The personal statement (PS) is perhaps the single hardest thing to write in an application. This isn’t because it’s especially important (fortunately, it often is not very important). There is just nothing remotely close to a “standard guideline” for these things. As such, my impression on the matter is just that – the impression of one person who has never served on admission’s committee. (It is worth noting that people who have served on admission’s committees give conflicting advice, too.) I have, however, read a fair number of personal statements as a part of my job at the writing center.
Let us start from the end: what is the PS used for? The standard answer is “to get to know you a little better”. And it’s true. Most of the other aspects of your application are standardized: you got good grades, wrote a good paper, aced the GRE, etc. Maybe one of your reference letters mentions something unique about you, but most likely they’ll just say that you are a bright and motivated student; you got A in their class and they’d love to see you hooded. The personal statement is something that is meant to distinguish you from other applicants in a way that is not “you are better than the rest of them”. It is used to judge fit.
Many graduate programs take fit very seriously. This is especially true for smaller programs, programs with special focus, or ones that are not top ranked. Many programs would also rather take a student with greater fit over someone with higher GPA or even better writing sample. That said, fit is extremely difficult to judge. Therefore, some admission’s members will try their best to not screen people out based on perceived lack of fit. This is (partly) why a bad personal statement often does not hurt as much as a bad writing sample or letter of rec.
So, the PS is a document people use to get to know you a little, with the hope of possibly judging for fit. How do you write it so that it serves this purpose? This is what I think: first and foremost, people want to know about your research style – what topics inspire you; how you approach these topics; how you see your interest fitting into the bigger philosophical landscape; etc. Second, the PS is a place to mention anything that’s “special” about you, especially those that don’t fit into other parts of the application. I explain each in turn and end with a note on tailoring.
North American graduate programs generally do not expect applicants to have a well-planned and thought-out research program. (This is one major difference between NA and Europe.) In fact, writing like you’ve gotten everything figured out and are ready to start your own program as soon as you arrive can hurt you. Part of this is because, chances are, you don’t actually know what you’re talking about (which is why you’re looking to enroll in a PhD program). Part of this is also because many departments like to actually teach the students they accept. If it sounds like there is nothing they can teach you or (worse) you are not planning to learn more stuff, they will not accept you.
It is hard to talk about research without presenting something like a concrete program. The advice I received was to focus on the questions that inspire you. Raise a few questions you find interesting and talk about how they connect to each other in your mind. Refrain from giving your own take unless you can do it skillfully so as to not make it sound like you have already decided what the answers are.
Note, however, that if you already have a master’s, then you are allowed to be more specific and forthcoming. This is especially true if you have done substantive master’s research work (such as writing a thesis) and are planning to continue in the same direction. If that is the case, by all means, propose a specific project. I would still advise writing it in a way that shows how you’d still appreciate more supervision.
I have heard conflicting advice on whether it’s worth mentioning other people’s work that has influenced your thinking. On the one hand, it helps people understand exactly what you mean with certain words. On the other hand, it runs the risk of homework not done well. The work you mention might actually be poorly regarded in the field. People might not believe that you’ve actually understood it. The work might be done in an intellectual tradition that is opposite of the department you’re applying to. It is often impossible to find these things out as an undergraduate student. It is probably safe if the work is done by a member of the prospective department or is widely recognized as a canon. Note still that some might still find it cheesy.
What’s special about you
I take this section to be optional – both in existence and in length. If there’s nothing special about you, a solid research-focused PS will not hurt. (Sidenote: I am obviously using the word “special” in a way that is different from “everyone is special” – I’m not special for a PhD student. I’ll give some examples of what I mean below.) It is much better to talk about research alone than force-fit irrelevant personal stories.
I’ll talk about three areas that you might want to mention.
First, if you have any extra-academic experience that can reasonably be said to provide you with different (better) perspectives on research, those are worth mentioning. Examples are: you majored in physics and want to do philosophy of physics; you worked as a safehouse attendant and want to do feminist philosophy; you do art projects on the side and want to study aesthetics.
Similar to these are extra-curricular philosophy programs you have done, such as high school debate club or special summer schools. Do note that a lot of the philosophical activities you have done will be listed in your CV and most of them are not worth repeating. If you think one or two of them are especially impressive and/or influential to your interest in philosophy, you can mention them briefly.
Second, the PS is usually a place where you can explain any weaknesses in your package. I say “usually” because some schools now provide additional, designated places that allow you to do this, in which case obviously use those instead.
The common weaknesses worth explaining are: low GPA due to health/financial/family related reasons and unexplained post-undergrad gap years. For things like low GPA, it is much better to have your letter writers mention it. If they are not willing or if you don’t quite trust that they’ll do you justice, it is worth spending a couple of sentences explaining it. Don’t dwell on it too much – if the department does care about it, there’s very little you can do to persuade them elsewise.
If your undergrad major was not in philosophy or if you have had a career for quite some time, while not “weaknesses” per se, they still very often warrant an explanation. The best case is if you can tell a story about how these experiences make you a better philosopher. If you can’t, you should at least mention your exposure to philosophy in a little more detail – did you take classes? Go to public lectures? Seek out mentors on your own?
Finally, if there’s something that is just very impressive about you, things that make people go “you wouldn’t believe it but I just read an application by someone who did X” at the pub, it never hurts to briefly mention it.
Tailoring, or the practice of modifying your application material to fit specific programs, can be time consuming. It is unclear how much it actually strengthens your application. Tailoring is incredibly important when applying for jobs or more professional degrees (like law), but it’s not emphasized as much in philosophy graduate applications. I’ve never heard of anyone who thinks that an application is weak because it doesn’t tailor. That said, I’ve also never heard of anyone who thinks tailoring is harmful, other than the potential cost in energy and time. As such, I think it’s a good idea to tailor for a few of your dream programs if you can afford to.
The general advice for tailoring is this: briefly mention one or two special things about their program – strength in a unique sub-field, well-established collaboration with another department, special lecture series, outreach program, etc. – and explain why your research interest can benefit from them.
Mentioning faculty members with whom you might work is a trickier matter. It is standard practice in European systems and in the sciences, but often not expected in North American philosophy. If you do decide to mention some names, my advice is to make it not sound like you wouldn’t go if you couldn’t work with these people (unless, of course, that’s true of you, in which case certainly be honest).
In sum, personal statements are hard to write. Fortunately, admission’s committees seem to understand this. I have heard of a few rumours where people were admitted “in spite of their personal statements”. I certainly do not consider my own personal statement to have been very strong. If you have limited time and energy, it is perhaps more worthwhile to spend it on polishing the writing sample.
Applying to Grad School: What should I say in my Personal Statement?
Responses from survey
In our survey to faculty members, we asked the following question:
What would inspire your confidence in an applicant who does not have a clear research direction in mind?
(Note: some of these answers come from MA programs. Generally, MA programs tend to be more tolerant of students not having a clear research goal. Similarly, PhD programs are sometimes more tolerant of undergrad applicants than of master’s applicants in this respect.)
- A clear sense that you know what you are getting into, applying to graduate school. Have you been reading PHL journals? Do you know what contemporary research in PHL looks like? Can your statement of purpose describe a few different current problems you find interesting, and say why you think our PHL program would be a good place to come and try to solve them, or make progress on them?
- Evidence that the applicant has the ability to focus on a topic–for example, through an excellent writing sample. Having broad interests or being undecided about a particular direction is not problematic, but having lack of focus is. The latter can sometimes manifest itself in the writing sample. A lack of clear research direction combined with a wandering writing sample is a red flag.
- Previous results, but this is definitely a very hard to handicap to overcome in my experience
- Not a problem. This is common. But if they’re organized and responsible, that will help.
- Some way of demonstrating that whatever the person is doing, it’s good.
- We specialize in those students. It is great when students do not have an overly clear research direction in mind when applying. Such students can come into a program with an overly fixed mindset that precludes their growth once they get here. Be genuinely open-minded that the particular topics you currently find fascinating will evolve and change in grad school, even in just two years, and that in fact this is a GOOD thing and not a thing to be avoided. Students with an overly clear research direction might not be as open to learning what we have to teach. Students who are open to learning will naturally find that something starts to shake out as a clear direction after a while.
- For me, this is a very important criterion. In such a case, I would like to understand how the candidate proposes to develop a clear research direction.
- a sufficiently good application otherwise
- Ability to write good papers in a variety of areas.Some way of demonstrating that whatever the person is doing, it’s good.
- In this case you need to have some other sort of evidence that you are good fit for this particular program. I think the ability to point to specific ways of doing philosophy research (e.g. here’s philosopher so-and-so, I really like the general aspect of her work, and I want to do work like that, even if possibly on a different topic) helps to demonstrate that you are serious about pursuing this advanced degree.
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