London and the Personal Statements

At the moment my life is revolving around two things: chemistry research and graduate school applications. Of the latter, the most time-consuming bit is the writing of the personal statement (also called the statement of purpose ‘SOP’). The goal of the document is to summarise my education & relevant experience in my own words, and articulate the reasons I’m applying for a PhD program, and why I’m applying to University X in particular.  

Each university weighs up their applicants differently. Some admissions committees desire the highest GRE scores and a slew of previous scholarships. Other committees prioritise the candidates with extensive work experience. I suspect it varies with the personal taste of who is on the admissions committee, as well as by departmental policy. Anyway, I know of at least one Chemistry PhD program which does not put much emphasis on the personal statement – preferring the opinion of referees to the candidate’s own.

I don’t want to take chances on that. I’m serious about putting together a good statement that (a) showcases me at my scientific best (b) reads as a compelling case for admitting me to PhD programs (c) is reflective of my personality and individual traits.

What is the creative process behind knocking up a personal statement over the course of autumn weekends?

As the regular readers know, I applied for PhD programs last year and thus arrived at this application cycle with a fully-formed personal statement. I didn’t like it though. I dislike most of the things which I wrote in my past – with hindsight all written pieces look hideous.

Obviously I would have to give the draft an update – a whole year of CHEMISTRY had happened since then. Yet I needed to do more than that, based simply on the fact that the statement in its 2011 form hadn’t got me any offers of admission. The universities I was re-applying to would still have my 2011 application on file, most places will consider the re-application side-by-side with the first attempt. I made the decision not to bother with editing the 2011 draft: I was going to click (CTL + N) and start right from the beginning again.

Stage 1. The Forage.

I went for a rootle around, the Fulbright UK-US Commission’s ‘Study in the USA’ web pages and online advice columns to see what I could come up with in the way of guidelines for personal statements. I looked at examples of personal statements to chemistry programs – both online and from contacts in the USA – seeing what I liked the look of and what I thought worked well. I came up with some nifty ideas to do with headers.

Stage 2. The Draft Graft.

Next I forced to myself to write the preliminary drafts. No excuses – just get the words out. Start editing only once all the necessary information is on the page.

Stage 3. The Critique.

The halfway decent drafts were send out to the individuals who kindly agreed to review them on my behalf. I asked them to not be as kind in their feedback, and sent them a list of things to look out for which I considered important: motivation, details of research experience, style of language, narrative.  I also went back through my drafts and critiqued them harshly. Using referees

Repeat Stage 2 & 3 as often as necessary.

In the end the drafts get more and more likeable. Last weekend I had a minor shock to the system when I realised – for all my wordiness and information-cramming, the prose reads atrociously. Seriously, it was all lists, disjointed clauses and strange word ordering! This is what you get if you focus in on the individual sentences and words – you lose a sense of who the document as a whole reads. Thankfully that seems to have been dealt with now. That’s the advantage of going away from the writing for days at a time, when you come back you can re-read your draft with fresher eyes.


My work has been in a combination of places – the main Imperial College Library and in Starbucks around the city. Fuelled on espressos and muffins. With hectic hours on my research project (not sure if I’m progressing or staying still some times…) I don’t feel like I’m able to properly switch off and relax at any point. I’m going to make a serious effort to finish drafting this weekend so I don’t burn myself out before Christmas. Properly finish. Finish and hit ‘Submit’ in a few instances.

I think the finality will be good for me.


2 thoughts on “London and the Personal Statements

  1. I offer, as a post-Thanksgiving gift (since it’s the Thanksgiving holiday weekend in the States), a rough and drafty version of my answer to students who e-mail me with some version of the “How do I write a good personal statement?” question. I’m lucky to work at a selective liberal arts college and to work with bright and motivated students who are frequently able to transform my somewhat abstract suggestions into effective SOPs. You’re certainly tuned in to the right characteristics already. But maybe there’s something helpful in the commentary–again, very rough and drafty–below. Good luck!

    The best personal statements for graduate school applications are:
    — clear and coherent
    — concrete and characterizing
    — concise yet complete (in that you address all elements of the prompt, if there is one)
    — consistent and complementary (with other material in your application)
    — correct (in terms of language, grammar, syntax)
    — CONVINCING, cogent, and conclusive

    Now, how do you ensure your statement fulfills all of these characteristics? Well, that’s a more subjective question. I’d say the most important elements are the final two: You’re trying to convince the admissions folks to accept you into their program. The easiest way to do so is to be compelling in your presentation: Make it very obvious (clear) why (a) you need to matriculate in their program to reach your professional or career goals and (b) their program is a good fit for your needs.

    Usually, you’re given a page limit or word limit for your statement. Make sure to follow the guidelines. If they say 2–3 pages, then 4 pages is not acceptable. It’s your responsibility to be concise while answering all portions of the question (complete). So, if they say 2–3 pages, and you have only 2 pages (but have been complete in your answer), then you’re just fine. Sometimes admissions folks appreciate applicants who can be brief and to the point.

    Being consistent with the other material in your application is important. Look at your résumé or CV: What sort of story is it telling? What sort of person is it presenting? You want to be characterizing of yourself, because the personal statement often stands in for an interview. How does your personal statement present you as an applicant? What are the most important things about yourself that you want the admissions folks to know? Then make sure that your personal statement complements the vision that appears on your résumé or CV. Do not simply be repetitive of material that’s presented elsewhere. The personal statement is your opportunity to go into greater depth about experiences you have had that have brought you to this point in your life. You cannot mention everything that’s on your résumé or CV in your personal statement: be selective. And try not just to describe what you did. Much better is to write about how various activities or experiences affected you or made you feel: What did you learn when you did something? How did something change you as a person?

    Also, beware of “empty” adjectives. Here are just a few:
    — interesting
    — inspiring
    — intriguing
    — wonderful
    — amazing
    — eye-opening
    — rigorous
    — difficult
    — challenging
    — fascinating
    — transformative
    — awesome
    — fabulous
    — excellent
    — admirable
    — enjoyable
    — remarkable
    — rewarding
    — incredible
    — tremendous
    (And the list goes on.) If you describe an activity as being anything on the above list, make sure that you also state WHY you found it to be interesting or inspiring or wonderful. Please include specific, concrete examples. Remember: Something that’s interesting or inspiring or wonderful to you might not be the same to the person reading your application. It’s your responsibility to SHOW the reader why something was interesting or inspiring or wonderful to you. USELESS SENTENCE = “The experience was fascinating, and I am thankful I was able to do it.” BETTER = “The experience was fascinating because I learned about the day-to-day pressures facing teachers who work in underfunded urban school settings.” EVEN BETTER (avoids the empty adjective altogether) = “Through this experience, I learned about the day-to-day pressures facing teachers who work in underfunded urban school settings.”

    Finally, a good statement is both coherent and correct. Here is where it’s a good idea to have other people read over your statement. You will NOT want to wait until the last minute to write your personal statements. These are IMPORTANT pieces of your applications—and you have complete control over their contents. Plan plenty of time to revise, revise, and revise some more. . . .

    Oh, one more thing: For Ph.D. programs in the sciences, remember that your readers will be scientists (the faculty members in the program to which you’re applying). It’s important that you write like a scientist. Your readers will care more about your research interests than about your non-scientific background and experiences. So focus on research. They want to be able to imagine you as a future colleague and as a contributor to your scientific field. Go ahead: Use the jargon, the terminology, the language of your field. And, while you’re at it, make sure not to belittle your previous accomplishments as being “rudimentary” or “basic” or “simple.”

    And *finally*: The best SOPs don’t include anything that doesn’t advance the forward movement of your narrative. (Sorry for the double negative. But the point is that every example, every description, every case needs to support your appeal for admission to the particular doctoral programs to which you’re applying. Extraneous material must be banished.)

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