reflecting before you ever touch the keyboard, what to say once you do, and how to say it.

Beyond the résumé

When you begin writing your personal statement, it helps to reflect on your past and present experiences. Recall what inspired you to pick your major or what now drives you to apply to graduate school. “Show enthusiasm for the field,” says Dawlaty. “However, do realize that nearly everybody who applies to the chemistry department is enthusiastic about chemistry.” Specificity is key here. It might be a book that changed you profoundly, a time you sat next to a chatty scientist on an airplane, or a day you learned chemistry through baking bread with a grandparent. Describe your amazement when the sourdough doubled in size because of fermentation, for instance, or how different methods of kneading the dough led to different strengths of gluten protein networks. Really investigate what led you to chemistry and what you like about it.

Next, reflect on some of the most important experiences you've had in college. These may include an internship or volunteering experience. Perhaps you helped in a professor's lab for three months or three years. “Make it as personal as possible,” says Dawlaty. “Highlight as many of the memorable and personal anecdotes as you can.” Ask yourself, what did I learn in my internship that inspired me to continue on this path? How did my volunteer experience with my student chemistry club polish my organizing, planning, and professional skills? Basically, you want to point out where your extra efforts have shaped you as a scientist, student, and person. The answers are building blocks for your letter.

“I want to come away thinking I know a little something about you,” says Sharon Glotzer, the Anthony C. Lembke Department Chair of Chemical Engineering at the University of Michigan. If you’re driven by the societal impacts of science, highlight your specific motivations and previous contributions: Do you volunteer at a science museum, write a blog, or tutor kids in STEM? Recognize that scientists play an important role in their community, as well as society at large. You might instead be motivated by a passion for discovery or a pursuit of the credentials needed to lead interesting projects in industry. “I wouldn’t say that any one of those reasons matters over any other reason. But what does matter is that you have some reason,” says Glotzer.

A personal statement also gives you the space to share more context about the struggles you have overcome. Maybe a close friend or family member passed away, forcing you to balance your personal and professional obligations. If adversity has affected your grades, say that—admissions committees want to know. ”People want to know whether you have a GPA of 3.7 in the face of difficulties or a GPA of 3.7 without any difficulties," says Dawlaty.

“In some cases that hardship, surprisingly, prepares the student better for graduate school,” he continues. “We have had applicants who have been the breadwinner for the family—and wow, it takes a lot of responsibility to be the breadwinner for the family.” Some applications require diversity, equity, and inclusion statements in which you describe your experiences as or with a member of an underrepresented group or your feelings on the topic. If the application does not, consider incorporating some of your thoughts into your statement.

That’s not to say that you need adversity to get accepted, he adds: “Some people haven't gone through hardship. It doesn't mean that your application sucks.” You can talk about what you’ve contributed to a research group or a past job. For example, maybe you and a lab mate struggled to get a chemical reaction to produce a high yield, until you finally figured out the issue and fixed it. It doesn’t matter whether the solution came from an epiphany or methodical teamwork. Both are crucial ingredients of how real science works. Your essay will stand out if you can convey that understanding. “It communicates to me that you have good communication skills—that actually can tell me that these things happen,” says Dawlaty. “But most importantly, that tells me you are a problem solver.”

Grad school is not just about remembering the difference between reduction and oxidation or memorizing the steps to make an organic catalyst. It’s a place where you’ll collaborate, make decisions, and commit to learning skills that make you a more well-rounded scientist. (Some universities require a separate essay for research experience.) “Whether it’s a big role or a little role, I wanna see detail,” says Glotzer.  “The more technical detail you provide, the more I have the impression you did the work.” Admissions committees will appreciate reading anecdotes, especially if they demonstrate how you’d fit into a research team. After all, grad school is all about creating new knowledge and spreading knowledge. That’s a very different goal than undergraduate academics. They want to see that you know what skills and goals matter to become a scientist in society.

Predicting the future

Midway through your essay, you've established who you are by sharing what Past You experienced. A university will be getting Current You. They’ll expect that you can contribute to their research efforts. And they’ll be betting that Future You will be a rock star chemist that they can count as one of their esteemed alumni.

Think about your goals, state them clearly, and describe why they interest you. Here’s a secret: Nobody will force you to pursue that 10-year goal you write about. Nobody will even force you to work in the area you write about. I applied to various graduate schools for their energy and catalysis research programs. In my essay, I described my interest in their ongoing research in those areas. Once I visited my top choice after getting accepted, I found that an entirely different project in biomedicine and nanotechnology interested me even more.

It’s okay to end up on a different path than what you want now. And it’s okay to not know what field you want to study in. But for the admissions committee to accept you, they need to be sure that you'd fit with what they offer, so you can still write about what you do know. “Students can say I don't know what research area, whether it's energy or bio or nano—but I love computers, and I'd like to learn computer simulation,” says Glotzer.

Find specific professors and projects that match your interests. Mention those projects by name and explain why you'd enjoy them. Dawlaty suggests mentioning three to five professors in the department and writing one or two sentences about why you’d want to work with each. You will eventually meet with professors and decide on a lab to join. But you’re never guaranteed to land your first choice for reasons largely out of your control (such as project funding), so you should always set yourself up to have multiple options of interesting labs. “If you only say I'm interested in Professor X and that's it,” says Dawlaty, “it raises eyebrows in the committee.” It’s important for schools to see that they’d have no trouble pairing you with an advisor.

Don’t worry about misinterpreting what those professors work on or mentioning a project that’s no longer active. These scenarios happen. Perhaps “the professor hasn’t updated their website, or the professor has moved on since last year and got a new grant,” Dawlaty says. “We are not going to judge the student too harshly.” What’s important is that schools know that you’re interested in that research area. 

Some schools also combine the personal statement with a “research statement,” so you would expand more on your research interests at the end of the essay accordingly.

 “The bottom line is: make it easy for the committee to admit you,” he says.

How to tell your story

Clarity is king. The most important tip to remember as you begin writing is that you must communicate your ideas clearly. You may have exemplary research skills, strong professional experiences, creative ideas, and impactful anecdotes to share, but if the admissions committee can’t understand what they are reading, all that upside becomes meaningless.

Does this mean you need to find the fanciest words to show your mastery of the English language? Absolutely not. “Make it easy and efficient for them to read,” says Dawlaty. Short sentences are great. Specific, common words, too. Avoid hyperbole and exclamation points. Remember whom you are writing for. “Imagine sleep-deprived academics who are just sitting around and just want to do their job, and they have hundreds of these things in front of them.” They care about the facts. You can even bold important details like skills or the names of professors.

Now, readable and clear does not mean vague. “Chemistry is good” is a clear, short sentence with common words, but it lacks detail. You’ll want to be specific about your actions in anecdotes, and your feelings when describing why your research area excites you. If you’ve enjoyed creating nanoparticles, for instance, tell committee members a brief version of the synthesis and characterization protocol, then describe the satisfaction you felt from making the right stuff.

When you summarize the big picture of why you’re a good fit for that program, be specific about that program’s strengths and your potential contributions. And once you have all of the pieces of your story—your experiences, your interests, and your professional goals—then be sure that you summarize that ensemble in your first and last paragraph. Make your take-home message as memorable as possible.

A great way to make sure you’ve done a good job is to have others read your essay. Politely ask your professors or any chemistry graduate student you may know to give you feedback. Peers and family can also help if they are familiar with the process. Listen to that feedback and make the necessary changes. Doing this means you shouldn’t procrastinate. Give your proofreaders a couple of weeks, just as you would for letters of recommendation.

Don’t be afraid to ask peers or professors to see examples of successful personal statements. But don’t panic about any differences. It’s up to you whether you use a bunch of space expanding on experiences on your résumé or introducing biographical information that doesn’t appear in your résumé.

Your experiences make a case for what you can do. But your trajectory speaks volumes too. Dawlaty likes to think of this in calculus terms: hiring people based on an integral and a derivative. The integral, like the area under a curve, captures the collection of what a person has done; the derivative, like a sharp slope or a flat line, predicts their ability to grow and learn.

“We want a diverse class of individuals that are going to contribute,” says Glotzer. And that means broadening the definition of success beyond GPA,  GRE, and even research accomplishments. “There are so many different measures of potential for success, some of which have nothing to do with book smarts. A lot of which have to do with experience and mindset.”

About the Author
Max Levy headhsot

Max G. Levy is a freelance science journalist based in Los Angeles, California. He has a PhD in chemical engineering, and writes stories about public health, the environment, and technology.