Higher Education > Advanced Advice

Getting Personal

A grad school's first impression of you is your personal statement. Make it count.

By Joe Schall

Do you long to make your mark in image sequence analysis, conduct research on robust 3-D object recognition or master exemplary cache management skills? Then you're probably headed for graduate school, and to get there, you'll need to write a persuasive personal statement. Whether it's called a personal statement, a statement of purpose or a letter of intent, the goal is the same—you have about 500 words to petition for admission into a program that probably receives 10 times more applicants than it can accept. A well-written, thoughtful personal statement will help elevate you above the crowd.

Discern the Criteria of the Essay Question

Although some applications may simply request a one-page statement without specifying any content guidelines, typically you are asked to comment on matters of personal background, work experience, research goals, long-term objectives and your particular interest in the program to which you are applying. Attend to each of these categories, perhaps devoting one short paragraph to each, explicitly and efficiently. Anchor your topic sentences in the language of the criteria (e.g., "My long-term goals are..."; "My past research endeavors include..."), followed by examples demonstrating the specifics of your background and the clarity of your thinking.

Articulate Your Personal and Professional Inspiration

Having read hundreds of personal statements over the years, I recognize how valuable it is to paint an interesting personal but professional picture of yourself. Some students make the mistake of discussing something far too private or unsettling in their personal background (such as a serious family crisis or a bout with depression), while others come off as a wannabe hacker or exude a "computers are really cool" naivete. Instead, give a thumbnail sketch that stresses positive and professional influence: a memorable and uplifting early experience, a high school or college project that ignited or deepened your interest in computer science, an especially inspiring teacher or relative who followed a career path that you emulate. The goal is to write an opening paragraph that no other candidate could have written, while striking a professional, positive tone.

Discuss Your Experience as a Set of Aquired Skills

With emphasis on professional experience and transferable skills, describe your background using action verbs (e.g., "I programmed..."; "I installed and maintained..."; "As part of a team, I redesigned..."). If you are not invited to submit a resume with your application, you may want to incorporate the job descriptions from your resume into your statement. Also, seek to interweave a discussion of your coursework, teaching and activities with a description of your actual work experience as necessary. Those Web pages you designed as part of a classroom project, or your work as a teaching assistant for a lab course, or your active involvement in the student chapter of a professional association can be just as relevant as an internship position.

Describe a Research Plan or Identify an Area of Research Interest

Herein lies the toughest yet most important job for most grad school applicants—describing your specific research interest. Recognize, however, that you are not committing to an unbreakable covenant, but simply identifying a compatible area of interest. For specifics here, turn to your previous coursework, think about successful projects you have already taken part in, and browse the host program's Web pages and application materials to determine what kinds of projects the professors and research teams undertake. Selection committees will give special attention to students who show an interest in theoretical computer science, or those who have a background in a related application area, such as chemistry, mathematics or geographic information systems, and successfully tie their interests to a projected area of research. Stress your desire and ability to solve relevant problems and address research questions.

Establish Long-Term Objectives

As with the discussion of a research plan, long-term objectives are not lifetime commitments but thoughtful, concrete plans. Valuable options here include specifying continued work in a particular research area, the desire to obtain a Ph.D. or teach at the university level, or future plans to work as an independent or corporate consultant. By articulating a reasonable long-term objective or two, you persuade a program that you are worthy of serious consideration. If you're hazy about long-term objectives, discuss some possibilities with an advisor in your field from whom you might also receive feedback on your personal statement.

Close by Discussing Specifics About the Program to Which You Are Applying

Learning all you can about the target program not only makes sense, it gives you concrete closing material to include in your essay. Many graduate programs include downloadable application materials on their Web sites, and just one phone call to the program's graduate office will secure plenty of materials. Also, be certain to research information about the faculty, perhaps reading some of the faculty publications to familiarize yourself with the research being done. Some students even email faculty whom they are especially interested in working with, establish a correspondence, and cite this interaction in their personal statement. The goal is to create a professional link between yourself and the program, its facilities and its faculty. Go beyond simply inserting the program name into your final paragraph; prove that you have done your homework.

Pay a Visit

Without question, an on-site visit is the best way to ensure a good fit between you and a graduate program, and graduate directors will always give special attention to candidates willing to make a visit. Do not count on being invited specifically to visit a program but set up an appointment on your own, ideally before or while your application is under consideration. While visiting the site, be certain to have relevant questions ready for the graduate director, ask to tour the facilities, and try to meet with a faculty member or two. If you are especially interested in a particular program, an on-site visit would be a finishing stroke to a perfect application.

Need an Example?

Read a sample personal statement.


Joe Schall is the Giles Writer-in-Residence for the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences at Pennsylvania State University in University Park.

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Higher Education > Advanced Advice

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