Muriel Rukeyser, an early 20th century American journalist, poet, and political activist once claimed that “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.”
Now, Werner Heisenberg may or may not agree, but all you particle physicists and chemists probably just had a heart attack, so let me revise Ms. Rukeyser’s statement and apply it to something a little less existential. It might be more reasonable to simply believe that a well written personal statement is made of your stories. In this blog post, I will give you advice about what to put in your personal statement for a graduate school application. Hopefully, I’ll convince you that your stories - the experiences that have brought you here and make you who you are - are amazing enough and fascinating enough to take up just about all of the space in your personal statement. I’ll probably talk you up a little bit too much, so don’t let it get to your head; but most people need some encouragement to really describe how great they are, and this is your chance to do just that. I’m sure your life has been fascinating, so let’s hear it! Honestly, who doesn’t want to listen to a good story?
There are two main goals to your personal statement and both can be addressed with a shot of creativity, a knack for story-telling, and Times New Roman size 12. First, you want to convince the person reading your personal statement that, yes, in fact, you really can communicate very complex ideas (i.e. your life) quite clearly. A personal statement is a writing sample, and to an admissions committee (or anyone else reading it) it shows your mastery of the English language and is indicative of how well you are able to organize complex ideas into a cohesive document. Second, you want to communicate very clearly that your life is awesome, you are exceptionally gifted and talented, and that they would be foolish to not accept such a stunning example of success into their graduate program. Let’s get real guys and gals, all of those things are true of you whether you like to admit it or not.
We’ll start out with the first goal of a personal statement. This goal is to organize your unique personality, life and goals onto a few pages. The initial step to a catchy story, and a great personal statement, is probably the hardest. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to catch the reader’s attention. And no, this is not an impossible mission, and yes, Tom Cruise probably has trouble with this too. I recommend starting out with a quote: something inspirational or motivational will work, but most importantly make it simple for the reader and make it relevant to you. This is your story and you want it to be cohesive. What you start out with should also tie in to what you end with. Other great introductions could be anything from a story about your childhood to an original painting that describes your interests (I’ve heard of people doing this, no lie). Be creative and claim the page as your territory! By the time your reader is done with the intro there should be no way they are going to put that paper down until you’re finished.
Once you’ve got them hooked, dive into the meat of your story. Begin with your career goals and how that relates to the grad program you are applying to. Why are you the best candidate for that program? Why is that program exactly what you want to do? Next, move on to what motivates you and why. You could talk about anything from your fantastic academic advisor to your semester abroad in Ireland or your volunteer work in El Paso. Anything in your life that you feel has steered you towards a career in your science field is great material for this. Be sure to include any sort of extracurricular activity or leadership position (science related or not) and write about how that has developed you as a student or a leader. A smooth next step would be to talk about research. In this paragraph or two, specifically describe what kind of work you have done, and/or what kind of work you want to do. Make sure that the work that you want to do is actually being done at the school you are applying to. It’s a good idea to specifically mention one or two people at that institution that you would like to work with, and of course, why you would like to work with them. Finally, tie the whole thing together. Whatever you started with, refer back to it at the end and point out how it relates to your life, your story and your goals. The organization and clarity of your story will determine its effectiveness so make the progression logical and easy to follow.
In order to complete goal number two, I’ll need to first address a couple common problems which you should avoid like the bubonic plague and Great Aunt Bertha’s fruitcake. Problem #1: Writing a solid personal statement cannot be done by following a procedure or a recipe. We’re all scientists and we all love to see a list of reagents and we want to mix them together in solution and hope that our personal statement precipitate is application ready. This does not work. Everybody’s statement should be engaging, unique, and special because this is about who you are and you are all of those three previous qualities. Make those qualities shine in your personal statement and don’t get caught up in the fine details of what should or shouldn’t be included or what kind of format is recommended (unless the institution specifically directs you to include certain types of information/specific format). You are not exactly like anyone else; neither should your personal statement be like anyone else’s. Remember that you need to stand out! Problem #2: Don’t include anything that is negative. Ever. Don’t whine about how your pet guinea pig Oscar died the night before the Organic Chemistry final and ruined your grade or how your research didn’t get as far as you hoped. Keep a lid on it. Make no apologies and no matter what, put a positive spin on everything (i.e. DON’T say - “my research results didn’t show what I expected” - instead, DO say – “the future direction of my undergraduate research would involve solving problem X”). Be upbeat and excited about your past and the wonderful experiences that have made you crazy enough to want to be a scientist. If you can avoid Problems #1 and #2 (along with Black Death and sweet old auntie’s bakery) you will be well on your way to achieving goal number two and you will convince them of how much of a baller you are with your kick butt personal statement.
Here’s the rest of goal number two: While telling your story, be sure to make it conversational. Don’t make a list of the clubs you were president of and the kinds of meetings you were required to attend. They would rather be watching re-runs of Antique Roadshow. Nobody wants to read that sentence. On the other hand, describe what it was like to be the President of the Leaf Sculpture Crew (seriously, that must have been ridiculously cool, right?). Mark Twain once wrote “Don’t say the old lady screamed, bring her on and let her scream!” We all know you’ve got some great stories to share, so spill a couple memorable experiences wherever you can fit them in; spin a tall tale about your adventures while camping across the Appalachians, or anything else you’ve got. Those are the things that will make this story yours; they will give it life.
One last piece of advice before I wrap this up and you can go back to theorizing about the literary or atomic nature of the universe: Once you think you’ve got a good draft going, have as many people review your personal statement as possible. Take it to your mentors/peers in your science field and have them critique it. Drop it on the desk of your first-year English Composition professor and have him/her tear it apart. The more opinions you get on your content, grammar, style, voice, structure, intro and conclusion the better; there is no limit here. In the end, it’s your story. You’ve got to tell it in a way that only you can tell it. Be convincing and charming, be down to earth and be friendly while you take them on a walk through who you really are and where you are coming from. Show them how you have been forged into an exceptional leader and critical thinker. This is your chance to describe how many cool opportunities you’ve had to be involved in meaningful and interesting things. In the end, I’d bet you could convince the admissions committee that being able to tell a captivating story will be a pretty sweet skill to have in graduate school.