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.

Club MIT! We are the “agenda-setting graduates”!!

“One thing that you see with successful grad programs is that they’re agenda-setting,” says [Jason] Stanley. “Clusters of papers will come out of a group of grad programs—that has happened at MIT several times.”

For example, MIT Professor Robert Stalnaker, Delia Graff Fara PhD ’97 (a professor at Princeton), Robert J. Stainton ’93 (Distinguished University Professor at Western Ontario), Zoltán Gendler Szabó PhD ’95, and Stanley have all produced influential work on the topic of context-dependence, responding and building on one another’s views. More recently, a number of MIT alumni have contributed influential, mutually supportive work on modality.

“A lot of us [MIT grad students] wrote about each other’s work because we grew up criticizing each other’s works. In our generation there were certain topics that were discussed a lot, that we all talked about incessantly with each other, that resulted in a host of papers,” Stanley says.

[For more, see: http://shass.mit.edu/news/news-2012-mit-philosophy-has-extraordinary-success-placing-phd-grads-tenure-track-positions%5D


Here are some of those concrete, nitty-gritty tips I mentioned, in the form of reasons why applications fails.


Taking on too much for a sole investigator over the allocated time period.

A mismatch between the proposed research and the candidate’s attested academic background.


Failing to state the aims up front and explicitly.

Failure to explain in accessible terms why the research matters: to one’s discipline and more broadly.

Not making clear enough what the applicant’s own original contribution will be.


Describing how the funds will be spent, but not explaining why such spending is necessary for the success of the research project.


Ignoring the funding agency’s instructions, criteria and section headings.

Writing as if the application were a book prospectus or an academic essay.

Not considering carefully enough the various readerships of the application, and which sections will be read by whom.

Failure to integrate the stated objectives with the proposed methodology, and then with the plans for communication of results.

Grant/Scholarship Proposals

I give a lot of advice to students about their proposals for grants, scholarships and admission to programs. I thought: “I suspect readers of Talking Philosophy might find those useful.” I suspect too that readers’ comments on my advice will be useful as well. So, here is a first in a series.

There are plenty of nitty-gritty tips, and I’ll get to those later. The biggest point, however, is that there are two criteria that will always be crucial, even if they aren’t mentioned in the application. These are:

1) Is the project worth doing?

2) Is the project do-able by this applicant in the period of time available?

Your job is to convince the reader that the answer to both is an emphatic ‘Yes’. What makes it hard is that projects which are extremely worthy by everyone’s standards tend to be not-do-able by a single person in a few years, and vice versa. If you really could cure cancer with your ideas, you’d get funding, but…. The good news is that ‘worth doing’ means, in this context, worthwhile by the lights of the applicant’s discipline. So, all you need to do is provide enough background about your field, and your topic, so that the reader can see why what you’re doing matters to your peers.  And then you need to show that your personal background and situation (e.g., the classes you’ve taken, the languages you’ve learned, the school where you’re studying now) place you in a good spot to pull the project off.