Tips for Personal Statement Writing

I am thrilled that at Vandy, our graduate students led an initiative to host virtual workshops on applying to grad school! As part of this workshop, they developed some tips and tricks for thinking about your personal statement, and are happy to share them with you! Read more for how to get started thinking about this statement, and tips for what to include:

List of ideas/thoughts/questions to get you started on writing your personal statement.

-by Jordyn Sanner

  1. Why do you want to go to graduate school? What are your long term goals? How will graduate school help you achieve those goals? 
  2. What research experiences do you have? What were the goals of those experiences? What did you do on the projects? Do you have any publications or presentations to discuss?
  3. How was the research experience a formative experience? 
  4. What endeavors or challenges have you faced? How have these challenges helped you grow?
  5. What leadership roles did you hold? How were you a leader? What experiences shaped you to be a leader?
  6. What volunteer experience do you have? Why was this volunteer experience important to you? What did you learn from the experience? How does this experience fit with your future goals in science?
  7. What are your career goals? What are you doing to continue working toward your goals?

Tips to Remember:

  • Write a cohesive story
  • Use strong language→ emphasize YOU doing things!
  • Utilize buzz words: leader, strong communicator, mentor, organized, led, conducted, discovered, presented, etc… 

Top Ten Tips for Personal Statement Writing

-by Katrina Ng

  1. Most successful personal statements have a structure. It’s not weird to use subsection headers. It helps orient the reviewers and makes it easier to read and contextualize.
    1. Intro: Introduce yourself and state why you think research is for you
    2. Body: Describe your specific lab experiences concisely. If you are applying to an undergraduate research program and do not have research experiences yet, describe a lab or a class that got you interested in research. When writing this section, don’t dwell on techniques, instead focus on the questions that you are asking and why those questions are important. What lessons have you learned from the research and how have your experiences led you to want to pursue/explore research as a career?
    3. Conclusion: What are your plans moving forward. Why is a specific school or program well suited for your needs? Name specific people and areas of research you may be interested in working with (this will not limit you to these specific faculty members but rather show that you know about the school you are applying to) and name specific features of the program you like.
  2. Don’t be afraid to discuss particular challenges or failures in your research, but use that discussion as an opportunity to describe how you overcame those challenges and what you learned from them.
  3. When discussing your research, highlight your specific intellectual contributions to the work (i.e. I helped design a particular assay or I developed the hypothesis that…). Stating bigger picture conclusions you can make from your work is also really helpful.
  4. If there is something on your application that might be a concern and you are comfortable explaining it (i.e. a semester of bad grades), don’t be afraid to explain it.  You can say something ambiguous like “personal challenges” and do not need to share more than what you are comfortable with. It’s much better to address these concerns and explain how it was an opportunity for you to grow than to hide or ignore it.
  5. Remember that the admissions process is holistic and a few bad grades won’t sink your entire application. Be sure to highlight things that you have done well.  Good research experiences and the ability to describe your work well can overcome small red flags.
  6. If the school/program you are applying to is your top choice, mention that and explain why. Your application should be tailored to each school/program. State why would you like to be a part of this program.
  7. Emphasize specifically why you want to do research. Stay away from very vague statements  (“I want to help people”). Make sure to include reasons that are specific to research.
  8. It is okay and even common to take a gap year. If you can explain in your personal statement how your gap year helped you decide to pursue grad school, that’s even better.
  9. Make sure to spellcheck, check your grammar and that the school you name in your statement is the school to which you are sending the statement! Generally, your statement should be 1-2 pages for grad schools and 1 page for undergraduate research programs. Have someone else proofread the statement for you (even better, several people).
  10. Don’t panic, just write. You can always edit down later! Be thoughtful and intentional in your writing and editing and you’ll be okay.    

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