How to Craft a Personal Statement
Some practical tips and perspective
There’s one part of any application that can always make you freeze: the dreaded personal statement.
Writing about yourself is an exercise in embarrassment, anxiety, and existential doubt. Don’t worry; I’m here to help!
Let’s get one thing out of the way first. The point of a personal statement is to bring your application package alive. You’re not just a resume and a research statement; you’re a whole person, with thoughts and ideas and experiences that have led you to this moment. Remember: humans respond to stories and to people. Your personal statement offers a narrative the reader will use to remember you, the person, long after they forget your GPA and your undergrad major.
With that in mind, here are a few suggestions for components that work well in your personal statement.
1. The Hook. A great way to begin a personal statement is by briefly telling a story about a moment when you had some sort of poignant experience or a pivotal moment that led you down the path to graduate school/a postdoc/whatever you’re applying for. If you’re having trouble getting started, a great exercise is to think back and come up with some favorite memories. This process can involve a fair amount of soul-searching. Don’t sweat it if you can’t think of something right away!
Often, these events happen during time periods that are on your resume, like an undergraduate research project you did or a class you took. If so, telling this story can be an opportunity to briefly highlight that bullet point and give the reader something to hold on to when they read the resume.
When writing hooks, I get really hung up on the ‘truth’ of the hook. Remember that the goal is to give the reader something that has color and flavor and is easy to remember, not to write a comprehensive autobiography. There are many true stories. Pick one. A memorable, small one.
2. Interpret your experience. Again, a personal statement isn’t just your resume. Rather, it is an opportunity to explain to the reader how the experiences you’ve had fit together and make you a candidate that has characteristics they’re looking for.
- Have you traveled, or do you have substantial work experience? You have a thing grad school is looking for: perspective. Think back to the time before you had this experience, and articulate how it changed your view of how the world works.
- All graduate schools want students who are resilient and self-directed (because grad school = suffering, but that’s a different blog post!). If you did a research project or an internship, you can highlight ways in which it didn’t go according to plan, and then say, for example, “these hurdles taught me to think on my feet, understand challenges, and implement a plan”
- If you have previous research experience, talk about why it was hard. Your reader has experienced research being hard in every way you can imagine! Commiserate them, and they will see you as one of their own.
These are just a few examples. The goal is to interpret how your experiences have made you the person you are today. Emphasize the characteristics your reader is most likely to care about.
If you’re having trouble filling in the body of your personal statement, I’d recommend describing your relevant experiences in chronological order and then going back through and explaining why they were important to you and how you’re different today because of them. Your personal statement is all about the narrative explaining how your experiences relate to one another and make sense together.
3. Go ahead and fantasize. Most people end their personal statement with the classic, “I am applying to the ___department at MIT because it is home to the ___ lab that already are doing work on ___ and ___, which I find to be especially aligned with my interests.” It’s a good idea to customize your personal statement to each graduate school you apply to, being VERY careful to submit the right one to each school! It can be overwhelming to try to digest the research agenda of an entire department or lab when you don’t have boots on the ground. But the reality is that writing this section is the most fun part: you get the opportunity to imagine what it would be like to work in any lab you want! Engage with the research in these different places and connect themes to the ones you’ve already talked about in your statement.
Now go ahead. Write it up! Find the right spot for the authentic you in the right lab at the right school (hopefully MIT!) and create your own awesome graduate school experience.
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