Friday, June 4, 2010

Insight on Admissions: Impersonal Statements

Previous Posts in This Series:
When our admissions committee sat down to look at an application, we were really looking at 4 things - GRE scores, GPA, letters of recommendation, and so-called “personal statements”. At CU the applicant is asked to upload a pdf or MS Word document with their online application containing a statement of how their previous experiences qualify them for our program and what their future goals are. Most of the other programs I applied to asked for something similar. One difference at CU is that we do not give them any guidance on the length of their statement, so we get everything from a couple paragraphs to much, much more. One individual this year that had a 5 page statement, a CV, and copies of two papers they had been co-authors on for a total of 37 pages. Another was applying for a Fulbright fellowship and decided to include their entire Fulbright application, which was at least 50 pages.

The average statement, however, is about 2-3 pages and in my opinion almost completely useless. That’s not to say, however, that there isn’t an easily noticeable variation in the quality of these statements. In many cases it becomes very clear right away if the applicant has poor writing skills, which in my experience is about half of the applicants. The problem is that the half with poor writing skills are almost without exception also in the half that have poor GRE scores, GPAs, and letters of recommendation. It’s not that the personal statement doesn’t tell you anything about the applicant, rather the personal statement doesn’t tell you anything you don’t already know.

For the half with decent writing skills, 90% of the personal statements go something like this:
  1. Inspiring anecdote showing a childhood love of astronomy/physics/science.
  2. Brief life history
  3. Review of research interests/academic accomplishments
  4. Shameless sucking-up to the school/department/faculty member of choice
Check yours. I did almost exactly that and I’ll bet you a nickel you did too.

Here at CU, and I assume in almost all major physics programs, there are far more applicants than available spaces, thus eliminating the bottom half of the applicant pool is not really what needs to be done. Rather the key is determining who are the best of the best among the applicants. The ability to craft a coherent piece of writing is a given for those top candidates. In this past year’s process, there was only one person whose personal statement was very poor who probably otherwise would have been admitted.

Now that I’ve made some blanket statements, let me tell you the three cases in which I think personal statement have some utility.
  1. They are essential for foreign applicants. If you write that the “University of Colorado executes my hopes”, it’s a safe bet that your language skills are going to be an issue (despite your immaculate TOFEL score).
  2. Personal statements are extremely important if you have had any major abnormalities in your path to graduate school. This could mean that you are 37 and worked as a machinist for 15 years before attending college. It could be you were attending an Ivy League school but transfered to a regional state college in your hometown after your mom was diagnosed with cancer during your junior year. Those things just don’t show up on a transcript.
  3. Some small fraction of letters of recommendation come with almost no background information, so the committee has no idea who the recommender is or how they know the applicant. Personal statements can provide context for these cases.

Despite my opinions, personal statements are here to stay, so here’s my advice on how to write one, if you must. First, don’t start with a paragraph on your high school math class or your uncle’s telescope that you looked through when you were 5. Nobody cares. Just get to the point - what makes you qualified to attend our program? Second, clearly state who your recommenders are and why they know you. Third, openly address anything unique about your path to grad school. If you scored in the 95% on the physics GRE but got C’s in your freshman physics classes, tell us why and BE HONEST. If you have sensitive personal issues, don’t feel like you need to go into details - simply give us the big picture. No on wants to read a list of your prescriptions or the details of your love life. Finally, have someone else proofread your statement several times. Typos - especially misspellings - just show that you don’t really care.


  1. You know it's funny. The first time I applied to graduate schools, I wrote exactly what you've described. After working at a National Laboratory for 2 years, then applying, I actually wrote what you recommend. I just looked through my personal statements and they are short, narrowly focused, and very emphatically stated. There is no anecdotes, no sucking up, and no life history outside of describing my previous research.

    Perhaps my letters actually helped me get in, since I don't think my grades and test scores naturally would have gotten me into such a great university.

  2. jmb275,

    I would bet that having worked at a national lab for 2 years made a much bigger difference than your personal statement, but I'm sure they appreciated not having to read about your 4th grade science project.


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