How to write a good personal statement for grad school in our social science fields


1.  Tell a story about your research interests.  (Not a story about your personality.  Not a story about your feelings.)  A story that explains what research interests are driving you to graduate school and why this graduate school can help you fulfill your professional goals.
2.  What questions/fields are you specifically interested in?
3.  What is your research experience?
4.  (Advanced)  How would you go about answering the questions you’re interested in and how would graduate school help you answer them?
5.  Use specific examples.
6.  Get proofreading help!  Show it to your professors or employers (depending on where you are in your current career) or whoever it is that is writing recommendation letters for you.
Do not:
1.  Start a personal statement with, “Ever since I was…” or “I have always…”
2.  Talk about your personality.  This is not a college application, this is a graduate school application.
3.  Talk about your non-academic dreams.  Ditto on the college application difference.  Well-rounded for graduate school means an entering class interested in different sub-fields.
4.  Put this off to the last minute and do a shoddy job.
Academic grumpeteers, what recommendations would you have for writing an application statement for graduate school?

13 Responses to “How to write a good personal statement for grad school in our social science fields”

  1. KeAnne Says:

    I wish I had this advice in 2005 when I applied to UNC for grad school I’m embarrassed to recall that my personal statement for library school was along the lines of “ever since I was a little girl, I’ve loved the library.” I hope it had a bit more depth than that, but I take comfort that mine is probably not the only one in the vein. Fortunately, they admitted me anyway despite the cliche personal statement!

  2. Liz Says:

    1. Write from your heart but using your mind. Think carefully about how your goals mesh with what you perceive to be the target department’s strengths and weaknesses. Show that you’ve done some digging to identify where you’d be best placed in the grad realm. But be careful: arrogance and entitlement show through very easily in most essays.
    2. Be aware of the “whole” that the separate application parts represent. How many essays or written statements do you need to make? What do they, together, convey about your aspirations and competencies?
    3. If you’re really struggling to make a cohesive, strong argument about why you should go to such-and-such school, then you probably don’t know enough about the field you want to enter. You might not be ready. (And that’s okay.)

    (I say this from the perspective of years helping students write applications for highly competitive research scholarships, like Fulbright, Boren, Rhodes, etc.)

  3. Leah Says:

    If you can’t do #1 and #2 with specificity, then you shouldn’t be applying to grad school. That’s the lesson I learned. Still unsure how I got admitted with the vague plans of admiring my PI’s work and wanting to do something similar with food webs & tadpoles. If you don’t have a specific research goal, you’re not ready for grad school.

    I’m finishing my second master’s degree right now. It’s still work, but it’s much easier now that I have a specific, concrete topic for my thesis and a reason to study that topic.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Of course, people do often change their research interests once in graduate school, but you still need to be able to show that you can think about these problems in depth in a way that can be addressed in graduate school.

      • Leah Says:

        Yes. Depth and specificity was my issue. I still love the general topic, but I’m not a focused person. Even my master’s thesis now is not super focused (I’m writing a handbook on multicultural teaching in biology).

  4. Astra Says:

    ‘Start a personal statement with, “Ever since I was…” or “I have always…”’

    As a joke, a colleague started his astronomy thesis with “Since time immemorial, man has pondered the stars.” His advisor made him take it out.

  5. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    Reading personal statements is a f*cken waste of time. The letters tell me what I need to know about what motivates the applicant. I never read them.

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