How well do you know yourself and your work? A Discussion on the Personal Statement

One of the major components of the graduate application is the personal statement. Often, the importance of the information given in this statement is underestimated and as a result many people write statements that limit their chances of getting into a graduate program.
So, what exactly should go into this statement? How should it be structured? Why is it necessary to plan this out? Well, the answers to all of these questions will come through this post.

I remember when I was initially writing my personal statement; it was terrible and I mean TERRIBLE. The problem was not in my ability to write, the problem was in that I did not REALLY take the time to connect to myself personally especially in regards to my work. I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school, I knew why I wanted to go to graduate school, but I did not think of myself enough to connect my person with the end goal of obtaining my Ph.D. Let me give you an example of what I mean: “Since I was little, I’ve always wanted to be doctor and save the world.” Did you really? Are you sure about that? Too often there are cliché statements used in personal statements that do not capture the attention of the reader. One of the most important things I learned was that you literally have the first two sentences to capture a reader. This is where you must shine through, this is how you start the reader on a journey into your uniqueness.

Sharing your narrative adds vibrancy to who you are and what you will contribute.

Sharing your narrative adds vibrancy to who you are and what you will contribute. No one goes to an art gallery for dull art, find that gem about yourself that makes you art.

When I was writing my next draft of my personal statement, I took the time to think about something I enjoyed and connected to my work as a mathematician. I found a theme, if you will, and carried that throughout my essay. For example, the opening sentence of my personal statement went as follows: “Intricate, mesmerizing and challenging dance performances are a work of art. A well-choreographed dance has the potential to move audiences on multiple levels. Much like a meticulous dance routine, a well-choreographed work of mathematics is an art form.” Now, reading the first couple of sentences, you have no idea what direction I’m going to go in, but it is intriguing. So what does this show? It shows you can write and talk about yourself without detracting from the main purpose of your statement. I was able to connect something I enjoyed with my work. In doing so, I was also able to get a better understanding of myself as a person, and in some capacity, be more vulnerable. You have to make yourself (through your statement) a work of art. Toni Morrison stated that “Your life is already artful – waiting, just waiting for you to make it art.”

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Now, that we’ve got your attention. What should go in there? Well, if you have taken time to think about who you are, your work, and what you love the major content of the personal statement consists of the following [Note: There is no exact formula, but these are things that could help]:

  • A Theme: Find a unique trait or angle to write from personal to you and relate that to your work.
  • Your background with highlights of achievements relevant to your research.
  • Strengths and weaknesses, but categorize your weaknesses in a way that play to you modifying them to strengths. Life is hard, we go through things, but you want to make sure you don’t sound like a sad story and more triumphant.
  • If there are gaps in grades or other elements, explain them but do not sit on them. In fact, make sure you show how you were able to surmount such an obstacle and go back into how it adds to your strengths.
  • Your research interests: What, Why, How, When and EXPERIENCE. These are important. Highlight a major research experience (if you have had one) and what you did, why you are interested in the work, how it will impact the community you are involved in and when you plan to continue with the work. This would also be a good place to talk about how your research relates to work the department is doing or a specific professor is doing (it shows you’ve done your homework).
  • Why this program is a good fit for you and why you’re a good fit for the program. This is critical, especially if you have reached out to people and made connections. Doing this, believe it or not, is research.
  • Where you want to go with your career. It is never to early to think about what your career will look like. You do not have to know every detail but this gives programs a chance to see how serious you are. A Ph.D. is a tool and along the way you are picking up other tools to help prepare for that career. Too often, graduate students think about just getting to a program and not HOW this program will help you beyond getting into graduate school.

The aforementioned bullets are a few good ideas for content of a personal statement. Once you have the content, the structure should tell a comprehensive, concise but well-written story. The basic structure follows essentially an introduction, body paragraphs that focus on your research, interests, and why the program is a great fit. You end with a conclusion that summarizes everything, talks about your future and broader impact and how the program and the Ph.D. as tools will help you. This is a simple recipe but effective for creating continuity in your story. The structure matters and clean transitions between sentences are underestimated. Take time to invest in creating smooth continuity in your writing; connecting ideas will give you a cleaner story. Creating that continuity comes with planning. You can expect to write several drafts. You should also expect to that outlining is useful. I would also suggest that you write your first draft straight from your heart; how you feel and what moves you about your work and your life experiences. Take that draft and then write from your mind – this is where the editing comes. Do not be afraid of planning and investing time in planning. Often, we fail things in life because we have no focus nor invest in the plans we create. The devil is in the details.


Communication is vital and writing a well-composed personal statement gives an idea of how you communicate. Think about it, eventually you will have to present research, go to conferences, write grants, etc., and this type of communication will help, so the practice through a personal statement is helpful. Moreover, what I like the most about the personal statement is the ability to tell your story. No one knows your life better than you and your story matters. When I think about some of my favorite inspirations, Einstein for instance, was a terrible student but managed to present the world with one of the greatest theories in physics. Had he not found a way to sell himself and tell his story, he may have never been invested in as a researcher, physicist and mathematician. Stories matters and it is vital you think about your story because after all, you never know who is reading, watching and will be inspired. Personal statements have the ability to make or break entry into a program. Do not sell yourself short, you’ve worked hard to get to this point. I’ll leave you with this:

If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it. – Toni Morrison. 
As you talk about your story, if you want to know who you are, write it down, write it down, write it down.

Decisions, Decisions: Graduate School?…or Nah

This morning at 8am, I joined my U215 students (freshmen Hudson & Holland Scholars) in our discussion section where we engaged in a very robust conversation regarding the “college for all” crusade and the question of whether or not a college education is really the “golden ticket” to success. My students, who are extremely bright and vocal, shared their various opinions, but by the end of the conversation, they all reached the same conclusion: college is definitely worth it.

As a graduate student, there are times when I ask myself, “Is this thing called graduate school really worth my time, effort, sleepless nights, MONEY, and all of the other sacrifices I have given and continue to give for this PhD?” Even though I have these moments that sometimes manifest themselves in the form of griping and complaining, I still manage to draw the same conclusions as my students: It really is worth it!

If you are grappling with the question: “To go or not to go to graduate school?'” because of the major costs involved (in terms of dollars and cents and the intangible things like time), do not let those thoughts deter you from pursuing a graduate degree. Yes, it’s important to count up the cost, but do not get so wrapped up in the costs that you negate the benefits, both tangible and intangible. Be your own cheerleader and encourage yourself as you prepare your application. Speak to mentors, faculty members, others in your field about your decision. Extra affirmation is always a good thing. It’s simple. If you really see yourself conducting research, diving deep into areas of interest and informing the work in that field, go for it!

Preparing for GRE

Whether you are retaking the test or appearing for the first time, here are some quick tips on preparing for GRE.

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(Photo: The Indiana Hoosiers warm up for a practice.)

There is actually one correct answer to the question, “how should I prepare for GRE?” and that answer is: Practice! Practice! Practice! You probably have never seen a football player reading books about how to play football. You always see that football players are working out and practicing their game and forming strategies.

Begin your preparation with a practice test. Taking a practice test will help you evaluate your strengths and weaknesses. Maximize your strengths and work on your weaknesses. Continue reading

Retaking GRE

Many students every year face the dilemma whether they should retake the GRE or not. There is no standardized answer to this question. But one must consider different factors to decide if retaking is in their interest or not.

First of all, one must understand the admission process. Independent of what school or what program you are applying, your application is evaluated considering many of your qualifications. GRE is only one of them. Not necessarily, the most important by any means. A typical admission committee consists of Continue reading

Graduate School Discernment

At the beginning of my senior year, I happened to unfortunately be one of those soon-to-be matriculating undergraduates that didn’t know what they were going to do.  At the beginning of my undergraduate career, I knew the next 5 years of my life but of course, my path in life changed a couple of times that I never really made an updated 5-year plan.

I applied to various jobs sectors and when interviews never really felt “right”, I then looked into graduate school.  I actively asked my friends and family members what they were thinking and given what they knew about me, what did they see me doing (and more specifically what program).  I’m really glad that Continue reading

It’s okay to wait…

Don’t apply to grad school because you don’t think you can find a job.

I worked for a while before pursuing my PhD and my experiences working in public health helped me figure out what I wanted to actually do for a living.  When I realized that I wanted to pursue a doctoral degree, I was able to articulate what I wanted out of the experience and to look for a program that provided that.  Being an older student definitely has its pros and cons. 😉

Rob N. Candler highlights some of the issues you might want to consider when pondering the grad school question:  http://me.stanford.edu/documents/ME_SSO/Advice_Paper_web.pdf

Joshua Rothman also discusses the “Impossible Decision”:  http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/04/graduate-school-advice-impossible-decision.html

Good luck with your decision!

Should I go to Gradschool? Well…do you like trail mix?

Photo taken from Nourish.org

Photo taken from Nourish.org

The decision to go to grad school is, believe it or not, like buying trail mix. At first, this sounds rather abstract, but work with me. It’s true!

You have people that like trail mix for its nutritional value. It’s a healthy, sweet snack that provides you with energy and protein. You can pat yourself on the back for choosing it over, say, a bag of doughnuts.

…Then you have people who just buy it for the chocolate chips, M&Ms and, if it’s a particularly good batch, the peanut butter chips. The pretzels, peanuts and raisins are really just there to say you made/bought a snack with something in it generally deemed as “healthy.”

I happen to fall into the latter camp. I  wanted the candy, and the ability to pat myself on the back for resisting the doughnuts. However, I expected I would have to eat some peanuts, or even lower myself to eat the raisins every once in a while. 55% of my reason for attending grad school was because it just sounded healthy. A bachelor’s degree has become the old high school diploma, so in order to take care of my “health,” with the incentive of a “sweet” degree, I entered graduate school.

Graduate school is a great way to connect with people, keep yourself busy, and do your own research in an area you are interested in, with professors who are just as interested in that material as you are. It will, generally speaking, put you ahead of your peers in the workforce. In addition, each program will have its own variety of chocolate chips (Fellowships, grants, job placement rates, etc.), that really make trail mix tolerable, if not moderately delicious, so there are many good reasons to go to graduate school.

It is, however, full of peanuts and pretzels and those weird, salty, garlic crisps that may or may not cancel out the tasty, sugary good bits. Obviously, graduate school calls for a higher level of output, success, and precision in the classroom and than most undergraduate institutions. Then there’s the thesis/essay/project/dissertation you may have to do…

However, if the promise of chocolate chips and M&Ms outweighs the idea of eating garlic crisps, grad school is a great choice.

In the interest of not over-extending the trail-mix analogy, I’ll summarize by saying one must examine their own  life goals, aspirations, and tolerance for academia. Getting a job could be more of an immediate need, or perhaps you’re just ready for a more immediate form of gratification.

Should you choose the doughnuts over the trail mix, however, there is no shame in this option either. The option of going to graduate school later is also an option. One does not have to enter directly after undergrad (though, I chose to go this route), either. Trail mix is almost never out of stock.

Graduate School? Talk to _____

Indiana University Bloomington (from iugradschool.blogspot.com)

There are some who already knew what they were going to do when they started their undergraduate career.  It took me, however, until my senior year.  Many of my fellow classmates were frantically going to job interviews, and I reluctantly went to a few, not knowing what my actual passion was.

It was not until I made a list of what was most important to me that I figured that graduate school should be on the list.  My family and friends always asked me what I wanted to do, and I always said, Continue reading

Graduate Visitation is a MUST

I often get the question from prospective graduate students on whether graduate visitation is a necessary step in the overall graduate admission process as the prospect of taking time off for travel might be difficult on a tight schedule and/or the cost of travel is just too steep for an individual ready to submit to a few more years of ongoing poverty. The short and simple answer is YES. A visit to prospective institutions, in my opinion, is a must.

The collective knowledge gained from every visit was arguably the single most critical element in the process that helped me determine the right place to dedicate the next 4-5 years of my life. Let me explain. It is the universities’ job to put forth their best foot and convince you that their institution is the one for you. Typically this accomplished through a ton of promotional literature and relentless recruitment on behave of the school. It is safe to say that no schools will falsify this information, but by the same token, certainly no schools will represent their institution in a negative way. With that said, it is the responsibility of the prospective student to discern the institution that best fit their personality, as well as career orientation. And the only ways to truly do this is by going straight to the source and investigate. Here are some tips that may be helpful in the process of graduate visitation:

  • Cost of airfare and hotel rooms are expensive and certainly will add up after about 2-3 visitations. Most universities, and depending on structure of each department, typically have money set aside to fund visitations. Do inquire further at the department office of the program in question. The worst that can happen is a polite, “No.”
  • With all the action happening on the admission side of things, administrative employees are often very busy. This can make them a little grouchy and unwilling to help a lowly prospective graduate student, true story. This is where open communication with faculty members pay off and they are usually very effective at making your case to the administrative side. Even if the admissions people remain uncooperative, the faculty can certainly help fund your trip from their own accounts.
  • Cost of living analysis should be carried out at every institution. Getting a $20k annual stipend to live in Los Angeles is certainly very different from living in Bloomington. Choose wisely.
  • Ask about available scholarships, fellowships, and funding sources for your education. A $250k billing at the end of the graduate career is no fun. I know many in this situation.
  • Inquire into research opportunities and well as teaching opportunities available at the institution. This will insure that you are at a place where you can keep your training relevant and skill set diverse.
  • Nightlife. I cannot stress this enough. It is important for your mental health as well as the mental health of those in your program to have places to just relax, have a beer, and unwind. This vital information is often obtained through current graduate students at the institution. Feel free to ask.
  • Lastly, have at least two professors that you’d like to personally speak with regarding the program and what it has to offer. It is a good idea to do research ahead of time on these professors to strengthen your questions in the context of their work.

Good luck, and have a wonderful visitation day!

Graduate Student Emissaries at Work

Along with blogging, giving student tours and being successful Graduate Students the Emissaries for Graduate Student Diversity also give presentations. Three emissaries gave a presentation on “graduate school preparedness” at the Hudson and Holland Scholars Program LEAD Conference on Saturday, February 2, 2013 at the Bloomington Convention Center.

Carl D., Zelideh M-H., and Alfonse P presented two workshops on “Graduate School Preparedness” at the Hudson and Holland Scholars Program LEAD Conference on Saturday, February 2, 2013 at the Bloomington Convention Center.

~ Photo taken by David N.