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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Lynn Group Featured in Organic and Biomolecular Chemistry

Research from the research group of Dr. David Lynn is featured on the cover of the latest issue of Organic and Biomolecular Chemistry. OBC is a weekly journal for the publication of highly significant original research and reviews in all areas of organic chemistry, including organic synthesis, physical organic chemistry, supramolecular chemistry and bioorganic chemistry.

The cover art is related to the article “Amyloid scaffolds as alternative chlorosomes” contained in the issue. Recent graduate Rolando Rengifo is first author with Noel Li, Anthony Sementilli, and David G. Lynn as additional authors.

Congratulations, Lynn Group!

Chemistry Graduate Students Welcome Carl Lineberger for the First Chemmy Seminar

W. Carl Lineberger

On Wednesday, February 8th, the graduate students of the Department of Chemistry will welcome W. Carl Lineberger, E. U. Condon Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at the University of Colorado, Boulder, for the first-ever Chemmy Award Seminar. Dr. Lineberger is a recent winner of the NAS Award in the Chemical Sciences, a member of the National Science Board and the National Research Council Laboratory Assessments Board as well as a fellow of JILA and a member of the editorial board of Chemical Physics Letters. His Wednesday seminar is entitled “Once Upon Anion: A Tale of Photodetachment.”

The “Chemmys” are a seminar program developed and hosted by graduate students in the department. The aim of the seminars is to allow students to recognize scientists who they feel are doing the most exciting work in the field from year to year. In addition, the Chemmys give students an opportunity for professional development, interacting with top scientists from outside Emory to develop a visit schedule and discuss current research.

In its inaugural year, chemistry graduate students will welcome four Chemmy speakers. In addition to Dr. Lineberger, they are Daniel Nocera (Harvard), Ruben Abagyan (UCSD), and Alex Dunn (Stanford). The recipients were chosen through a nomination and voting progress open to all graduate students.

Asked why made time for the Chemmy visit, Dr. Lineberger said: “The answer is a simple truth which is likely shared by 95% (or more) of your seminar visitors. You have to look very hard to find a faculty member who does not respond favorably to flattery, and there is nothing more flattering than having a collection of students contact you asking you to speak! Now you know that you are speaking to an audience that really matters, and they invited you. This is simply too appealing an invitation to be able to decline, unless finding a suitable date is impossible!”

When he isn’t adventuring as the first-ever Chemmy Awardee, Dr. Lineberger sometimes spends time at the South Pole! He is pictured here with France Cordova, then an NSB Colleague and now the Director of the NSF.

Amanda Dermer (Heaven Group) spearheaded the development of the Chemmy program. “The goal of the Chemmys is to encourage more students to participate and have a say in deciding on some of the seminar speakers who speak to the chemistry department,” she says. “I am very appreciative of the department’s support in the new student-hosted speaker program!” Anthony Sementilli (Lynn Group) the current Outreach Coordinator for the Pi Alpha Chemical Society was also key in bringing the new seminars from idea to reality.

Continuing the theme of student involvement, Mallory Theis (Heaven Group), the current president of PACS, designed the glass Chemmy Award that will be presented to Chemmy speakers. “We expect it to become a coveted item in the field of chemistry!” says Outreach and Seminar Coordinator Kira Walsh.

As part of catering to student interests, Dr. Lineberger will focus a portion of his seminar on explaining the fundamentals of his research program in a graduate-level overview. In addition, he looks forward to meeting with students to talk research. “I feel that I am coming to Emory to see students, much more than faculty,” says Dr. Lineberger. “While I have many friends on the faculty, I would be extremely pleased and flattered to spend the time at Emory meeting with students individually or in larger groups and speaking about anything from science, to science policy, or to choosing a career.

Dr. Lineberger’s seminar will take place at 2:00pm in Atwood 360 and will be followed by a reception.

Summer Science Academy Visits Chemistry

Anthony Sementilli lectures to Summer Science Academy students in the ATOMIC classroom while Cam Pratt looks on. Photo by Emory University Department of Chemistry.
Anthony Sementilli lectures to Summer Science Academy students in the ATOMIC classroom while Cam Pratt looks on. Photo by Emory University Department of Chemistry.

Students from the Summer Science Academy visited chemistry on Wednesday to participate in demos and tours organized by Pi Alpha Chemical Society. The Summer Science Academy is a two-week science enrichment program that provides high school students from traditionally underrepresented minority backgrounds the opportunity to develop a better understanding and appreciation of science by exposing them to an educational environment that is conducive to learning, motivating, challenging, and fun. “Hands on” experiences like the visit to chemistry are designed to heighten students’ interest in science by increasing awareness of careers in science and healthcare.

Anthony and Cam prepare for the cloud demo. Photo by Emory University Department of Chemistry.
Anthony and Cam prepare for the cloud demo. Photo by Emory University Department of Chemistry.

Academy students were treated to a short, accessible lecture about the disciplines of chemistry by graduate student Anthony Sementilli (Lynn Group). During the question and answer period, one of the Academy students asked “Are we going to get to blow things up today?”

Fire! .gif created by Emory University Department of Chemistry.
Fire! .gif created by Emory University Department of Chemistry.

Not to disappoint, Anthony wrapped up the lecture with a series of demos in the chemistry courtyard, including fire (combustion) and ice (liquid nitrogen cloud!) First year student Cam Pratt, newly arrived at Emory in the past week to start a summer rotation in the Davies Group, assisted with the demos.

Summer Science Academy students assist with the Elephant's Toothpaste demo. Photo by Emory University Department of Chemistry.
Summer Science Academy students assist with the Elephant’s Toothpaste demo. Photo by Emory University Department of Chemistry.

The visitors also had the opportunity to participate in the “elephant’s toothpaste” demo. Following the demos, students toured the Jui and Lynn labs with the assistance of Anthony, Ally Boyington (Jui Group), and Michelle Leidy (Scarborough Group).

Students watch the cloud demo. Photo by Emory University Department of Chemistry.
Students watch the cloud demo. Photo by Emory University Department of Chemistry.

The Summer Science Academy will bring two more groups to chemistry on June 22nd at 1:00pm and July 7th at 11:00am. If you are a current graduate student interested in volunteering to help with either visit, email Anthony Sementilli.

Chemistry Researchers Receive 2016 NSF Graduate Research Fellowships

Congratulations to Robert Kubiak (Davies Group) and Roxanne Galzier (Salaita Group) for being awarded 2016 Graduate Research Fellowships from the National Science Foundation! Robert is a graduate student in the Department of Chemistry and Roxanne is a graduate student in the Emory/Ga Tech joint Biomedical Engineering program.

Congratulations also to Anthony Sementilli (Chemistry, Lynn Group) and Aaron Blanchard (BME, Salaita Group) who received Honorable Mentions.

For the 2016 competition, NSF received close to 17,000 applications, and made 2,000 award offers.

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based Master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited United States institutions. As the oldest graduate fellowship of its kind, the GRFP has a long history of selecting recipients who achieve high levels of success in their future academic and professional careers.

2015 Incoming Graduate Class

The thirty-five individuals in our entering class include high-achieving students from across the country and internationally. Students were selected from an applicant pool of over three hundred. Selected students share a rigorous educational background and a passion for chemistry. The selection committee placed particular emphasis on applicants’ previous and potential contributions to research.

Among the incoming students, we welcome two Emory Graduate Diversity Fellows. The Emory Graduate Diversity Fellowship (EGDF) is awarded to applicants who have demonstrated outstanding academic achievement and who will contribute to the development of a richly diverse student body. To be considered for the EGDF, applicants must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents who plan to pursue a program of doctoral study. One of our students was also selected as a fellow in the NIH-funded Initiative to Maximize Student Development (IMSD) program. In addition, students in our incoming class were awarded a total of five Laney Fellowships. Laney awards recognize outstanding academic achievements as well as a student’s potential to excel as a research scientist. All of our incoming students have been awarded tuition waivers and stipend support for the duration of their graduate careers at Emory.

Graduate students are at the heart of our community-their presence energizes research and teaching in the department. We look forward to welcoming our 2015 incoming class to campus!

For more information about our incoming class-and the Department of Chemistry in general-please contact Kira Walsh, Outreach Coordinator.

If you are an admitted student who needs assistance, please contact Ann Dasher, Graduate Coordinator.

Brooke Andrews

Aaron Arruda

Adam  Aycock

Allyson Boyington

Sean Bresler

Caitlin MacMurry Bridges

Rebecca Brumbaugh

Jacob Burman

Jennifer Coffman

Andrew Ephron

Autumn Flynn

Jiantao (JT) Fu

Mark Healey

Amaan Kazerouni

Monica Kiewit

Robert Kubiak

Michelle Leidy

Dan Liu

Carson Powers

Ashley Riner

Kevin Roenitz

Anthony Sementilli

Helen Siaw

Mallory Theis

Paula Tyler

David Vogt

Shengyuan Wang

Benjamin David Wertz

Ben Yin

Yawei Liu

Peipei Ma

Qingfeng (Kee) Wang

Bowen Zhang

Xiaokun Grace Zhang

Boyang Zhou