Reading through the lines in a Personal Statement

You are ready to apply to grad school and have all of your ducks in a row…all that is left is the impossible task of expressing yourself in writing. No biggie. Except that it is. Sometimes, the best inspiration for starting your Personal Statement or Statement of Purpose is hearing about what reviewers expect in this essay. Take a peak behind the curtain and hear what our reviewers really think as they read Personal Statements.

How important is the personal statement to you in an application?

It is the least important unless the applicant has something that needs to be explained.
-Dr. Jim Patton

It depends…if a student has a killer app (great experience, and great scores), then the letter isn’t as important. If there is some sort of problem in the app (a semester or two of poor grades, a lack of experience in a research 1 institution), I love to hear a student explain what happened. Overall, this can be very important for understanding why a student wants to go to grad school, which can tip over an application I am lukewarm on.
-Dr. Beth Bowman

It’s pretty important because if a candidate cannot clearly articulate why they want to pursue the degree, it tells me that they are not convinced.
-Dr. Michelle Grundy


Is there a particular style you look for?

No particular style
-Dr. Tim Cover

Not at all…just something that is real and not contrived. I don’t want to get the feeling that you are writing what you think we want to hear and I’m not particularly attracted to overly written application. Just tell the committee what you want them to know about you. We are scientists so we just like direct statements that explain you and your path.
-Dr. Beth Bowman

I am looking for sincerity and not a formulaic personal statement that is written to “hit” specific points that the students think that we want to see
-Dr. Maria Hadjifrangiskou


What is the most important content of the personal statement?

Motivation for the program and scientific interests (why apply at Vanderbilt?). Evidence that the candidate is willing to be fully committed and work hard for their goals.
-Dr. Todd Graham

if you have a semester of poor grades, address the reason in the statement; if you have specific interests or are particularly interested in a specific faculty the personal statement is a good place to mention it.
-Dr. Christine Konradi

Enthusiasm for science. Description of hurdles overcome.
-Dr. Richard O’Brien


How personal should this statement really be?

Not very unless there are unusual conditions that can be explained here and brought to the reviewers attention because they were not included elsewhere in the application
-Dr. Bill Valentine

I like to understand how they got interested in science and what influenced them to make the decisions they have made thus far in their training, so with that in mind…that’s very personal and unique to the applicant.
-Dr. Michelle Grundy

Unless there is something personal that needs to be explained to the committee, keep it impersonal.
-Dr. Jim Patton


Is there anything that makes a personal statement stick out in a bad way?

Pretentious style. “After being guided by the propensity I have toward unraveling the enigmas of the human intellect in the context of the global scientific community, I opined to focus my attention toward the ingress to graduate school.” I.e: “I would like to study Neuroscience at a highly-ranked university.”
-Dr. Christine Konradi

Poor spelling and grammar.
-Dr. Richard O’Brien

Naive comments about what it means to pursue a research career
-Dr. James Patton

3 thoughts on “Reading through the lines in a Personal Statement

  1. Pingback: How NOT to write your SOP – Materials & Methods

  2. Pingback: Is “optional” really “optional” for submitting GRE scores? – Materials & Methods

  3. Pingback: Oh my goodness, how do I write a Personal Statement for an REU application? – EpiTranscript

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