How to Write a Grad School Personal Statement

It’s now the time that aspiring PhD students are putting together their applications for admission to graduate school. In addition to providing a transcript, CV, (maybe) test scores, and letters of reference, applicants are asked to provide a personal statement. This statement is a bit different than the essay you had to write for your undergraduate applications. How should you approach it?
As a professor for 20 years, I’ve read a lot of personal statements. Therefore I thought it might be useful to share my thoughts about what makes a good one. I also solicited input from a few colleagues and include their suggestions too. I’ll present my thoughts in Q&A format. Hopefully it goes without saying: This is just my opinion from my vantage point at UMD; different professors might have a different perspective based on where they are.

What do you look for in a personal statement?

I look for the statement to communicate points that are germane to your success in grad school, and which are not communicated by other elements of an application.
Motivation is important: Grad school (in CS or engineering) is a big commitment for a significant pay cut from industry — what makes it worth it to you, and why will you work hard to succeed? A love of tech since childhood is not a predictor of success, so don’t write “From an early age, I was fascinated by computers and its potential …” I asked my colleagues David Van Horn and Leo Lampropoulos and they both agreed that believable motivation is very important. David adds, “Perhaps it goes without saying, but I’ll say it: PhD programs are about research, so you should be talking about why that interests and motivates you. Writing like you’re applying to a professional MS program is an easy way to sink an application.”
In addition to motivation, you want to convey why and how you’ll succeed. Grad school requires independence, creativity, and teamwork not often required for undergraduate success. Do you have what it takes? My recommendation is to write stories about your experiences that show (a) grit, (b) that you can drive non-trivial projects to completion even when they have ambiguous requirements; (c) that you can learn new things and adapt; and (d) you can work well with others. If you have domain knowledge that’s relevant to what you want to do in grad school, it’s good to talk about that, ideally in specific ways (again, stories, more below).

How much should focus professors at a school, versus more general interest/experience?

Oftentimes people put the school-specific stuff is in the last paragraph or two, and the rest is generic. I think that’s OK. You won’t necessarily end up doing what you thought you were going to, and you might not work with the professors you had in mind at the start. So you should be generally motivated and prepared. Having a very specific statement that only works if one prof reads it and likes it risks the entire enterprise.
But if you can, talking cogently about particular stuff a prof is working on and why it interests you can be useful. That prof might be looking for someone with interests in a specific area, and that’s your chance to say it could be you. As David told me, “demonstrating actual specific knowledge about someone’s papers, even if it’s in the form of a thoughtful question, is gold.” But he follows up, “The thing is: you cannot fake this and trying to can do real harm to your application.” Leo adds, about being honest and not faking it:
For me personally, someone writing “I was really fascinated by functional programming with Haskell/Ocaml/whatever due to class X, and used a bit of PBT and it was really cool/magic” is way more honest and appealing than “your work with QuickChick/PBT/whatever stood out to me, followed by a (bad) paraphrase of my abstract, followed by a story about the undergraduate C++/Java hacking project that was fun.”

Hopefully you will speak about overlapping topics of interest in the main body of the letter, so being super-specific at the end is gravy, not the main course. Note that just listing some buzzwords (“I am interested in symbolic execution, gradual typing, and property-based testing”) isn’t nearly as meaningful as wrapping up those interests in context, so stories are better if you have them.

Stylistically, how should I write my statement?

As a general point it’s useful to understand that professors are going to read dozens of these statements, potentially. That means they are very likely going to skim them at first, hunting for distinguishing features. You can make your statement skimmable by (1) making the first sentence of a paragraph the topic sentence; (2) using structural elements like boldface, indentation, or itemization to demarcate key points (like I am doing in this list); (3) not making the whole thing too long (e.g., 2 pages, 3 at most).
Finally, note that the personal statement conveys writing ability. A clear organization, good sentence structure, etc. is reassuring. You don’t have to be Emerson, but if you otherwise have great credentials but are a bad writer that will give me pause. Communication is a key part of research and grad school success.

How would you summarize your advice?

Have real content, not platitudes: Specific stories and displayed knowledge pointing to future success, and believable and on-point motivation. Write it well: Good sentence structure and organization, not too long, and skimmable.
Good luck!

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