Grad School Personal Statement Question

  • #1

I'm in the process of applying to grad school in Astrophysics. I graduated last December from a top-tier Physics program and am wondering what exactly I should stick in my personal statement/statement of purpose/whatever the heck a given university calls it. My undergraduate experience was pretty unremarkable; for the school I went to, I had pretty average grades (maybe a touch below average) with some grades lower and some higher. I don't really know how to make myself stand out in that regard.

Also, I know that grad schools are big on undergraduate research. I had one undergraduate research experience which I believe taught me quite a bit; however, it ended terribly for a variety of reasons and I ended up quitting the job. I'm pretty sure I have no hope of getting a Letter of Recommendation from this professor, so I'm wondering if I should even mention the experience at all in my statement.

Finally, I'd like to get an idea of the logistics of the personal statement. Essentially, I'm wondering how long it should be, what sort of things should I address, etc. I've seen some samples online that mention extracurricular activities; is it a good idea to mention such things? Also, should I name-drop specific faculty in the department whose research intrigues me? I have a fair idea that I'd like to pursue the study of Galactic Formation and Dynamics; should I mention this? Any tips/advice would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for your time.

Answers and Replies

  • #2
Most professor don't care about what it says on paper that you did in your undergraduate. You need to show in your SOP that you are suitable for the university to bet money on and that betting on you can be rewarding for them in return. The expected rewards are in the form of publications, good research and original ideas, and the will-do returns are sincere and dedicated study of a chosen topic.

Nobody cares about the GPA. They care about if you have it in you to think independently. Usually GPAs and GRE scores are the only metric to gauge that character trait. But, we know GPAs don't make academics and anything hovering close to 3 is excellent. I consider the GRE a better metric, so I value a good GRE score, both the quantitative and the writing scores. On the other hand, if you have exceptionally low scores in both, make sure you put in a line explaining why that happened.

Length:1.5 +/- 0.5 Letter. I personally skip the extracurricular section right now. Don't name-drop faculty if you haven't contacted them and had them show interest in you. (And don't contact them unless you have a better-than-rudimentary idea of what they work with). Yes, do mention the topic you want to work with, but make sure the department you apply to has faculty working in that area. Pay attention to your language. Make it concise and tight, we don't like guessing your implications. SOPs from Asia give us a very hard time already.

Most important advice: Choose your advisor/research focus very very very very very carefully. You don't want to waste time switching focus after spending four years in grad school. So if you are not sure about what interest to talk about in your SOP, say so. We don't expect you to be able to lead a research program immediately after admittance.

And also, do add any projects you might have undertaken on your own that can be verified through at least a conversation ... maybe constructing wireless mobile toasters, or robotic beer can crushers, or port monitoring programs.
  • #3
Ah, a fellow astrophysics guy!

Sounds like the above guy has sat on admissions committees, so maybe you should just listen to him. From what professors have told me, extracurriculars don't matter even a little bit. In med school and law school these weigh heavily, but I guess in physics grad school they want people who are going to work their butts off, pass the qual, and graduate. Basically what I did was briefly say why I was interested in physics, outline my undergrad research experience, and what I would probably do with my PhD once I graduated. That was enough to get me in (or more likely, it didn't do anything to deter them from letting me in).

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