Wednesday, January 30, 2008

My Grad School Application Essay

The statement that accompanies a student's application to graduate school in Science can be an amazing thing to read. I know that these statements are very difficult to write, and I surmise that some students are not given much guidance about the content and tone of the statements. Furthermore, some students do not yet have their research interests very well focused. These are not fatal errors if the overall application is strong.

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

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.


Anon said...

One of my biggest fears is that I left a "University X" in the "University Y" application.

This is why I haven't read over my submitted essays yet, and never will.

Anonymous said...

Lol. Thanks for that... I'm a senior waiting to hear back from the three schools I applied to, and feeling just a little bit better now :)

Yvette said...


Thanks for your fake essay. After reading it over I will never feel quite so nervous about how good/bad mine are, as they can never be quite that terrible.

Anonymous said...

Hilarious. I have seen all of these do's and don'ts.

d said...

Hilarious! I especially love the essay.

Anonymous said...

I still have a copy of my grad school essay, and I'm disappointed in it. I listed off all my accomplishments, but I edited it so heavily that I don't think any sense of my personality came through whatsoever. Although, advice to younger folks: don't go too overboard with personality, either!

I'm on the graduate admissions committee for my department. Our program is medium-sized and we have two strong research groups studying P and Q. If an application doesn't mention a desire to study P or Q (or maybe both), that application is doomed. We are not a large program doing A-Z, and a student who doesn't already have an interest in P or Q will not be happy with us. So, to that extent, the essay needs to be somewhat personalized for our school.

On the other hand, we get great applicants who did undergrad research in P or Q, perhaps through an REU program, and know they want to continue in this area. Or at least they have read about Q and find it interesting. So even though we're only a medium-sized program, I'm very happy with the quality of grad students we get.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and what NOT to say in a graduate school essay: "Ever since I have been an embryo, I have dreamed of going to graduate school at U of Yourschool." Hey, if you're serious about grad school, hopefully you are applying to more than one school. We're OK with that.

Anonymous said...

I know one person who wrote her grad school application in rhymed verse. Unsurprisingly, they rejected her. Surprisingly, when she called them up and told them that they made the wrong decision, they agreed with her and let her in. She was right and is doing some really cool stuff now.
Still, I wouldn't recommend using your grad school essay as a place to release poetic urges. :)

Anonymous said...

I just read my personal statement again and I don't really like it. I sound a little pretentious and I started with a "I first got interested in [field]..." kind of line. I regret that (I didn't even like it at the time, I just got stuck in that rut and couldn't think of a way out!) but it wasn't too bad since the reason wasn't totally irrelevant but was instead some lab experience I had at a university while I was in high school. Still, I would start it differently now.

I used a decent fraction of the letter for research experience, but I wasn't sure how much other experience to include. I felt that as a student I would be expected to include a bit about non-academic activities and I tried to keep it relevant (things that would suggest maturity or organization) but I also didn't really like that part. I'm happy that the next time I apply for something I'll be able to (and expected, I assume) to focus on the research I've done and would like to do.

One of the frustrating parts about these applications is that I think you only really get a sense for what you like, and perhaps more importantly what other people like, after reading other people's applications and that doesn't happen until you're passed the point of applying. I definitely plan on seeking more direct and extensive mentoring when it's time to write my first grant application.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that was terrible.

In my essay, I took the approach of hypothesis-evidence-conclusion. Thus it read along the lines of:
+I am a good student and should go to grad school.
+I have good grades, work/research experience, and am interested in my major field.
+Thus, I am a good student and should go to your grad school.

Boring, but evidently more effective than most people's essays.

PhD Mom said...

This is the best laugh I have had in some time. I sent it to a couple of colleagues. Thanks for brightening my day.

On another note, I think I actually compared my love of science to the beauty of greek architecture (cringe), but I guess my GPA and recs bailed me out. Anybody else make any horrible faux pas on their applications?

Anonymous said...

Well at least you didn't get a response along the lines of "I'm particularly interested in the researching the atoms of the football stadium" (aka I don't want to give up my football tickets). The unfortunate transparency of some application essays always astounds me. At least for the 10 seconds before the committee places it in the round file.

Anonymous said...

One of my PIs told me about a legendary application essay she read a while back. The opening lines were "Animals! Don't you just love them!"

Amazing. Just amazing...

Anonymous said...

The entire experience of writing that essay gave me bad flashbacks to high school, trying to write the Outstanding Essay that would make me irresistible to college admissions folks. So I decided that since scientists would be reading my essay, they would probably most like to read about science. I doubt the admissions committee learned much about my personality from that app (which in my case is good, as my personality ranges from cynical to cranky and back again), but they did learn a lot about protein kinase C, and I got interviews. Moral: write your essay about PKC.

The Lorax said...

I also suggest not describing a sick/dead family member as your motivation. I personally despised these essays and felt the writer was trying to emotionally blackmail the reviewer(s). Who can reject someone who wants to help alleviate suffering in others. Also, a concern is what will the student do if they cannot get into a lab working on disease X.

Timely topic.

Anonymous said...

When I applied to grad school I wanted to see if the personal statement mattered in the admissions decision so I wrote two versions -- one with a creative (or maybe crazy sounding) opening paragraph that compared my life to thermodynamics. Other than the opening paragraph the essays where the same -- research experience, interests, blah, blah, blah...

From my little sampling of 8 schools it made no difference in the admissions decisions or fellowships -- I was admitted to all the schools and received fellowships on top of my stipend at about half of the schools. But when I visited the schools that received the crazy thermo essays the profs would come up to me, look at my name tag and say -- Oh, you're the girl that likes to write.

When it comes to personal statements I say just be yourself.

Anonymous said...

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.

I work in industry, so maybe I'm completely out of touch with how you soulless academics think, but:

I wrote my application exactly as described above, I got positive comments on it at my interviews, it explains why I'm a scientist and if I ever did have to weigh on in an admission decision I'd be more favorably disposed to someone who wrote that way than to some zombie whose "most important goal in life is to study [what his/her undergraduate lab does]".

Is that essay, in hindsight, pretentious and naive? I'm sure it would be, if I were brave enough to go back and read it. But I was a bright-eyed 21-year-old, and I wrote like one, instead of copying text out of my advisor's RO1 application.

Hanna said...

Oh man. Awesome essay there.

I have entirely suppressed the memory of what ended up in my personal statement. All I remember is spending every day for at least two weeks sitting in front of my computer, trying to figure out how to write something that conveyed the appropriate information while hitting the right balance of being neither too boring nor too...irrelevant, and almost completely failing to make any progress at all. In the end, to save my sanity, I decided to assume that my grades and letters of recommendation would be sufficient to carry me, and I just needed to write _something_. I'm fairly certain it ended up more on the boring side of the spectrum, but I declared it done, put it in envelopes or online, and went on with my life, never to read it again. Thankfully, my assumption turned out to be correct.

Next school year I get to graduate and go back through that agonizing process, but now at least I have a much more focused area of interest and an advisor who, history with other students indicate, is going to give me a lot more feedback about what I write than I got for my graduate application personal statement. (To be fair, I didn't really ask for much from my advisor or others--in retrospect, I should have, as I'm sure it would have lessened my misery.)

Anonymous said...

I am currently a postdoc and enjoyed a fairly successful run as a graduate student, but it is amazing that I was ever admitted anywhere at all given the first line of my application essay: "School, school, school. I love school." Ack. Extreme embarrassment. Fortunately, the essay got (slightly) better from there out, but I cringe when I read this. I guess the good news is that this kind of hideous writing is not always going to send your application packing...

Anonymous said...

I just found your blog coming from Dynamics of Cats, and I wanted to let you know that I love it! I am sure I am much younger than you, but as I am aiming at a tenure-track career there is so much I am learning about being a (successful) woman in science just by reading your posts.

About the essay: that was funny. I kept mine quite to the point, focusing on my research experience, on why I thought I matched the department (and some of the research specific people are doing there), but I also briefly mentioned about my "out of the lab" life in the introduction - I think it is important to always let people understand that you are actually able to communicate and interact with human beings from different backgrounds in a competent manner.

And I agree with some of the comments - no mentioning of sick parents/family members, even if it's all true. Because regardless of your very personal reasons for going into research, there might be better candidates than you, and you should not make the admission committee feel like they should invite you instead of them out of pity rather than because of merit.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe someone thinks you're a curmudgeon. I like how professional your posts always are. They're funny and yet they rise above the fray. You don't seem to be much of a hand wringer - which is refreshing. You seem very comfortable in your skin, but certainly not curmudgeonly.

ScienceGirl said...

Lol - I'll have to go dig up my statement of purpose now (although I am sure it wasn't that much fun!).

Anonymous said...

OMG....I did the "University X" in the "University Y" (and vice-versa)envelope thing! Princeton was not amused, but Cornell (Univ. Y)let me in.

Anonymous said...

I have a student who is applying to graduate school and who is going very heavy on the personal in her statement -- childhood, heritage and all. I cautioned her against it, thinking it would deflect from the rest of her statement. What I didn't know is that she is a part of a larger phenomenon. Why do students value this form of self-expression so much?

Anonymous said...

Oh man was that funny. I read a lot of drafts of personal statements from my students who are applying to medical school. Who teaches them to write this way? Without fail, their essays begin:

"I sat at the head of the operating table while machine beeped around me" (creative writing sensory impressions go on here for several sentences)


"Looking at my father treating the horrible wound on his patient, I realized then and there that I wanted to be a doctor"

etc etc

I just get the biggest kick out of these students, who are all so well-meaning and wanting to stand out, but write the most formulaic essays! I would so much rather they just get to the point than write this fancy, silly pseudo-literary introduction. Again, I ask what book at they all reading that is telling them to write this way?

Anonymous said...

This is why people write the way they do:

"2. Don't Bore the Reader. Do Be Interesting.
Admissions officers have to read hundreds of essays, and they must often skim. Abstract rumination has no place in an application essay. Admissions officers aren't looking for a new way to view the world; they're looking for a new way to view you the applicant."

If the applicant pool is only 80. Then no big deal. But try writing a straight-to-the-point essay when the applicant pool is closer to 1000 ... you'll be dumped in the folder labelled "drone" or "cookie cutter".

Anonymous said...

I am in the process of beginning grad school applications, and it seems clear there are many terrible ways to begin a personal statement.

Can anyone think of any good ones?

I have had several years of research experience. I have worked in a lab as an undergraduate and more recently as a full time research assistant (designing, implementing & trouble-shooting experiments, writing up research for conferences, etc.) and therefore feel that I know that I want to pursue research in my chosen field and ultimately become a FSP. How does one convey this? I know, generally speaking, what type of question I want to ask, and therefore have narrowed down schools to those with professors asking relevant questions.

Still not sure how to do this without sounding like a tool...

Anonymous said...

I'm not convinced that a set of dos and don'ts serves either the writers or readers of personal statements. I want personal statements to be as transparent as possible. I need to know whether the writer can compose a simple declarative sentence. I need to know whether s/he thinks originally or in terms of trite metaphors. I need to know what motivated this person to apply, and what s/he expects to be doing for the next four or five years.

That said, any grad school applicant would be foolish not to ask a trusted teacher or sdvisor to read and comment on a personal statement before attaching it to an application. One of my students recently brought me such a draft. Because I actually knew the person, and with text in hand could raise questions about particular points, s/he was able to go away and write a much improved revision with nary a formula in sight.

The secondary point, of course, is that many students, especially at big universities, graduate all but anonymously. They have no one to ask for advice, and no one to blame for it than themselves - or perhaps their parents, for never involving them in substantive conversations with actual adults.

Unfortunately, from the faculty perspective, it's probably just as well. Few of us have time to maintain such relationships with more than a handful of undergrads at a time.

Anonymous said...

Oh man... I nearly fell off my chair laughing, but there's some very good advice hidden in this blog.

Quote: "Some of these atoms even make up Bob Dylan, his roads, and the sky we both want to look at and know."

Implied message: Never try to be philosophical in your application. Never, ever, ever.

Beverly said...

Oh, I talked about my childhood. Math has always been there. Oh well!

Anonymous said...

This was very helpful (and hilarious!) I wish I had read this earlier before beginning my application process, but I feel a little more confident that I'm not "terrible" in regards to use/overuse of cliches and other non-sense that are apparently VERY unwelcome.
I will definitely pass this along to others who will soon be looking to begin their grad school endeavors as well :)thank you!