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.”


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.

#hollaatascholar: Building Your Support Network on the Road to Getting PhinisheD

Monday morning around 8am, I get a text message from one of my sista-friends asking me along with four or five other female doctoral students, “Where and what time are we working today?” Tuesday morning, same question…maybe a different person. Wednesday, Thursday, and even Friday or Saturday morning, same question. It’s like clockwork.

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Balancing Family Life and Academic Work

This academic year was a time of change for me: I suddenly became a guardian of my two younger brothers. I moved them to Bloomington with me because I knew they would have a better opportunity here than where they lived. However, I didn’t know how hard it would be to raise them while also continuing my academic career as a PhD student.

Before the boys moved in with me I had planned on being ABD (all but dissertation) by now, but I decided to take things a little slower. I knew raising two boys would be a lot of work but I figured I could easily continue on with my studies without any significant changes… I was wrong. Almost everything changed… Continue reading