What Should A “Personal Statement” Say?

Lately I have been reading many dozens of applications for grad school. (I am on the admissions committee for both Philosophy and Linguistics this year.) One thing that keeps coming up are problematic “Personal Statements”: students don’t seem to have a good idea of what is wanted, and often damage their chances of admission by writing the wrong thing. Just before diving back into my pile of applications again, I thought I’d mention a few tips.

– The Personal Statement is somewhat ill-named. Typically, it shouldn’t be personal in the sense of “My dream has always been…” or “The people who inspired me were…” Sometimes this is relevant information — if it underscores your suitability for pursuing graduate education at the school in question. But for the most part, the tone should be professional and impersonal.

– One question the committee will be asking itself as it reads your statement is: “Is this person a good fit with our department?”. Your statement should make clear that the answers is “Yes”. Ideally, you would mention the faculty whom you expect to work with. You should also highlight elements of your background that show that you are capable of pursuing the degree successfully at that institution.

– Another question the committee will be asking is: “Can this person write well, and come up with a reasonable project?” The committee typically won’t be taking too seriously whether what you sketch as a project will ultimately prove to be a good dissertation topic — few incoming students end up writing on precisely what they propose anyway. So, focus on style and structure. Focus on avoiding glaring errors. And, again, make sure that yours is the kind of topic one could reasonably undertake at the school in question.

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2 responses

  1. I agree with point 1. I think calling it something like “statement of purpose” or “statement of research interests” could really go a long way in helping to direct the statement in the right direction.

  2. HI Rob– I really like your blog! Yes, you are absolutely right. I spend a lot of time with undergrads at my school, crossing out the sections with long descriptions of their personalities, beliefs, dreams , sources of inspiration and views on everything from the mind-body problem to the problem of evil. NONONONONONONONONONONO! I know, it makes us sound like big meanies, but this is in fact not the information that we need or want. I do wish, though, that grad programs might give some more explicit advice about this. We could help a bit more than we do. Maybe a link to your blog should go on Western’s web page somewhere… -catherine w

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