Minecraft Skin Science Personal Statements

It’s the night before the application deadline and Jamal has completed all application forms, requested transcripts, and asked for letters of recommendation from his professors and research mentor. One last piece needs his attention, however: the personal statements. One application states, “ Discuss how your past educational, research and/or work experience(s) will contribute to your proposed studies.” Another application asks, “What are your career goals and how do you see our program supporting your goals?”

Jamal thinks, “I’ll write up a quick one-pager of my life story and send it to all the programs I’m applying to. The review committees won’t even look at it. Anyway, I’m a science major, not an English major.”

Jamal’s approach to writing a personal statement is risky; he is making several assumptions that could jeopardize his admission to graduate school. In my capacity as program coordinator of undergraduate educational research programs, I have learned what admissions committees are looking for in a personal statement. I am aware of the mistakes students commonly make and offer suggestions about how to present yourself effectively.

What is a personal statement and why is it important?

A personal statement (also known as graduate school essay, statement of interest, statement of goals, among other names) is a document, submitted as part of a graduate school application, that describes your abilities, attributes, and accomplishments as evidence of your aspirations for pursuing a graduate education and, beyond that, a career in research. This is your chance to stand out from all the other applicants.

An important quality of a graduate school personal statement is how well it communicates professional ambitions in personal terms. It outlines a career-development plan including previous experiences, current skills, and future goals. Faculty reviewing graduate school applications want to know that you have a personal commitment--the deeper the better--to the path you desire.

What is the structure of a personal statement?

Your personal statement should clearly express your understanding of what graduate school is about and how the graduate degree will build upon your previous experiences toward the attainment of your career goals. The outline below is just a guideline, a suggested structure. You can follow it precisely or devise a structure of your own. But either way, make sure your personal statement has structure and that it makes sense.

The Introduction--Set the stage for the rest of your essay. Begin with a hook (i.e., a personal anecdote that relates to your career path, a unique perspective on your academic career, or a statement that clearly summarizes your level of commitment) that will draw the reader into your story. Once you lose a reader, he or she is gone for good. On the other hand, don’t get too creative or humorous; you may offend someone inadvertently.

The Body--Describe your experiences, professional goals, your motivation for attaining these goals, and how you intend to get there. Discuss the research project(s) you’ve been involved with intelligently and clearly: identify your research area, state the research question you were addressing, briefly describe the experimental design, explain the results, state the conclusions, and describe what you gained from the experience. If you have not been directly involved in hands-on research, describe other experiences you’ve had that have influenced your career path, how the graduate degree will advance you toward your career goals, and why you feel you would be adept at such a career. Provide evidence of your progress and accomplishments in science, such as publications, presentations at conferences, leadership positions, outreach to younger students, and related experiences that sparked your interest in specific areas of science. Since this section--the body--demonstrates that you can communicate science effectively, you should devote the bulk of your writing time to it.

The Conclusion--Once you're done with the body, it's just a matter of wrapping things up. This is a good place to reaffirm your preparation and confidence that graduate school is right for you. Explain what contributions you hope to make--to science or society--and how a graduate degree will help you make that contribution.

Questions to consider

The following questions will help shape your personal statement. Address the ones you feel are most appropriate to what you want to convey to the review committee. Most of these questions will be addressed in the body of the piece, but one or more may help you structure the article as a whole.

  • Why should the admissions committee be interested in you? Why might you be a stronger candidate for graduate school than other applicants?

  • How or when did you become interested in a specific area of science? Was it through classes, readings, seminars, work, or conversations with people already in the field? What have you learned about the field and about yourself that has further stimulated your interests?

  • Are there any gaps or discrepancies in your academic record that you need to explain?

  • Have you had to overcome any unusual obstacles or hardships in your life? How have these experiences shaped your professional growth?

  • What personal characteristics do you possess that would tend to improve your chances of success in the field (i.e ., persistence, determination, good problem-solving skills, a knack for collaborative--or independent--work)? Provide evidence.

  • What experiences, skills, attributes, both in and out of the lab, make you qualified?

Dos:

  • Be positive

  • Be honest

  • Be professional

  • Tailor your personal statement to the institution and program you’re applying to. Be certain your statement is in line with the program’s mission and focus. Describe why you want to work with specific faculty members in that particular program. If you’re interested in studying obesity, for example, be sure that institution or program has researchers working on obesity.

  • Describe your research concisely and leave out minute details (e.g., 1M solution of NaCl was added to the master mix at 50oC…).

  • Stick to the length guidelines specified in the application. If there aren't any length guidelines, keep the document to about 2 single-spaced pages of typewritten text, no more than 3 pages.

  • Proofread for spelling, punctuation, and grammar errors.

  • Give your essay to at least 3 other people who will provide feedback and suggestions for improvement. Consider all feedback and revise accordingly.

Don’ts:

  • Don’t use slang.

  • Don’t use abbreviations unless generally known in the scientific community (AIDS and DNA are fine, but spell out other, discipline-specific technical terms instead of using abbreviations).

  • Don’t make up experiences you’ve never had or write what you think the review committee wants to hear.

  • Don’t send in a first draft.

  • Write it yourself; don't steal--or borrow--someone else's words.

  • Don’t say you want to help people, want to cure cancer, or use other clichés. A desire to help humanity can be a plus, but only when expressed in very specific terms.

Things to keep in mind

Here are three points that you should be aware of while writing.

  • Remember your audience. Applicant review committees are composed primarily of faculty from the department you are applying to. They may be familiar with some terminology but assume that they are not familiar with all aspects of your research project. Faculty read many--sometimes hundreds of--applications. Make your statement unique.

  • If you are submitting applications to multiple programs, each personal statement should be customized for that particular institution and application. Ensure that each personal statement includes the correct name of the institution or program and states faculty member's names correctly.

  • Ensure that you address specific questions posed as part of the personal statement portion of each application for different programs.

The personal statement is an important part of your application package. Developing one is a process that takes time, persistence, and revision. Start early and take it seriously. Remember, the statement is a reflection of you. Don’t be like Jamal. Use it to your advantage and it will land you an interview with your program of choice. Happy writing.

Related Articles

More from Careers

Brian Rybarczyk

Brian Rybarczyk is director of academic and professional development at UNC Chapel Hill's graduate school. He has a Ph.D. in pathology and laboratory medicine from the University of Rochester.

Brian Rybarczyk has written two previous articles on how to write your personal statement for a graduate school application; you will find his earlier articles here and here.

As I review drafts of personal statements from prospective graduate school applicants, some issues arise over and over. The drafts often seem like resumes in narrative form, lists of activities without much context or meaning. This article highlights the points of feedback I most frequently provide, focusing on ways to add substance to your personal statement. 

Why do you want to go to graduate school? Why do you like this particular graduate program?

Ask yourself “why?”

The competition for entry into graduate programs is increasing. Your graduate education requires a large investment of other people’s time and money. It’s up to you to convince the admissions committee that if they let you in, that time and money won’t be wasted.

The best way to achieve that is to convince the committee that you have a vision—that admission to their graduate program is an obvious and useful next step in your career trajectory. But before you can convince the admissions committee, you need to figure it out yourself: Why do you want to go to graduate school? Why do you like this particular graduate program? If you don’t have a convincing answer, maybe you should wait a while—maybe look for a job in a research lab and apply for admission in a year or two, when you have a clearer vision of your future. A clear conviction that this graduate degree will move you toward your career goals is essential.     

Intentionality

We’ve all had experiences that sparked interest in a new area of research or changed how we think about science. Such experiences are important for conveying your basic science story—for convincing the admissions committee that you have a vision of your future that has emerged over time. You need to show that your record of success in college and research isn’t random but, rather, a record of opportunities exploited as you work toward a desired end: the particular career in science that you’re pursuing.

Even much older scientists spend some time exploring, and that’s OK; there’s no need to try and hide your explorations. But your application will be much stronger if you can convince the graduate admissions committee that you have an increasingly clear vision for your future and a plan for how to get there. So place your experiences in context: Why did you decide to participate in that summer research program? Why did you choose your undergraduate research mentor? Why did you spend extra time in the lab despite a heavy course load? Why did you attend and present at a national conference, and what did you learn from that experience? How did your engagement with mentors shape your scientific identity? How does graduate school—this particular graduate program—fit that bigger picture?

Enhancing a description of your research

I use the metaphor of the hourglass to help writers shape a description of a research experience: big, small, and big. Start with the big-picture background, move toward the specifics of your project, and then connect the two together: How do the results of your research contribute to the field? Your ability to explain this clearly and succinctly—to place your particular research in context—demonstrates your command of the big picture. You need to communicate the rationale for pursuing a particular question and choosing a specific experimental approach, and you need to explain why the results matter. Describe your role in the project and what you learned about science from experience. A strong personal statement may also include a proposal for next steps in the project, which demonstrates that you are forward thinking, an important skill as a future graduate student. 

More skills

Graduate studies are expected to develop advanced cognitive skills. When asked, “What skills do you bring to the table?” many young scientists respond with a list of laboratory techniques they used in their undergraduate research projects. Those skills are valuable, but that list isn’t what the admissions committee is looking for. Analytical thinking, problem solving, and synthesizing and evaluating information are among the higher-level skills needed to be successful in graduate school. Your essay should convey your progress toward mastering such skills. Here are some questions that may help you to achieve this, along with some skills that your responses should demonstrate: 

  • What experience do you have working in a collaborative environment? How do you contribute to the effectiveness of a team? (Skills: team science, collaboration, communication)
  • How have you demonstrated your commitment to seeing a project through to completion? (Skills: project management, initiative, leadership)
  • Have you encountered opportunities to solve problems? What strategies have you employed? How did it turn out? (Skill: problemsolving)
  • What alternatives have you proposed to address a research question? Were your alternative approaches successful? (Skill: criticalthinking)

Key intangibles

Motivation, maturity, independence, and enthusiasm for and commitment to science are crucial to success as a graduate student, so they should come across in your personal statement. There’s no formula for conveying these intangible traits, but providing examples of your character, work ethic, and professionalism will help highlight them. 

Addressing challenges and deficiencies

Many students have faced personal and professional challenges. Personal or family health issues, child care issues, financial crises, and so on may have affected your academic progress or state of mind, contributing to deficiencies in your academic record or productivity. An applicant can write about these challenges in the personal statement, but it’s important not to dwell on them too much. The best approach is to describe how these challenges were addressed and what you learned from the process. Emphasize how you managed them and continued to make progress.  

Tailoring

A generically written personal statement won’t get you far in the application process. It won’t sound authentic, and it won’t be convincing. Just like a cover letter for a job application, graduate school applicants should tailor their personal statements for the programs they are applying to. Here are a few suggestions.

  • Highlight an area of research that the program is strong in, and describe how it matches your scientific interests.
  • Identify faculty members, collaborative groups, institutes, initiatives, projects, and resources that fit your research goals.
  • Explain how a program’s structure fits your expectations and needs. You may choose to emphasize options for course selection or sequence, the interdisciplinary nature of the program, flexibility for arranging lab rotations, the program’s length, support for academic and professional development, or the presence in the program of particular researchers.

Get critical feedback

Obtaining feedback on your personal statement (or any piece of writing) can be intimidating, but feedback is essential for creating a polished and readable document. Asking a best friend for feedback may result in a canned response—“sounds good,” or “I like it”—which isn’t helpful.  Instead, seek feedback from trusted scientific peers, advisers, and mentors. Reading critiques of your writing can be disheartening and frustrating, but such feedback will continue throughout your career and is important for improving your communication skills—so get used to it.

You may find that comments on your personal statement vary widely and even contradict each other. Pay attention to all of them, and decide for yourself whether they make sense—but if there are consistent patterns in the critiques, i.e. the same suggestion made by all (or most) reviewers, that is certainly an area to revise.

To receive more meaningful constructive feedback, it may be helpful to ask your reviewers questions, such as these:

  • Is my personal statement convincing? Do you believe I really want to go to graduate school—to this graduate school—and that I understand why I want to go?
  • Are the examples appropriate? Does the statement hook the reader in and make them want to read more?
  • Does it answer the essay prompt?
  • Are the explanations of the research experiences clearly understandable for a nonexpert?
  • Does it convey the skills that I’m developing as a future scientist?
  • What about the writing? Is it well organized? Does it make sense? Are the transitions effective?

Proofread

Precision is an important part of science, and no graduate program is interested in candidates that don’t take (or appear to take) their admissions process seriously. An error-riddled essay sends precisely that message: Either you aren’t precise or you don’t care. Even a single typo can be a turnoff. So try to eliminate all obvious errors.

*          *          *

Even if you follow all this advice, I still can’t guarantee that you’ll get accepted to all of your dream graduate programs—that depends on the quality of all the work you’ve done up to now—but I can guarantee that your personal statement will improve and that you will look like a more authentic and substantial candidate. Good luck.

doi:10.1126/science.caredit.a1400252

Related Articles

Brian Rybarczyk

Brian Rybarczyk is director of academic and professional development at UNC Chapel Hill's graduate school. He has a Ph.D. in pathology and laboratory medicine from the University of Rochester.

Categories: 1

0 Replies to “Minecraft Skin Science Personal Statements”

Leave a comment

L'indirizzo email non verrà pubblicato. I campi obbligatori sono contrassegnati *