Personal Statements

by Harry on November 20, 2017

When I’m writing a letter of recommendation for an undergraduate applying for graduate school (one of the many parts of my job for which I have received no training and my skill in which has never been assessed by anyone), I pretty much always want to look at the personal statement (or, their answers to the program-specific questions which many professionally-oriented programs ask). If I don’t know the student really well, the personal statement helps me write the letter, just because it keeps them fully in my head; and if I do know the student really well it seems wrong not to offer to comment on/offer editorial advice, especially if I know (as I often do) that the student doesn’t have a parent who will be able confidently to do this. For all I know my own confidence is misplaced, but I don’t think it is – I have read thousands of personal statements over the years {mainly for nursing school, clinical psych, teacher ed, school counseling, medical school and law school and, of course, philosophy), and although I only know directly what other people (my immediate philosophy colleagues) think about the statements of students who apply to Philosophy PhD programs, I have observed the fate of those students whose statements I’ve looked at.

The main thing I want to say about personal statements is that in my experience many candidates agonize over them and spend far too much time trying to get them exactly right. In philosophy the main purpose of the personal statement is to convey that you know what you are doing, that you are genuinely interested in the program you’re applying to, and that you are not a complete flake. Some people, it is true, have genuinely interesting stories behind their desire to X, whatever it is, but most really don’t.[1] But they usually seem compelled to tell a story as compellingly as possible. Here’s a quote from a recent email (used with permission):

Hi Brighouse, I hope you had a nice weekend and that you have a good week ahead of you! I wanted to email you to ask for your help with my personal statements. I have spent a lot of time attempting to write some of them and I am really struggling. They feel very cliched to me and I am not sure how to make myself stand out as an applicant in so few words!

Actually, what she sent me was better than she thought, but I’d guess it would have been still better, and less stressful, if she’d had a good sense of what to do. Here’s the advice I’ve been giving recently, roughly, and obviously tailored to the specific student to whom I’m writing (in addition to specific advice about what they have written). To be honest, I usually give this advice only after they’ve already agonized a bit – I hereby resolve to start telling them ahead of time.

1. The personal statement will rarely affect whether or not you get in. Mostly that will be your letters of rec, resume, grades (and GRE and writing sample, if those are applicable). Helping your recommenders write letters that really represent you is a much more valuable use of your time than turning an ok statement into a good one. Stop stressing out about it.

2. If you have an amazing story, tell it. But don’t try to invent one, or to make a rather boring story (like mine) sound amazing. Tell the committee i) why you want to become (say) a nurse; ii) what qualifies you for their program iii) what will make you a good (say) nurse; iv) why you are interested in their program in particular; v) what you specifically think you have to learn.

3. Someone else might be able to tell you qualities you have that suit you to the profession in question if you can’t figure it out yourself – e.g., in the case of the student whose email I quote above, she had said something about herself in the draft statement that seemed both negative and false; and I was able (easily) to tell her a positive truth about herself that, when she wrote it in the revised statement, nevertheless did not seem self-aggrandizing.

4. If there is something in your transcript or resume that looks weak, and you have a good explanation for it, the ideal thing to do is i) ask your lead letter writer to mention and explain it and ii) mention in your statement that they will explain it. If someone else explains a weakness, it is much less likely to come over as special pleading or excuse-making.

5. Don’t use lots of adverbs and adjectives. Don’t use colloquialisms. Don’t actually try to use clichés, but do relax a bit about them – mostly your statement is not going to stand out from the crowd, and that’s ok! Stand out from the crowd once you are there, if you want to.

6. Be direct and straightforward, without being self-denigrating.

7. Make sure you stay within the word limit. Get someone skilled (who might be me) to look it over, and suggest edits which save you words.

8. Give yourself a time limit. Remind yourself that the chances this will make a difference to your prospects are small. If it is truly awful that might sink you (so get someone like me to read it to ensure that it is not truly awful); if it is good enough, then making it better is unlikely to yield much benefit.

Any amendments, revisions, contrary advice, would be welcome.

[1] I don’t. I encountered Philosophy in secondary school, and decided that, unlike History, I’d never learn how to read Philosophy unless someone taught me. I went to graduate school because I liked doing Philosophy and couldn’t think what else to do. Then I became a professor because I was not imaginative or bold enough to go work for dissidents in Russia during the waning months of perestroika (really, a left wing dissident member of the Moscow City Soviet asked me to come and work for him).

{ 14 comments }

1

Adam Roberts 11.20.17 at 9:14 am

In addition to doing all the things Harry mentions at my own institution (and for which, like him, I have received no training and in which my skill in which has never been assessed) I also go to local schools and do mock interviews with sixth-formers by way of readying them for actual personal interviews at Universities that still insist upon such things (Oxford and Cambridge mostly). With vanishingly rare, usually suspiciously cocky, exceptions these are all desperately nervous teenagers trying not to appear so, made more anxious by their desire to remember a more-or-less prepared script that has been prepared to show them off in the best possible intellectual light. Just getting them to relax is half the battle. The main thing I tell them is: from the other side of the desk, from the admissions perspective, one of the main unspoken attitudes of interviewers is: if I let this student in, and s/he ends up in my seminar group, will I regret it? Almost always the answer to this question is no. But really the point of the process is not to identify geniuses-to-be and admit only them, it’s to weed out hopeless cases and the unhinged.

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Adam Roberts 11.20.17 at 9:17 am

Gah, now would you look at that? What price a CT edit button for comments, I wonder?

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Matt 11.20.17 at 10:13 am

A few thoughts:

1) While you have not been trained at writing letters of recommendation, at least you have, I’d assume, seen may of them, for grad school applicants and job applicants. I’ve written quite a few law school letters of recommendation without having any experience comparing mine to what other people do. This makes it even harder. (I have seen lots of recommendations for people applying for clerkships and internships with judges because law clerks often do a “first cut” on those, so at least have some idea of how law job recommendations go, even if clerkship recommendations are different from many other areas.) It’s a hard subject to know if you’re doing right, at least in my situation.

2) Possibly the best advice I’d heard about personal statements is that the applicant is not his or her own reference, and shouldn’t act or write like it. In truth, I’m not sure if this is good advice _in practice_ (I’d be interested to hear what people think) though it’s obviously good advice in theory.

3) Who was the Russian MP and in what way was he a “left wing dissident in the waning months of perestroika”? I’d be interested to hear the story and what he wanted to do, and wanted you to do.

4

sanbikinoraion 11.20.17 at 11:18 am

Harry,

If this is a thing you have never received training on, why is that?

My experience of UK universities is that they are singularly uninterested in training their staff for the benefit of their undergraduates. It seems from various posts here on CT, the staff themselves seem remarkably uninterested in acquiring such training either.

If this is a genuinely useful skill that you and your peers should have, then why are you not lobbying the university for budget to be allocated to learn how to do this stuff?

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Harry 11.20.17 at 2:22 pm

Matt — I’ve only seen letters of rec for Philosophy (grad school jobs) in sizeable numbers. I write a lot for Elementary Ed, Secondary Ed, Counseling Psych, Nursing, etc. I have talked to people who admit in all those programs, so do know what they say about how they use letters and what they like to see in them. But it is different.

Actually, I misspoke, it was a member of the Moscow city soviet — I’ll correct that. More details another time, I don’t want to derail.

sanbikinoraion — good point. I’ve got higher priorities — lobbying for support to improve instruction which is the core skill-set in which we are not trained. With some success, thanks to my Dean and the Chancellor — we’re currently planning pilots for several projects starting next fall, one of which is related to this post:
http://crookedtimber.org/2013/05/28/employing-a-student-to-criticize-my-teaching/
but see more generally:
http://crookedtimber.org/2016/07/21/how-could-a-research-university-systematically-improve-undergraduate-instruction/

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DCA 11.20.17 at 2:48 pm

I’d add to (2), include anything you’ve done in the area that is above and beyond the requirements. In the sciences this is, ideally, spent time working on some part of some prof’s research project. Also, do not begin the statement with “Ever since I was a child, I have been fascinated by [relevant topic]”. This is way too common, and rarely credible.

7

EB 11.20.17 at 4:18 pm

In the US, applicants to selective and sometimes less-selective colleges and universities must submit a personal essay, and the goal is to make themselves look unique and desirable along several different dimensions to admissions officers who are not academics. A lot of dissembling and story-telling is involved. These students, in particular, would have a hard time coming up with a personal statement (4 years later) for grad or professional programs that is suitably fact-based and temperate in their self-presentations.

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Harry 11.20.17 at 6:13 pm

Yes, that seems exactly right to me. Though, talking to admissions officers, the irony is that many of them (at least think they) see through the dissembling, and would like to read more prosaic and unself-promoting essays.

9

RJB 11.21.17 at 12:03 am

Here’s advice I’ve written before. It’s for accounting, but it shouldn’t be too hard to generalize.
Pasted in full, since I don’t know how long the fasri site will stay up:

As someone who reads a lot of SoP’s, here are the questions I want an applicant to answer, more or less in order:

What is your purpose? What are your career aspirations? What type of research do you want to conduct? What topics and methods are you intending to pursue?

What led you to your purpose? Why are you applying to this field? This is a big issue in accounting, as many applicants could well have applied to programs in less lucrative and/or more competitive fields, like economics, psychology, finance or statistics. You need to convince the faculty that you are pursuing your purpose because you are truly interested in the subject material in your chosen field. Research and teaching are simply too much work for anyone to succeed if they aren’t inherently interested.

Why will you succeed? The faculty already have your transcript and a CV that lists your accomplishments. This is your chance to pull those facts together into a story that answers the questions that faculty are going to be most concerned about: Do you know enough about accounting (or whatever field you have chosen) to ask interesting questions? Are you smart enough? Can you write? Are you sufficiently well-trained in the fundamentals (math, statistics, psychology, depending on your purpose)? Will you work hard enough? Do you have the emotional makeup to learn and improve from constructive criticism (which you will receive in abundance throughout your career)? But you can’t just write “I am smart and hard working.” Follow the classic writer’s advice: show me, don’t tell me. You’ll be much more persuasive writing “As an undergraduate I regularly took 18-credit terms, still averaging a 3.6 GPA in statistics and calculus” or “During my 3 years at East Coast Investment Bank I learned how misleading accounting reports can be.”

Do you know what you are getting into? Many highly-qualified applicants are admitted but fail to thrive because they don’t actually want to do the job they applied for! Being a PhD student or faculty member involves spending a lot of time alone with your computer, reading, writing, trying to find something new to tell people who already know a great deal. You’ll have to put up with constant criticism–and learn from it. Even though you are in accounting, you will spend most of your PhD years studying foundational material that is far removed from the applications that interest you. When you finally conduct research on a topic of your choosing, it will be far narrower and more distant from real-world issues than you are probably expecting. You might address this point in a specific paragraph, but an alternative is to weave in evidence throughout the entire SoP that demonstrates that you know what you are getting into, and you like it.

Have you ever conducted research? If you have, you can use that fact to address many of the above questions. Perhaps a research project with a professor led to your interest in accounting. Perhaps the paper provides evidence of hard work and math skills. Perhaps it shows that you know what you are getting into. There is no better way to show that you can succeed at conducting research than to have succeeded at conducting research!

You probably need a separate paragraph to describe your research topic, method and conclusions. But place that discussion in the context of one of the above bullet points.
What are your weaknesses and how will you address them? Almost no one has a strong answer to every question in the previous bullet points. If you lack a strong math background or work experience, faculty will think more of you if you acknowledge that fact (after all, they already know from your transcript) and propose a plan for dealing with it. This shows both self-awareness and an understanding of what the job requires.

Why us? You could pursue your purpose at any number of institutions. Why are you applying to my school? I strongly recommend reading articles posted on SSRN written by faculty at every school you apply to. Here is your opportunity to explain which faculty you are hoping to work with, and why those people and the program are attractive to you.

Why you? Doctoral program admission rates are extremely low in accounting and other management fields (under 5%, usually just one or two people per field per year). There are probably other applicants who are similarly qualified. Why should the school admit you? This is your opportunity to explain why you are special. Everyone has some experience or training that will make them more memorable and suggest qualifications above and beyond the usual qualifications. Use yours to stand out from the crowd, and as a means of drawing your SoP to the only possible conclusion–that the school should admit YOU.

A final remark on writing style. Your SoP is also a way to convey that you understand how academics write. Here are some rules successful doctoral students learn quickly:

Don’t tell us a mystery story. If you are writing fiction, keep me in suspense. But if you are writing an academic paper–or a Statement of Purpose. I have to read about 100 SoPs in a typical admissions cycle. Don’t make me wade through any more words than necessary before telling me what I need to know.

Don’t tell us “what I did for summer vacation.” This is particularly important for academic research. We want to know the conclusion, how you support it, what you found and why it matters. We don’t want to know the fifteen different ways you tried to solve the problem before you found one that works. Your SoP might deviate from this rule a little bit, because we want to know why you ended up applying to our program. But even for that insight, what we really want to know is why right now, after all you have done and learned, you want to apply to our program.

Don’t overclaim. This cardinal rule of academic writing has three components. First, never overstate the facts. Don’t say that you were the best student in your class if you weren’t. Any hint of overclaiming facts is going to raise questions about your academic integrity, and might be grounds for immediate disqualification. Second, don’t overstate the implications of the facts. Being first in your class doesn’t mean you are sure to succeed, so don’t say it does. Third, don’t overstate the value of the facts. I wouldn’t recommend writing that being in first in your class is “extremely impressive”. Many academic writers will advise you never to say that a certain fact is interesting, important, impressive, astounding, crucial, or the like. Instead, just say that the fact implies a certain outcome or conclusion, and let the reader judge whether that is interesting, important and impressive. After all, you wouldn’t have even mentioned it if you didn’t think it was interesting, important and impressive. Saying so explicitly just makes the academic reader want to take issue with you. (This is how we roll.) Just lay out the facts and their direct implications in a way that allows no conclusion other than “wow, that is interesting, important and impressive!”

Good luck!

10

Eszter 11.21.17 at 3:28 pm

Lots of helpful advice here. I don’t have much to add, but the total cliche from my field on the social aspects of digital media: applicants starting their statements by explaining how thanks to having grown up with technology, x. Of course, 99.8% of our applicants also grew up with technology so this is not particularly unique to them. Plus if they knew related research they would know that that does not automatically make them y so it’s not a particularly helpful angle.

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Sam Tobin-Hochstadt 11.21.17 at 7:33 pm

I find the common-among-academics complaint that “we were never trained to do X” always rather surprising. Sure, I wasn’t trained to do some of my job (although I received apprenticeship-style training in many things, including letter-writing and teaching). But this is totally normal in the vast majority of the jobs people have.

I think academics have too strong a sense of “other jobs” as meaning professional jobs that require specific academic curricula, such as law, nursing, etc, rather than the jobs that most people in fact have. How much of a mover’s job is covered in formal training, or a WalMart greeter, or a furnace repairman?

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Trout 11.22.17 at 7:34 am

My UK-based impression is that most of the academics I know would do almost anything to avoid any more ‘training’. Too often it’s part and parcel of ever more heavy-handed regulation, of limited practical use, and in some cases, just a sticking plaster for poorly designed procedures and management tools (‘we couldn’t be bothered to figure how to do this efficiently, but the ‘training’ will cover all of this…’). By contrast, a thread like this is genuinely helpful – I’ve never received enough recommendations to form a very clear view of what works well and as I’d like to help my students as best I can, this is indeed a problem.

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harry b 11.22.17 at 1:32 pm

Thanks Trout — for what its worth, we have quite a lot of evidence from compulsory education that people welcome and use training when it is embedded in their practice, ongoing, and directly related to their daily activities. My own department has started having a monthly lunchtime meeting, in which we designate someone to learn (or invite someone from outside who knows) about some practical problem that we all, or most of us, face in our instruction, or in our other professional interactions with students. These posts (maybe I’ve done 10-12 over the years) have set the stage for some of those discussions. So maybe ‘training’ isn’t quite the concept I’m looking for. Just informed discussion among professionals who trust each other, in a formal setting. And, ideally, peer observations that are not for evaluative purposes, but for purposes of mutual improvement.

I suppose that’s also a response to Sam. I watched some good teachers (my advisor is a brilliant undergrad teacher, but I can’t really emulate her, I’m too different). But ‘apprenticeship’ suggests something more systematic than I’ve had; and I did quite a bit more teaching as a grad student than many grad students coming out of elite programs do these days.

Compare the systematic attention we give to improving our research capabilities to the systematic attention we give to improving our undergraduate instruction.

But, I agree with Trout, that there is a hell of a lot of bad ‘training’, some of it worse than a waste of time.

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Thomas Lumley 11.23.17 at 7:14 am

the main purpose of the personal statement is to convey that you know what you are doing, that you are genuinely interested in the program you’re applying to, and that you are not a complete flake.

That fits my experience in biostatistics. We mostly cared about (a) does this person really have some idea of what biostatistics is, and (b) will they cope with the required math-stat coursework.

On the ‘complete flake’ issue: when I’ve looked at statements by undergraduates with a bad semester or two of grades they often want to explain how it wasn’t really that bad or wasn’t their fault or was because of a good cause. What the admissions committee really cares about is whether (given reasonable accommodations if necessary) it’s likely to keep happening.

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