Advice on Preparing Personal Statements

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Tao Xie's Advice on Writing Personal Statements

This piece of writing includes my personal understanding of a good personal statement (or statement of purpose), but you need to adapt your writing for your own situations and check out the advice given by other people listed above. My advice is organized through three dimensions: writing objectives, writing styles, and perspectives of a reviewer:

Writing Objectives.
  The high level objectives of your personal statement are below:

  -- Show off your past achievements with concrete facts and convince the readers how your past achievements well prepare you to start your graduate program (MS or PhD), e.g., doing research. Basically, showing that you are very very good to deserve admission to a graduate program or fellowship.

  -- (Optionally) explain your ultimate career goal (e.g., being a professor, researcher in a research lab, a startup founder, ...) and why you would have such a career goal (e.g., making research, industry, or social impact, educating/mentoring others such as students, academic/research freedom, ...), preferably based on your concrete personal experience. See Slide 4 on motivation or inspiration for pursing research or graduate programs:

  -- Clearly explain your motivations of pursing a graduate program in the context of pursing your ultimate career goal. That is, what if you don't pursue your graduate program, can you easily achieve your ultimate career goal (if stated)?
        == You need to know what an MS means and what a PhD means (i.e., their expectations), and what specific skills you expect to learn via your intended graduate program. See Slide 45 on my interpretation on what a MS or PhD means:

  -- Clearly explain your motivations of pursing a graduate program in your intended major (e.g., Software Engineering or Computer Science in general). Basically, why are you interested in software engineering/computer science vs. other majors. Again, use your personal experience and concrete facts to justify your motivation and research interest.

  -- Explain your understanding and insights of some research problems that you plan to tackle in your graduate program. Few undergraduate students could. If you can do so, it is a plus.

  -- If you are from underrepresented groups (e.g., women, minority students), it is good to emphasize your such background and relate this background to your pursuit of graduate study. Some possible perspectives could be to promote the diversity in computing/engineering, help inspire other underrepresented-group students as their role models, help mentor more underrepresented-group students (especially if you state that you intend to be a professor after you get your PhD), ... If you have past experiences in promoting diversity in computing/engineering such as leadership or participation experiences in some underrepresented-group organizations such as NSBE and WiCS), you could tie it in your flow of writing in this part. Note that I don't totally agree with some others' advice on "All other secondary factors, such as your leadership roles, community service, clubs, hobbies, and other experiences that portray you as a well-rounded and balanced individual count for almost nothing." It is good for you to describe these other aspects as along as you tie it into the reasoning flow for your pursuit of graduate study, not just an isolated piece of information.

In the end, you want the readers to feel that

  -- You are well qualified/prepared for the admission/fellowship

  -- You are well motivated, e.g., it is so rational and logical for you to pursue a graduate program in your specified major

  -- What you said in your statement on your understanding of future research or graduate program are insightful and show that you are mature and inspired.

  -- You have important skills (that a professor looks for) for succeeding in graduate schools. See slides on research skills:

Writing Styles. I strongly suggest the top-down writing style of writing your personal statements, and use bolded leading phrases for paragraphs (like what I did for "Writing Styles" in this paragraph) to give readers a quick overview on the structure of your personal statement and the key points being conveyed on each part of your personal statement. See my style of this current advice writing here to get a taste on what it would look like. In addition, use bold font to highlight the important facts or achievements that you want to catch reviewers' eyes such as "1 of the 3 students selected among 600 students from the NCSU CSC department to receive such an honor."

  -- Always good to use concrete facts or stories to make your argument convincing, such as your past concrete research experiences and outcomes. For example, if you develop a tool, include your tool project web and release your tool as open source (describing how many LOCs if the number is impressive). If you publish papers, include URLs to your papers. Also do so in your resume writing.

  -- Use highlighted statistics (if they are impressive) to emphasize the prestigious levels of the honors or awards, etc. that you achieved. Don't just simply list the names of these honors or awards. Also include such highlighted statistics in your resume.

  -- Pay attention to the logical flows to make sure your reasoning is good. Adopt the top-down writing style. For example, in the beginning of your statement, you should immediately summarize and lay out your intention of pursuing a PhD or MS in what fields and why you are well qualified for such pursuit from several high-level perspectives. Then you organize the rest of the statement by listing the details of each of these perspectives, with the paragraph(s) led with bolded phrases or sentences to summarize the perspectives. See my blog entry on such communication style:

  -- Make sure your statement is structured clearly and readers have easy time to read through. It is related to the preceding point.

  -- Read through my advice on avoiding common technical writing issues:

Perspectives of a Reviewer. To me as a reviewer, I am not impressed with a statement by just doing hand-waving saying that "I am interested in developing approaches for addressing software quality issues". Anyone can say that. How can I trust that you have better potential than others by reading your statement?

I am more convinced if a statement shows that the applicant really understands some real research issues and knows what he/she is talking about in terms of research, not just in a superficial level. For example, if an applicant can articulate on the importance/significance of the research problem being targeted at, the novelty of the research solution (if the applicant has developed such a solution in the past research), and the impact of the research results, and specifics about future research, etc.

A resume could list some important facts but it doesn't tell a story or coherent/whole piece. That is how your personal statement come into the place to supplement your resume. But still a resume needs to provide enough details. For example, it is not desirable for a resume to just simply list a student's past research projects' name but doesn't say anything about the importance/significance/brief details of the research project being addressed. Note that you may be advised that a resume for industrial job hunting should be limited to one page but for your graduate school or fellowship applications, your resume could be 2 pages or more if you have such amount of useful information in your background to show off and convince the readers. Remember also to highlight in bold those achievements that you want to emphasize in your resume.

Simply put, if an applicant doesn't demonstrate his/her past technical achievements or show technical depth in what he/she is talking about research in the personal statement, I wouldn't be very impressed.


Excerpted Advice from Others

"The most important part of your application is your prior experience in performing research and your potential for being a creative, hardworking, and productive graduate research assistant."

"What research is 'good enough'?

'Good enough' is really a subjective notion, but what the admissions committee is looking for is impact. In other words, did your work have tangible results? Or were you simply cheap labor for performing data entry and maintaining the group website?

The ideal indicator of 'good enough' is having publications in a peer-reviewed journal or conference (being first author is even more marvelous, but extremely rare for an undergraduate). Being published shows that you have made a non-trivial contribution to a research project that advances your field. However, most undergraduates (myself included) will not be able to publish by the time they apply to Ph.D. programs, so don't worry if you can't either."

"What if I can't get published by the time that I apply?

Don't worry; most undergraduates will not be able to publish by the time they apply, so relax! If you have published in any smaller venues like the undergraduate research journal of your college, made a poster presentation, or presented your work in any other way, make a note of that. If you have submitted papers to venues and are awaiting reviews, list those papers in your application and write Submitted for publication next to them to demonstrate that you and your advisor are actively working towards publishing research that you've been involved in."

"Besides having publications, how do I demonstrate that my research has impact?

You need to show tangible results of your work, whether it be a software system you've built, an experiment you've run to completion, a statistical analysis you've performed on real-world data, etc., and more importantly, demonstrate the significance of those results in advancing your particular field (even if it's in some tiny way). You will need to write persuasively about the impact of your research in your personal statement, and your advisor will have to corroborate your claims in his/her letter of recommendation."

"But I'm just an undergraduate! I can't be expected to do research on par with all the graduate students and postdocs!

Yes, the admissions committee knows this, and does not expect you to perform at the level of a graduate student! You are not expected to be overly original or innovative, because the truth about undergraduates working in research is that most start out performing menial tasks that the graduate students don't want to do, basically the lowest of grunt work. However, the hope is that you will eventually move up to doing less grunt-like work and have a more direct impact on creating results for your research group.

The admissions committee is looking for the potential to become a productive Ph.D. student, so demonstrating your work ethic, determination, and willingness to take initiative in learning (in addition to the impact of your research, however small) are great ways to improve your chances of admissions.

Don't be an idealist and expect to completely push through your own wild ideas to fruition while you are still an undergraduate; you are at the absolute bottom of the research food chain, so you should accept your role and perform it with diligence so that you maximize your chances of moving up to the next higher level as a Ph.D. student."

"Is the statement of purpose kinda like my awesomely creative college admissions essay?

No, not at all! Don't try to be cute and creative. The people who are going to be reading your statement of purpose (otherwise known as your application essay) are professors in your field who expect to find out about your research experiences, motivations, and reasons why you want to work towards a Ph.D.; they do not want to wade through some melodramatic narrative of how you were a child genius who suffered through lunchroom attacks by bullies but persevered to study even harder and pursue your passions for science. Your writing should be passionate and persuasive, but it should mainly focus on your research, not on your personal life. Professors don't want to read sappy bullshit essays.

How should I write my statement of purpose?

Show, don't tell. Reinforce every claim you make with supporting evidence from your own experiences. Professors can easily sniff out fluff and bullshit.

Motivation is great. Don't just list out your research projects as successive bullet points. What motivated you to undertake those projects? What did you learn from those projects that motivated you to further pursue research? Why do you want to pursue a Ph.D.?

Transitions are important. Don't just have sentences mash up against one another without any connective tissue. This is mostly a stylistic tidbit, so don't worry about it when you're doing your initial drafts, but an essay that flows well shows that you are better-organized and simply makes a more appealing impression.

Try to put a 'researchy' spin on your work, even if the research work that you did was mostly grunt work, which is understandable because most undergrads have to do a lot of grunt work (programming, entering data, making graphs, running simulations, wet lab work, etc.) as part of a research team. After all, you're at the absolute bottom of the academic food chain. What I mean by that is to not just say that you did the grunt work for a project, but try to step back and mention the 'bigger picture' of what impact your grunt work had on the rest of the project. However, don't be too facetious or you'll end up sounding like a pathological exaggerator (don't say that you co-developed a novel algorithm when all you did was code it up and test it on some simple inputs, under the guidance of the grad student who actually developed the algorithm)."


Excerpted Advice from Others

"The most important part of the application form will be a blank page headed something like "Statement of Purpose". On this page you will be asked to explain why you want to go to graduate school, including some idea about what sort of research you would like to conduct."

"Your statement should demonstrate that you know what research is, that you have had at least one idea in your life, and that you have an interesting and tractable idea about your research for the future. The problem, of course, is that you probably have only the sketchiest idea of what your research in graduate school will be about. That doesn't matter. You are not promising to do the research you describe in your statement (although I am told that this is changing in some areas of the hard sciences); you are only spelling out a single plausible scenario, one that fairly reflects your interests. Try to be concrete, but also include a few hedges such as "perhaps" and "these possibilities include". Good writing counts. Project sobriety and maturity. Avoid frivolity, boasting, and self-deprecation. Show that you've read the research literature, but go easy on academic jargon. Minimize adverbs. Eschew the words "interesting" and "important", which say little. Many people start their statements with a paragraph or two of commonplaces; cut this material until you reach a statement that says something non-obvious about the world and your research involvements. Don't talk about your family, your feelings, or your non-professional interests. Don't say anything bad about anyone, including yourself. And make sure that you are not simply describing the year's most fashionable cliche of a research project -- ask for advice about this issue specifically. Put yourself in the shoes of the graduate admissions committee: they're looking at hundreds of applications and they're only going to take a second look at the ones that stand out. If you follow the above advice then your application will make the first cut and receive the serious consideration it deserves. "