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Ugh, personal statement help please?

  1. Dec 10, 2008 #1
    I'm in the process of writing one. I thought it was okay until I read some samples I found online and realized I wouldn't get accepted to 3rd grade with my statement. Okay that's a bit harsh.

    Does anybody have any tips for this? I see some as essentially life stories, and others as "I'm so F-in cool just look at all the things I did!!" I mean look at this:

    Mine is more of a "Why I got into physics, what I learned in undergrad, why I want to go to grad school and what I want to do afterwards." But of course not as dry as that.

    I haven't done any extracurricular activities. I did undergrad research, but I earned credit for it. Does that count?

    Then of course comes the Personal Achievements/Contributions question. UC SB apparently requires this, so I can't skip it. It's essentially what's the best sob story turned heroic epic you can churn out. Unfortunately (or actually fortunately) for me I have both my parents, lower-middle class but always have food on the table, not a minority in any way. What the hell do I write then? Do I just send them a blank page?

    They also want a CV like some other places do as well. Should I list the undergrad research I did even if I got school credit for it? For example right now I am writing a program that is supposed to model the phase separations of a mixture of lipids and cholesterol in a lipid bilayer at a certain temperature.

    Any advice would be appreciated. Thank you.
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 10, 2008 #2
    My first draft is much less flowery than some you will see online, but I'm waiting to hear back from profs as to whether it will work or not. Mine is quite matter-of-fact, with a little bit of spice here and there. Generally, I went with the Just-Answer-the-Question approach: why am I applying to X university? What are my future goals? What are my research interests? Why should I qualify? What have I done other than take the basic core courses?

    Hoping it all works out... :)

  4. Dec 11, 2008 #3
    Thanks for the reply. :)

    I was going to do the matter-of-fact approach but then realized my achievements on my own don't make me shine. I'll have to actually give them a taste of who I am and they'll have to like it if I'm to be accepted (or at least for the letter to have a positive effect).

    Right now I'm making a generic draft and I'll have to tailor it to specific schools. For example, UCSB wants the style you wrote in, so I'll have to re do it. But at least I'll already have my ideas laid out and just have to reword them.

    Still... Dec. 15 is creeping up...

    Hey, you don't happen to know if that means they need to GET there by then or if they need to be post-marked by then, do you? Do they actually just throw all your stuff out if your material is a bit late even if you've applied on time?
  5. Dec 11, 2008 #4
    Frankly, I don't have a super-impressive resumé myself but the whole idea is to sell yourself so I'm rocking that mantra like a champ.

    Generally speaking, most programs won't ignore your application if you submit it late (from what I gather), especially if supporting docs are late. All of my earlyish applications are fully online anyhow, so I just wrote it in LaTeX and will upload the PDF. :)

  6. Dec 11, 2008 #5
    I think the example you link to is hideous. As a former selections committee member, I scanned it quickly for research experiences and found a few, but it sure was miserable to take til well into the third paragraph to get to those few! And then there wasn't much description of the work or the student's role. It sounds like the applicant is loading it with filler, and possible excuses for poor grades on a transcript. (Note: If your transcript does have flaws, I suggest that, if you are comfortable, ask for one (and only one) of your recommendation letters to discuss whatever health issues might have come into play, etc. (only one faculty member you trust... you need to seem STRONG!) The way this letter opened up with health issues....and a high school prize (even if it be national) is SO wrong. High school was before college. I want to know about your qualifications NOW.

    Get straight to the good stuff... Open it up something more like:
    While I have always (or not always) enjoyed my studies in the sciences (or been inspired by my professors led to seek my phd....), my recent experience working in the laboratory(ies) of professor X (and y and z) has helped to both solidify this goal and reaffirm that i have the skills needed to successfully attain it. [Insert descriptions of your major research experiences and your role in the groups here]. Then end with some stuff about how their particular institution meets your goals (with certain research groups or projects that you would be interested in) and helps you to [where you'd like to go afterward... enter academia or pursue research in national lab Q, etc.,].

    I quote from a few of my prior posts:
    Quote one:
    "Okay, usually grad schools are pragmatic... they know there are numbers, and they put these numbers into a formula, not always a linear formula, that varies by the university. These numbers are usually:
    1) subject GRE, 2) verbal GRE, 3) quantitative GRE, 4) overall GPA, 5) general GPA 6) your undergrad's prestige -- Our committee has a master list where we ranked the schools on a scale 1-5, and then 6) a rating from the committee members reading your application.
    The numbers ultimately fall where they will... you're ranked somewhere in the list of all the applicants.

    BUT: if you have research experience, that means a lot to the committee, and at least in my grad school's formula, the committee rating goes in pretty strongly rated. I was on the selection committee, so I know one formula, but I am not giving it out. And YES!... undergrad research is most important. I don't care that you decided to become a string theorist while looking at your shoestrings. I really don't care that you are a nice person. As a committee member, I care to know that you'll be able to come to our program, do research and graduate. So your personal statement should reflect the research you've done. Your recommendations should ALL back that up... stating you are a brilliant, motivated, independent researcher... phrases like "better than my current grad students" etc. look really good... so when you're in the lab, act that way. Maybe if you have a bit of teaching experience, mention that, because they then know that if they don't stick you with an RA right anyway, you'll still be useful to them as a TA."

    Quote Two:
    " ...the committee members don't give a d#$% that your fascination with your shoestrings made you want to study string theory. They want to know that you have the requisite coursework, that you've maybe done research, that you've maybe taught a bit... that you can come and be productive in their department, then graduate and get a job. In your letter/statement, talk about your research, and make sure your recommendations back up what you say about your research experiences in their letters."

    Can you tell I hated the string theory / shoe string opener?
  7. Dec 11, 2008 #6
    Also: yes: include your research experiences on your CV.
  8. Dec 11, 2008 #7
    One problem I'm having is keeping mine neat and orderly. I'm unclear if I should clearly separate paragraphs on why I want to go on to graduate school from why I am qualified... or if I should clearly separate why I am qualified from what my research interests are. I think I am now thinking too hard about this...
  9. Dec 11, 2008 #8
    My thought on personal statement flow:

    paragraph one: brief statement of desire to pursue your Ph.D. at university X based on your deep desire, reinforced by research experiences at home institution Z and in your REU experiences at universities Q and M. Go for a minimal three sentence paragraph. Quickly move on to...

    internal paragraphs: limit to research experiences (1 PP per project/experience?) and perhaps one with teaching experience. Make these detailed about the work and your role (aka. in these paragraphs start to BE a confident grad student / researcher). Lead into..

    Summary paragraph: make note of research interests here... specifically about why your interests, experiences and future career goals mesh well with that of specific groups at university x... by this point hopefully experiences in the main paragraphs lead into the conclusion of the suitability of match.
  10. Dec 11, 2008 #9
    Thank you VERY much PGP. I know this isn't the first time you've given me advice, either. Thanks a lot. :D
  11. Dec 11, 2008 #10
    Could you give me some perspective here... in my school undergraduate research is required to graduate. How many students apply with weak or no research experience?
  12. Dec 11, 2008 #11


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    I think a short, internal paragraph, near the end, on some of your interests outside academics is okay as well, particularly if it shows something positive, like good time management to get all those wonderful things accomplished WHILE pursuing volunteer work, or playing in a band, or racing motorbikes, etc. This should not be at the beginning or a big paragraph, just something to make things a little personal and interesting. If your hobbies are reading books in your spare time and taking a couple piano lessons, don't bother, it doesn't help. But we've had students who were strong academically AND who did things like play in a band on weekends, which led us to consider them slightly above those who JUST did academics. Basically, knowing they are good at balancing academics with a life and still doing well in both suggested they had better survival skills for grad school than someone who had to spend every waking hour studying to do well academically (not to mention that having musical talent among the students makes the Christmas parties more fun :biggrin:).

    And, yes, even if your research was for credit, talk about it! Make that the MAIN emphasis of your internal paragraphs. The research experience is the most important qualification, because it means you really know what research is, and what you're getting into, and it's not just some idealized, unrealistic view of grad school. Sometimes the research experience is what sparks your interest, sometimes it's what verifies your interest, but having it shows that you know what you're getting into. Though, you really do need to explain that you understood what you were doing too. There are plenty of students who do research and couldn't tell you why they did any of it. They are not good grad school candidates...they were just good technicians, following instructions they were given. If they can rattle off the protocols they followed in great detail, but can't explain to me what the hypothesis of the experiment was, I might be inclined to hire them as a lab tech, but not admit them into grad school. So make sure you explain WHY you did the research you did, not just HOW you did it.
  13. Dec 11, 2008 #12

    D H

    Staff: Mentor

    My thoughts exactly. Word of warning: I work in the "real world", not in academia. I do look at cover letters and resumes, and some of the same concepts carry over. Cover letters similar to that personal statement garner negative points. Keep your personal statement on target.

    Of course. That means you had guidance and know what research is. Research done on your own may be nice, but most likely has less value than research done under someone.
  14. Dec 11, 2008 #13


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    I would agree that the sample statement WarPhalange linked to was a far cry from stellar. I couldn't even get through the thing. It started out with medical conditions and high school accomplishments. It was filled with flowery, but essentially meaningless language. At one point the author was telling me about books he'd read. On top of that, there were grammatical errors in it.

    My advice would be to not try to flower it up. Talk about your personal experiences and what skills you've acquired. I think it's fine to include senior undergraduate project work. It's also important to keep in mind that "research" is not synonamous with a senior laboratory course. Some interesting personal facts are also okay - not a life story, but something unique that stands out about yourself is fine.
  15. Dec 11, 2008 #14
    Oh definitely. Those classes involve you going into the lab and freaking out because you only have 3 hours to do your experiment and neither you nor your lab partners have any idea what is going on. Then, a week after you take your data and go home, you try to figure out what the hell happened and what all the data means.

    I don't understand why research is being so emphasized here (I do in a way, but not entirely). At my school research is required to graduate and all my friends are doing research and I have been for the past 2 years. I assumed it was similar at other schools.

    Are you all just saying I need to explain the research I did do very well?

    Thanks for all the replies, by the way.
  16. Dec 11, 2008 #15


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    No, it's not the same at other schools. It's great that your school requires research, most do not, so it is only the motivated students who seek it out.

    Yes, you need to explain it well enough to show you understood what you were doing, that it was a meaningful experience, and that you weren't just a grunt in the lab following "orders."
  17. Dec 11, 2008 #16
    Don't get me wrong, all my friends like doing research, it's just that to us it's almost like taking E&M or Quantum. Like, if you didn't do it people would look at you funny.

    I also know that some schools do senior theses (thesises???), but I also don't know how popular that is amongst schools.

    Yes, that makes a lot of sense and I think I would have missed that subtlety on my own. Thank you. :)
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