Applying to Graduate School 101: Unpacking the Personal Statement

Graduate student Autumn Flynn (Jui Group) is pictured writing in a notebook.
Graduate student Autumn Flynn (Jui Group) is pictured writing in a notebook.

This Fall, we are publishing a special series of blog posts about applying to graduate school–at Emory and in general. Our goal is to demystify the application process and help applicants feel confident as they seek a home for their graduate studies. This post is the second in the series, advice on writing a personal statement from Kira Walsh, Outreach Coordinator in the Department of Chemistry.

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The personal statement is a challenging genre. You’re tasked with packing years of experience into just a few pages. You want to sound smart and unique–but there are only so many ways to explain that you won an award or researched in a lab. How many times can you say “It was a great experience” in one document? Do you sound too confident? Not confident enough?

I’m going to share a method that I think leads to great personal statements–and it’s deceptively simple.

First, though, it’s important to remember that the admissions committee wants you to succeed. They want to get to know you. They want to recruit awesome students and build the careers of future leaders in the field. Don’t let the personal statement be an obstacle. We are excited to hear what you have to say and we’re not setting out to be critical. At Emory, we are particularly interested in your experience of and interest in research. If you’ve been in a lab, we want to hear about that–particularly the things you really enjoyed or the challenges you overcame. If you don’t have a lot of research experience, tell us WHY you want to spend more time in the lab!

Now, about that method. There is no magic bullet–nothing will work perfectly for everyone. But a mistake students make in crafting a personal statement is to focus too much on making things sound good and not enough time on sharing their own voice.

Simply put, your statement should be honest. The secret is: tell the truth.

Don’t tell us that everything has always been bright and shiny and perfect. It’s helpful to know what you’ve experienced that didn’t go right. We’d rather hear that you were professional and capable in a difficult situation than be told that you “loved” your laboratory experience even though you spent all your time washing test tubes and waiting for an experiment that never. seemed. to. work.

There is, of course,  a caveat to this advice. Don’t tell us your deepest, darkest secrets (unless they are clearly chemistry related.) Relationships, family matters, roommate troubles–they probably don’t belong in your statement, except where addressing them is key to your personal academic journey. Use your judgement–if you wouldn’t tell a professor at your current school, probably don’t tell us. (There’s always Post Secret.)

Sometimes, seeing an example can really help. I’ve asked one of our current graduate students, Anthony Sementilli (Lynn Group), to share a short section of a personal statement before and after a “truthy” revision.

Example: The Truth About Tutoring

Personal Statement Draft One:

[The students I tutored in the academic retention program were] usually the most driven and enthusiastic students I’ve had, and as someone who also depended on financial aid, I was sympathetic to my tutees’ struggles. 

Personal Statement Revision:

Understandably, students sometimes became upset after having the academic dean insist they seek extra help on top of recovering from tragedy. However, as someone who also depended on scholarships, I was sympathetic to my tutees’ struggles. I’m grateful that I could help my tutees pick up the pieces because it taught me the greatest lesson I’ve learned as a teacher so far: the most important students aren’t always the ones that come to your office bearing an apple with your name it. Over three years, I’m proud to say that I helped almost 20 students keep their scholarships.

Anthony is a great writer. In both drafts, the information is clear and persuasive. However, in the second version, Anthony makes the story a little bit less cheerful. It was challenging to provide mandatory tutoring! He had to build empathy with the students he worked with and also learn the lesson that student interactions can  be rewarding and important even if they are not overwhelmingly positive. The specific facts–3 years and 20 scholarships saved–really makes Anthony’s point.

Good luck with your personal statement! Share your story and tell the truth!

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Ready to apply? Visit Applications are due by December 1st, 2018 for entry in Fall 2019.

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