Personal Statement Tips for Grad School

I think I’ve previously mentioned it on the dope, but I am finishing my master’s in American history and starting the application process for PhD programs. I am trying to write my personal statement. In summary I plan to write something along the lines of the following. Its obviously a very rough draft.

-I come from a humble background and my attempts in school were always distracted by my need to work a full time job. I spent the first 23 years of my life never really commiting to anything, just trying to get by. It was only after I finished my bachelor’s degree (with a meager 2.5 GPA) and got a good corporate job that I realized what I wanted to do with my life.

I have spent the last three years of my life fully commited to the study of history. For the first time I have not allowed my need to make a living to distract me from my academic goals.It hasn’t always been easy. I didn’t initially appreciate the value or the difficulty of language skills. I flunked my first Spanish course, but I remained commited. I retrook the course and made an A. While languages are still I weakness I did complete my Spanish courses with an overall 3.5 GPA.

I have completed my master’s with a 3.7 GPA. I have not been content to simply fuftill the requirements. I have had work accepted for publication and presented my scholarship at several scholarly conferences. I have done all of this while working a full time corporate job.

I am now ready to take the next step. I am in search of a community of scholars that will support me with a funding package that will allow me to leave corporate America and devote all of my time to the study of history. I did well during my master’s while working full time outside the profession. I will do even better once I can devote all of my time to history.-

Any thoughts and opinions are greatly appreciated.

I’m applying for graduate school right now. Fortunately, essays have always been my strong suit.

My gut instinct is that this format begins by focusing more on your weaknesses than your strengths. Your directionless and commitment-free lifestyle may be a thing of the past, but it is the first impression you are making to the readers of that essay. Believe me, that is not where you want to be.

That you were working full-time as a student can be made into a strength–rather than saying you lacked commitment, it actually shows that you were committed to getting an education at a great personal sacrifice. You can talk openly about what a hardship it was to earn an education while working full-time, but avoid language like, ‘‘just trying to get by.’’ You were in school for a reason. Focus on that reason, even if it was because you were trying to get yourself out of that economically disadvantaged place.

If you really want to talk about aimlessness and struggle, make sure you open with something strong. First impressions are extremely important with these things. You want to open with something that gives an immediate impression of who you are now–your past is just filling in the gaps a little and not nearly as important as the student you are now.

It might also be a good idea to somehow tie who you are, your identity, with the study of history. Why do you study history? What about it personally resonates with you? If it has anything whatsoever with the hardship you’ve experienced, include that.

For example, in my statement of purpose (MSW working with immigrants) I tie my early experiences of leaving home at 17 and working full-time as a student to an understanding of the sense of isolation and confusion that immigrants feel. In short, I want to work with immigrants because I relate to them. Because of your background, there must be a way to make a more profound connection than ‘‘I love history.’’

The paragraphs following the first one are really quite positive, but I didn’t even take note of them until re-read because of the negative impression of paragraph one. What you have to say about language is important and not something I would even have considered. It may set you apart from other applicants.

And your excellent performance in graduate school definitely speaks for itself. Those are the strongest part of the essay.

I highly recommend the book, ‘‘Graduate Admissions Essays: Write Your Way Into the Graduate School of Your Choice.’’ It is a compendium of hundreds of the best admissions essays from top schools, and it helped me immensely in writing my statement of purpose.

Good luck!

I am a PhD in a science (so different field), I don’t have any sort admissions experience but this is what I figured out about the personal statement when I applied:

The PhD personal statement is more a cover letter for a job than the creative admissions essays you write for undergrad applications. They want to know:
[ul][li] What do you want to study? Specifically, what area, what do you want to do research on. You can change your mind once you get in, but the point is that if you are applying then you should be able to intelligently discuss some subfield and present a few interesting unanswered questions. [/li][li]Why are you qualified? What research, academic, and life experience do you have that indicate that you will complete their program successfully. Your publications and masters are the cornerstone of this. [/li][li] What do you want to do with the degree? Again, you can change your mind but you should show that you understand what PhDs in the field do when they get out. [/li][/ul]

Again, my field is very different but my impression is that you don’t really need to expound greatly about how committed you to the study of field X. Instead you demonstrate this with an essay that shows excitement and understanding of current research in the field.

As for your undergrad GPA, honestly I wouldn’t dwell on that too much, perhaps just mention that you worked your way through school as an undergrad. I would definitely not lead in with that. What you did afterwards is more important.

But don’t take my word, go talk to your old MA and other professors you were friendly with. If you have friends in the PhD program you can also ask if they would let you read their personal statements.

Good luck, I know how much writing the thing sucks.

What Sugar and Spice said: Be specific about your plan of study (even if you have no clue-- this is when you invent your plan if there isn’t one already. You can always change your mind to some degree): subfield? Tentative direction for a research topic? Who do you want to study with (make sure this makes sense. If possible, who do you imagine on a committee)? Why THAT school? (make sure THIS makes sense, and not just a vague “your great reputation and resources” but something specific. They are strong in your desired subspecialty and have faculty in it and such, right?) They already know that you wuv discipline X-- so does everyone else in the stack or else they wouldn’t be in the stack. By saying something/anything/dear God anything at all specific about your plans you’ll set yourself apart in the stack. You need to have them believe that not only are you interesting and interested, but that you can succeed in the program. Emphasize your publication record and such. Look serious.

(BTW, even the most awesome financial aid package in the history of humanities PhD programs is not going to be practically anything in terms of a corporate salary. Even a comparatively great funding package is going to look a bit grim to you-- just sayin’. Illustration: I got the awesomest deal evar at my school for my doct program in the humanities, which is to say: University “special fellowship” with 5 years of support, meaning tuition covered and a TAship or research gig each year at about 14,000 a year (in CA). That started in 2000 so the numbers would be slightly bigger but not huge. You can feed yourself, but it’s not a gravy train. I think most humanities students here will corroborate-- contradictory anecdotes welcomed)