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Are Personal Statements Actually Supposed to be Personal?

  1. Nov 9, 2013 #1
    I'm applying to graduate school in physics, and I recently sent my personal statement to a professor for review. They sent it back to me today and told me that so-called "personal statements" are not actually supposed to be personal, linking me here as evidence. That article claims things like "Don’t give your personal reason for wanting to go to graduate school" and "Don’t make it too personal – this is a professional application." My professor said I should scratch references to, for example, how I got interested in physics initially in middle school, and so on.

    But I did some research myself, and found some articles such as this one that seem to imply it's a must to include how I initially got interested. In fact, the last paragraph of this article explicitly says "the most important thing is [to] keep it personal!"

    So, what is it? Are personal statements supposed to be personal or not?
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  3. Nov 9, 2013 #2
    Some schools differentiate between personal statement and statements of purpose.

    Some schools want your personal statement to be something akin to why you got interested in physics and what brought you to your decision to come to grad school, etc, etc.

    The statement of purpose is where you say what you have done, what do you want to do, and how do you plan on doing and how your university of choice will help you do that, etc, etc.

    Some schools make no distinction.
  4. Nov 9, 2013 #3


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    The best way to know what they want is to ask the departments at the schools you are applying to. They will tell you what they want if you ask clearly.

    If there is a particular professor you want to be your advisor, ask that professor.
  5. Nov 9, 2013 #4


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    Wherever you are applying, you have a limited number of words you can write, and the people reading it have a limited amount of time.

    If you are applying for physics grad school, it should be self evident you are interested in physics. So use the space to say something the applications committee can't guess for itself. Save the details of your life story for your autobiography, if you get famous enough to write one.

    I read job applications in industry, not academia, but if half the CV and cover letter is about 10-year-old trivia, the obvious deduction is that the applicant doesn't have anything more relevant to say.
  6. Nov 9, 2013 #5

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    The purpose of these essays is to distinguish between candidates. It is the job of the committee to say "extend an offer to these candidates, but not those candidates" - your essay needs to help them make that decision.

    Think about that every time you write something down. Will the committee say "This person got interested by watching Professor Proton; we should accept her over this other person!"?
  7. Nov 9, 2013 #6


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    You can be personal in it, but "how" you are being personal is really the key.

    Personal doesn't mean including all the little details of who you are in the statement. As AlephZero pointed out, it's very easy to waste space in these things. The committee knows that you're interested in physics, they know that you're interested in their particular program. Telling them that you read the "Fabric of the Cosmos" or "A Brief History of Time" when you were 16 is not likely to have any impact on their decision.

    You might want to start with what got you interested in the particular sub-field you're applying to and how you came to the conclusion you want to study in that area in graduate school. The answer to this is hopefully more than "it seems like a really fascinating field" and more along the lines of "I was introduced to this in a senior undergraduate class, I volunteered in a lab to work on this related project, I began attending regular seminars by this sub-group at my current school, I came to your school to discuss graduate opportunities, etc." Back up your statements with specific evidence.

    Another big thing to include is "why you chose this particular school" to apply to. The less-desirable answers are "Because you have a program that I'm interested in" or "Because I think I can get in." The more-desirable answers are along the lines of "the program was highly recommended by each of the professors I spoke with in this field" or "I came to the school over the summer to investigate graduate opportunities, spoke with these specific professors, and concluded this was a better school for me because..."

    The over-arching theme is that you want to give the admissions committee tangible evidence that you have investigated this path and that you are confident this program will be the right fit for you. In that sense, yes, it's very personal, because these reasons will be different for all applicants.
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