I am always impressed when I read a well-written, focused statement that has interesting content. These students are at an advantage not only for admission but also for recruiting scholarships. An applicant can be admitted to graduate school with an unsophisticated statement, but obviously it's preferable to have a good statement. I'm sure that the requirements for a good statement vary from place to place, but here are a few basic things that I like to see (or not see) in an application statement, especially for a Ph.D. program:
1. What do you want to do in graduate school? You do not have to be intensely focused on a narrow topic at the time of application. There is time to figure that out once you start your graduate program. Even so, if your statement gives faculty the impression that you are applying because you don't really know what else to do and maybe you'll give grad school a try.. that's not good. Present yourself as a serious student with sincere interest in the general field of study for which you are applying. This part of your statement should have content based on your experiences thus far.
2. Do not discuss your childhood. Most faculty don't care about your childhood chemistry set or your shell collection or even the telescope your great-aunt set out in a field one summer night to show you the immensity of the universe. Do not describe a walk on the beach with your dad when you were 5. Do not mention your favorite teacher in 4th grade, not even if she let you watch a cocoon being built. Do not talk about how awesome it was the first time you read Isaac Asimov or Carl Sagan or even Richard Feynman.
3. What are some significant academic or work experiences you have had that are relevant to your application for graduate school in Science? Relevant items here would be research experiences and rigorous classes.
4. Make some effort to tailor your statement to the department to which you are applying, but don't go overboard about it. Just show that you have a realistic reason for applying to a particular department. Be sure to check over your statements carefully before submitting them so that you don't send a statement to University Y that says that your dream is to study at University X.
I am not going to take a stand on the issue of whether one should start the essay with a quotation. I personally prefer quotationless statements, but certainly wouldn't hold it against a student, unless they quote Emily Dickinson.
Fortunately, my actual graduate application statement has been lost to the sands of time -- I am sure it would be very embarrassing to read now. I have no idea what I wrote, but it was likely very naive. In the absence of the original, and because I have been reading so many of these statements lately, I just now decided to write my own statement (again). Instead of trying to write a good essay, though, I decided it would be easier and more fun to write an awful essay, ignoring the boring 'rules' I listed above.
Disclaimer: My fake statement is not meant to be contemptuous of actual student efforts, as that is not how I feel when I read these statements, however bizarre, even though I am a curmudgeon.
A Sample Essay for an Application to a Science Graduate Program, Inspired by Real Essays
but not quite to the point of actual plagiarism
but not quite to the point of actual plagiarism
How many roads must a man walk down, before they can call him a man?
Bob Dylan wants to know the answer to this question and so do I. I have always loved quantifying impossible things, and I want to continue to do so in graduate school. I would not stop at counting roads, though, because counting roads means looking down. I also want to look at the sky.
How many times must a man look up, before he can see the sky?
That's another thing that Bob wants to know, but in this case we disagree about the important question. I want to know how many times must a man look up before he can really know the sky and what is in it. The sky has always been a mystery to me ever since I was a child. What is the sky? We must know this before we can count things in it. I do not like science fiction though. I love science.
In the classes I have taken as an undergraduate, my professors have attempted to teach me many things, but the things I want to know are not in books.
I have always collected things: shells, pebbles, cats. I even tried collecting staplers for a while to try to get over my fear of them, but although that didn't work well, it shows that I am not afraid to face obstacles and at least try to overcome them. Now my passion will be collecting data.
I think that the graduate program at the University of X is the best one for me because you have a lot of faculty who count the atoms in our universe and our planet. Some of these atoms even make up Bob Dylan, his roads, and the sky we both want to look at and know.