Once you’ve decided to pursue a Ph.D., one of the challenges that you’ll face is that, unlike undergraduate, medical, law, or business school applications, there isn’t really a robust ecosystem offering lots of guidance to would-be applicants. Part of this has to do with subject matter fragmentation. That is, it just seems like an application for a doctoral Physics program at MIT should be very different than, say, a History program at Stanford. There is some truth to this, and there are important subtle differences for how you should approach different kinds of graduate school applications, but graduate school applications as a whole differ in important ways from applications for colleges and professional schools.
I am that rare breed of expert who first attended law school (University of Michigan) then, after practicing briefly, I earned my PhD in History (Yale University). When I applied to graduate school, the process was far more nuanced and complicated, and I benefited immensely from the advice of people who had gone before me, whereas I had found law school applications quite straight-forward. In future posts, I’ll cover some other aspects of graduate school applications that many applicants don’t know about, but today I just want to note what I see as the five most important factors that differentiate graduate school personal statements from professional school (law, medical, business, etc.) or college personal statements.
1. Get the Tone Right
For many applicants, the only advice they’ve ever been given about personal statements came when they were applying to college. College personal statements tend to be very much what you expect from a teenager who’s never actually done or experienced much in their lives: emotionally overwrought, zany, and all about having great “hooks” and a lot of puffery about what they’ve already accomplished and all that they’re going to achieve in life. There is a heavy emphasis on “personal,” and very little that could be classified as substantive. Fair enough, they’re 17 years old! But, if you’re applying to a high-level doctoral program, this is NOT the route you want to take/
You can (and should) incorporate storytelling, and your essay should be engaging, optimistic, and passionate, but it also has to be mature and clear-eyed. In short, you need to show that you’re capable of doing high-level original thinking about a thin slice of a complex subject, and this means projecting gravitas. Humor, purple prose, or stories for their own sake don’t have a place here.
When working with clients, I’ll often say, “this is for graduate school, not your Tinder profile.” In other words, the Admissions Committee isn’t trying to find a life partner or figure out the machinations of your soul; they’re trying to assess whether you have the talent to do difficult scholarship and an interesting perspective and set of germane experiences to build upon.
2. You Need to Demonstrate Subject Matter Familiarity
Unlike law school, where you can arrive with little to no real knowledge of the law, graduate programs operate under the assumption that you know the field and will arrive on Day 1 ready to engage with it. As such, how you discuss your field and the questions you want to pursue are really important. If you can signal work that you think is important and position yourself relative to scholars whose work you think is interesting, then that helps. Doubly so if those scholars you’re talking about are at the school you’re applying to (more on this next). A good rule of thumb is that the closer you can get in your personal statement to articulating what your eventual dissertation thesis will be, the better. Another way of thinking about this is that you are going to graduate school to acquire the intellectual tools to answer a question; what is that question? What do you think the answer is? Why? These are the sorts of questions that you can only really discuss if you’re familiar with the field.
3. Applying to a Program, not Really to a School
Okay, this one isn’t REALLY about the Personal Statement, but it’s worth keeping in mind. It’s hard not to be impressed by a brand name, but while top schools do have lots of top programs, don’t fall in love with brands. If the precise thing that you’re passionate about isn’t a strength at Harvard, don’t apply to Harvard. It may be that the University of Indiana or Georgia Tech (two perfectly good schools) are actually the best at what you’re interested in. Over and over, I’ve had clients who will either try to shoehorn their interests into what is offered at an Ivy League school or decide to pursue something else that they’re less interested in because it’s offered at a school they think is great. These are bad ideas. First, graduate school is a long hard slog, and if the school can’t support your particular intellectual interests, you’ll get frustrated and, frankly, you’ll probably quit. Likewise, if you elect to pursue something else just so that you can get a Princeton degree, it’s likely that in year 4 of your 7-year PhD program you’ll be so miserable that you’ll just decide you’ve had enough. A major contributor to the fact that only slightly more than 50% of doctoral candidates earn their PhD is that people aren’t thoughtful about selecting their program.
4. Talk with specificity about why THAT program
Given that you’re applying to a program, and not a school, you need to articulate why you want to attend that school. Importantly, this means avoiding generic sentences like, “Columbia’s excellent faculty, fist-rate facilities, and strong curriculum make it a compelling choice for me.” That just reeks of copy-paste text that could apply to any school. Instead, get specific about which professors you want to work with (I’ll have more on this later this week) and why, the specific programs and facilities that you want to use, and maybe even some of the coursework you hope to complete. So, the generic section above should instead say something like:
“I would be excited to study under the direction of Prof. Jones, whose work on the instability of zeta particles in the CERN superconductor-supercollider poses complex questions about string theory. While working in the Jones Lab, I hope to have access to Columbia’s new high-frequency spectroscopy device so that I could explore whether similar conditions manifest in high-radiation environments.”
Note how (fake physics gibberish aside), a reader knows exactly “why Columbia?” and can picture what the applicant’s time within the program would look like.
6. It’s Both an Intellectual and Personal History
As I noted above, it’s great to use storytelling to establish how you came to be interested in this particular subject. After all, graduate programs want people who will finish, and if you’re not passionate and excited about the field, you likely won’t. So, having early or formative experiences within a subject be the frame for your essay is a great idea.
But you also need to weave in your intellectual journey. What questions triggered this exploration? What books, ideas, studies, or intellectual problems have you found engaging, exasperating, or in desperate need of solution? If you answer these sorts of questions, and can fuse them with your personal narrative, you can produce an essay that moves the reader and allows them to understand your potential within the field and, importantly, like you as a person who shares their excitement for the subject.
You can see why I said that graduate school personal statements are more nuanced and complicated. And, frankly, my experience is that they’re just harder to write. Given the general rule that you shouldn’t exceed two single-spaced pages, this means you need to write with economy, structure, clarity, and punch. This is a high bar to clear, but if this is really your life’s passion (and if it isn’t, you shouldn’t apply), it’s well worth the work it requires to write, revise, and perfect a dynamite personal statement!
If you need help with your graduate school personal statement, or if you have any questions about these topics, please shoot Brian an email at email@example.com. You can also check him out at Gurufi.com. Note that GREPrepClub members get a 25% discount on Gurufi.com revisions. Just use the Coupon Code GREPrepClub at checkout!