Brian Rybarczyk has written two previous articles on how to write your personal statement for a graduate school application; you will find his earlier articles here and here.
As I review drafts of personal statements from prospective graduate school applicants, some issues arise over and over. The drafts often seem like resumes in narrative form, lists of activities without much context or meaning. This article highlights the points of feedback I most frequently provide, focusing on ways to add substance to your personal statement.
Why do you want to go to graduate school? Why do you like this particular graduate program?
Ask yourself “why?”
The competition for entry into graduate programs is increasing. Your graduate education requires a large investment of other people’s time and money. It’s up to you to convince the admissions committee that if they let you in, that time and money won’t be wasted.
The best way to achieve that is to convince the committee that you have a vision—that admission to their graduate program is an obvious and useful next step in your career trajectory. But before you can convince the admissions committee, you need to figure it out yourself: Why do you want to go to graduate school? Why do you like this particular graduate program? If you don’t have a convincing answer, maybe you should wait a while—maybe look for a job in a research lab and apply for admission in a year or two, when you have a clearer vision of your future. A clear conviction that this graduate degree will move you toward your career goals is essential.
We’ve all had experiences that sparked interest in a new area of research or changed how we think about science. Such experiences are important for conveying your basic science story—for convincing the admissions committee that you have a vision of your future that has emerged over time. You need to show that your record of success in college and research isn’t random but, rather, a record of opportunities exploited as you work toward a desired end: the particular career in science that you’re pursuing.
Even much older scientists spend some time exploring, and that’s OK; there’s no need to try and hide your explorations. But your application will be much stronger if you can convince the graduate admissions committee that you have an increasingly clear vision for your future and a plan for how to get there. So place your experiences in context: Why did you decide to participate in that summer research program? Why did you choose your undergraduate research mentor? Why did you spend extra time in the lab despite a heavy course load? Why did you attend and present at a national conference, and what did you learn from that experience? How did your engagement with mentors shape your scientific identity? How does graduate school—this particular graduate program—fit that bigger picture?
Enhancing a description of your research
I use the metaphor of the hourglass to help writers shape a description of a research experience: big, small, and big. Start with the big-picture background, move toward the specifics of your project, and then connect the two together: How do the results of your research contribute to the field? Your ability to explain this clearly and succinctly—to place your particular research in context—demonstrates your command of the big picture. You need to communicate the rationale for pursuing a particular question and choosing a specific experimental approach, and you need to explain why the results matter. Describe your role in the project and what you learned about science from experience. A strong personal statement may also include a proposal for next steps in the project, which demonstrates that you are forward thinking, an important skill as a future graduate student.
Graduate studies are expected to develop advanced cognitive skills. When asked, “What skills do you bring to the table?” many young scientists respond with a list of laboratory techniques they used in their undergraduate research projects. Those skills are valuable, but that list isn’t what the admissions committee is looking for. Analytical thinking, problem solving, and synthesizing and evaluating information are among the higher-level skills needed to be successful in graduate school. Your essay should convey your progress toward mastering such skills. Here are some questions that may help you to achieve this, along with some skills that your responses should demonstrate:
- What experience do you have working in a collaborative environment? How do you contribute to the effectiveness of a team? (Skills: team science, collaboration, communication)
- How have you demonstrated your commitment to seeing a project through to completion? (Skills: project management, initiative, leadership)
- Have you encountered opportunities to solve problems? What strategies have you employed? How did it turn out? (Skill: problemsolving)
- What alternatives have you proposed to address a research question? Were your alternative approaches successful? (Skill: criticalthinking)
Motivation, maturity, independence, and enthusiasm for and commitment to science are crucial to success as a graduate student, so they should come across in your personal statement. There’s no formula for conveying these intangible traits, but providing examples of your character, work ethic, and professionalism will help highlight them.
Addressing challenges and deficiencies
Many students have faced personal and professional challenges. Personal or family health issues, child care issues, financial crises, and so on may have affected your academic progress or state of mind, contributing to deficiencies in your academic record or productivity. An applicant can write about these challenges in the personal statement, but it’s important not to dwell on them too much. The best approach is to describe how these challenges were addressed and what you learned from the process. Emphasize how you managed them and continued to make progress.
A generically written personal statement won’t get you far in the application process. It won’t sound authentic, and it won’t be convincing. Just like a cover letter for a job application, graduate school applicants should tailor their personal statements for the programs they are applying to. Here are a few suggestions.
- Highlight an area of research that the program is strong in, and describe how it matches your scientific interests.
- Identify faculty members, collaborative groups, institutes, initiatives, projects, and resources that fit your research goals.
- Explain how a program’s structure fits your expectations and needs. You may choose to emphasize options for course selection or sequence, the interdisciplinary nature of the program, flexibility for arranging lab rotations, the program’s length, support for academic and professional development, or the presence in the program of particular researchers.
Get critical feedback
Obtaining feedback on your personal statement (or any piece of writing) can be intimidating, but feedback is essential for creating a polished and readable document. Asking a best friend for feedback may result in a canned response—“sounds good,” or “I like it”—which isn’t helpful. Instead, seek feedback from trusted scientific peers, advisers, and mentors. Reading critiques of your writing can be disheartening and frustrating, but such feedback will continue throughout your career and is important for improving your communication skills—so get used to it.
You may find that comments on your personal statement vary widely and even contradict each other. Pay attention to all of them, and decide for yourself whether they make sense—but if there are consistent patterns in the critiques, i.e. the same suggestion made by all (or most) reviewers, that is certainly an area to revise.
To receive more meaningful constructive feedback, it may be helpful to ask your reviewers questions, such as these:
- Is my personal statement convincing? Do you believe I really want to go to graduate school—to this graduate school—and that I understand why I want to go?
- Are the examples appropriate? Does the statement hook the reader in and make them want to read more?
- Does it answer the essay prompt?
- Are the explanations of the research experiences clearly understandable for a nonexpert?
- Does it convey the skills that I’m developing as a future scientist?
- What about the writing? Is it well organized? Does it make sense? Are the transitions effective?
Precision is an important part of science, and no graduate program is interested in candidates that don’t take (or appear to take) their admissions process seriously. An error-riddled essay sends precisely that message: Either you aren’t precise or you don’t care. Even a single typo can be a turnoff. So try to eliminate all obvious errors.
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Even if you follow all this advice, I still can’t guarantee that you’ll get accepted to all of your dream graduate programs—that depends on the quality of all the work you’ve done up to now—but I can guarantee that your personal statement will improve and that you will look like a more authentic and substantial candidate. Good luck.
Brian Rybarczyk is director of academic and professional development at UNC Chapel Hill's graduate school. He has a Ph.D. in pathology and laboratory medicine from the University of Rochester.
People sometimes think that there is a trick to writing a personal statement for Oxford, or that we are looking for some special secret formula, but this is not the case. Writing a personal statement for Oxford is no different from writing a personal statement for any other university. In fact it’s important to remember that the same wording will be seen by all the universities you apply to and should therefore focus on the course you want to study, not the universities themselves. Please read this helpful advice from UCAS about writing your personal statement.
How important is the personal statement?
Universities build a picture of you as a student from all the different information you provide, to help decide whether or not to offer you a place. The picture is made up of several different pieces: your personal statement, academic record, predicted A-level grades (or equivalent), and your teacher's reference. For most courses at Oxford you will also need to take an admissions test or submit written work as well (check the details for your course). If your application is shortlisted, your interview will also be taken in to account. This means that your personal statement is important but it’s not everything: it’s just one part of the overall picture.
What are Oxford tutors looking for?
Tutors at Oxford are only interested in your academic ability and potential. They want to see that you are truly committed to the subject or subjects you want to study at university but it’s not enough just to say that you have a passion for something: you need to show tutors how you have engaged with your subject, above and beyond whatever you have studied at school or college. This can include any relevant extracurricular activities.
Try to avoid writing your personal statement as though you are ticking things off a list. There is no checklist of required achievements, and tutors will not just scan what you have written to look for key words or phrases. Tutors will read your personal statement to try to understand what has motivated you to apply for their course. It’s a good idea to evaluate your experiences, to show what you have learned from them and how they have helped develop your understanding of your subject.
Should I include extracurricular activities?
If you're applying for competitive courses, which includes any course at Oxford, we typically suggest that you focus around 80% of your personal statement on your academic interests, abilities and achievements. This can include discussion of any relevant extracurricular activities. The remaining 20% can then cover any unrelated extracurricular activities.
There’s a myth that Oxford is looking for the most well-rounded applicants, and that you will only be offered a place if you have a long list of varied extracurricular activities. In fact, extracurricular activities are only helpful in so far as they demonstrate the selection criteria for your course.
Do I need experience of work and travel?
We understand that not everyone has the opportunity to do work experience or to go travelling so these activities are not a requirement for any of our courses. Tutors won’t be impressed by your connections, or the stamps in your passport, but they will be impressed by how you’ve engaged with your subject.
For example, some of our applicants for Medicine may have had work experience placements in prestigious hospitals but not be able to evaluate their time there. If you have no more experience than some simple voluntary work, or even just discussing medical matters with your friends and family, you can still write an effective personal statement by reflecting critically on what you have learned and discussed.
To give another example, for the History of Art, tutors will not want to hear about all the galleries and exhibitions that you have visited around the world if you cannot discuss the art that you saw. You can come across more effectively in your personal statement by evaluating art you have seen, even if you’ve only seen it online or in books without ever leaving the school library.
Don’t be put off by any friends who you think have more impressive things to say in their personal statements. Remember that tutors do not have a checklist of achievements that they are looking for: they want to see how you have engaged with your subject.
I’m applying to different courses at different universities – how should I write my personal statement?
If you are thinking of applying for completely different courses at different universities (eg Physics and Accounting, or Biology and Music) we’d encourage you to reconsider. It’s important to choose a subject area that you really want to study, and focus on that one area when making your applications. Also, you can only write one personal statement which will be seen by all the universities to which you apply, so it needs to be relevant for all your courses.
If you are thinking of applying for related courses at different universities then we suggest that you avoid using course titles in your personal statement. We recommend that you write about your interest in the general course themes, and how you have engaged with relevant subject areas, so that your personal statement is equally relevant for each of your course choices.
Does my personal statement need to stand out?
Students sometimes feel that they need to say something dramatic to stand out from the crowd and be really memorable in their personal statement but this is not true. Applying to Oxford is not like a talent show where you may only have a few seconds to make an impression. Tutors consider each application carefully on its individual merits, looking for evidence of your commitment and ability. If you use your personal statement to demonstrate your academic abilities and your engagement with your subject or subjects, then your application will be memorable for all the right reasons.
Where should I start?
Think about talking to your friends about what you want to study at university: what would you tell them? What have you read or watched or seen that has inspired you? (This might have been at school, at home, in a museum, on TV, in a book, on YouTube or a podcast or anywhere else.) Why was it interesting? What do you want to find out next? What did you do?
If you find this difficult, it might be time to think about whether or not you’ve really chosen the right course. If you can’t think of anything that has inspired you, this lack of enthusiasm will probably come across in your personal statement, or it will become clear at interview, and you’re unlikely to gain a place at Oxford. If you find it easy to answer these questions, you will have a long list of ideas to help you write your personal statement.
When you start to write, remember not just to list your achievements but show how they have affected you, how you have benefited, and what you’d like to learn next. Be honest about yourself and what has inspired you, whether that’s been text books, museums and literature, or websites, podcasts and blogs. Be sure to tell the truth, as tutors might check later, so don’t exaggerate and certainly don’t make any false claims. Don’t hold back either – this is no time for modesty.
When you've written a first draft, have a look back at the selection criteria for your course and think about the evidence you've given for each of the criteria. Have you covered everything?
How many versions should I write?
Ask a teacher to read through what you’ve written, listen to their feedback and then make any updates that they suggest. You may need two or three tries to get it right. Don’t keep writing and rewriting your statement though, as it is more important to keep up with your school or college work, and to explore your subject with wider reading. (See suggested reading and resources.)
Some dos and don’ts
- DON’T be tempted to make anything up, as you might be asked about it at interview.
- DON’T copy anyone else’s personal statement. UCAS uses plagiarism detection software.
- DON'T list qualifications like your GCSE grades or anything else that's covered elsewhere on the application.
- DON’T just list your other achievements: you need to evaluate them.
- DON'T feel the need to be dramatic in order to be memorable.
- Apply for a course you really want to study.
- Be yourself: tell the truth about your interests.
- Sell yourself: this is not the time for modesty.
- Reread your personal statement before an interview – the tutors will.
- Read the UCAS guidance on personal statements.