by Geoff Pynn
As the graduate adviser for my department’s terminal MA program at NIU, I answer a lot of questions about applying to PhD programs in philosophy. I feel pretty confident about my answers to most of them. But there is one question about which I don’t feel confident at all:
What should I say in my personal statement?
Departmental websites tend to be pretty vague about what they’re looking for in this part of the application. “[I]f you can tell us a bit more about your background and interests, this information might be helpful,” Yale advises. Rutgers asks for “a short essay on why you are interested in applying to your program.” These instructions are pretty representative.
Since now is the time of year when prospective applicants start to worry about these things, I thought it would be useful to share the general advice I give in response to this question, and find out how it squares with the expectations and experiences of the people reading them. If it’s terrible advice, I’d like to know! And if it’s good advice, it seems worth sharing with others. So, here goes:
Do no harm
This should be your guiding principle. A great personal statement is unlikely to make the difference between your application being accepted and being rejected, but a terrible personal statement might result in a borderline application being moved to the reject pile. People on admissions committees will pay significantly closer attention to your writing sample, grades, test scores, and letters of recommendation. Taking risks in your writing sample can pay off; taking risks in your personal statement is unlikely to help and may very well hurt.
Be concise and substantive
Less than one double-spaced page is probably too short; anything more than three full double-spaced pages is probably too long. Don’t waste time on platitudes about how much you love philosophy, how deeply you cherish the life of the mind, what a privilege it would be to join the department at X, etc. Everybody reading your statement already assumes those things are true. Why else would you be applying to their program? Make each sentence count; don’t make your reader feel like she has to work to get to the point.
Be specific, but non-committal, about your interests
Describe your philosophical interests honestly, intelligently, and in specific terms. Don’t just say you’re interested in epistemology (for example); say what problems or topics in epistemology interest you and why. If you can, show you know something about what is going on in the field, talk about your best paper or conference presentation on relevant questions, and describe some issues and arguments you’d like to work on further. If you wrote a thesis that lays a groundwork for future research, it can be good to describe it. But don’t give the impression that you already know what you’re going to argue in your dissertation. You’ll have two years of coursework and probably another year or two of guided research before your dissertation topic is even settled. Departments aren’t interested in applicants who don’t think they have anything to learn.
Show you’ve done your homework, but only if you really have
If there is a particular researcher or group you’re excited about at the department, talk about this. But only do this if your excitement is based on real knowledge of what those folks are actually doing — ideally knowledge acquired by reading their work, seeing them give talks, having conversations with them, talking with your own professors, etc. Do not just copypaste the names of all the people who work in your areas from the department website and proclaim your excitement about working with them. This makes you look like a bullshitter.
In my experience, students invest the most time and energy into trying to sell their interests as a good fit to the most prestigious, competitive departments to which they’re applying. This is not an unreasonable strategy, but I think you can expect more bang for your homework buck by researching the departments that may not be your top choices. Just about everybody applying to NYU with an interest in metaphysics is going to talk about Kit Fine; you won’t stand out by showing off what you know about his work on vagueness or grounding. There are brilliant philosophers doing fascinating, exciting work at all of the departments you’re likely to consider, even the places you might think of as your “safety” schools. You can make a great impression by showing that you’re familiar with what’s going on at somewhat lower-prestige programs, and evincing genuine enthusiasm about them.
If you have a compelling history or relevant personal background, mention it, but don’t disclose too much
If you’ve had to overcome significant hurdles to make it where you are today, it can be helpful to tell your story (briefly). If there is some cool, interesting, memorable element of your personal history, feel free to work it into the statement. (I still remember the applicant who grew up in a travelling circus!) If you have a non-standard background — you’re in the midst of changing careers or fields, you aren’t currently enrolled in a philosophy degree program, or you didn’t graduate from one within the last few years — say what led you to philosophy and how your background prepares you to succeed in graduate school.
However, be cautious about disclosing too much personal information. I’ve read statements from applicants describing their struggles with addiction, eating disorders, mental health problems, appearances before disciplinary boards, family troubles, and run-ins with the law. Personally, I am drawn to people who have dealt with these kinds of struggles, so these stories tend to make me like the applicants more. But that attitude is not universally shared! There are some tricky moral and legal issues here, but you should avoid giving the admissions committee reason to worry that you are going to have trouble completing the program, or become a “problem” student.
On the other hand, if your personal situation is directly relevant to the academic work you want to do, it would probably be helpful to talk about it. So, for example, if you want to work on the philosophy of disability, and you have a disability, it would probably be helpful to discuss how your own experience as a person with a disability has shaped this interest, if it has. But even in a case like this, you would do well to talk with a trusted advisor, preferably someone who is also writing one of your recommendation letters, when thinking about how to frame your personal story. Unless they are directly relevant to your interests, avoid discussion of your political views or religious beliefs (and even if they are, err on the side of caution).
Unless it’s major, avoid the temptation to explain any weaknesses in your application
Perhaps your Verbal GRE score is low. Though many philosophers say that they do not care about GRE scores, my inductive evidence strongly suggests that many do. A poor GRE score is likely to hurt your chances, at least at some programs. But attempting to explain this problem away in your personal statement (“I have always struggled with standardized tests…”) is almost certainly not going to help. Moreover, it may hurt by calling attention to something the people reading your application may not have been worried about before. One exception to this piece of advice is when there is a major problem with your academic record; e.g., if you got terrible grades in most of your classes one semester because of a medical emergency or family tragedy. Then it is worth explaining the situation briefly, again keeping in mind the advice above about not disclosing too much. If you can, you should discuss how to discuss major issues like this with your recommendation letter writers. The assurances they can provide in their letters that the issue does not reflect your abilities or current situation may be more valuable than your own.
Miscellania: be professional but humble; be polished; don’t be cutesy
You should come across as an early career academic, a self-driven grown-up who can be expected to meet the demands of an exacting program. You should not come across as someone who thinks they are the next Wittgenstein, or as someone who regards themselves as an academic peer with the people reading your application. Don’t refer to your professors or those at the program by their first names, even if you know them and would do so in person; be deferential and respectful. Keep in mind that whatever else it does, your personal statement provides further evidence about your writing skills, so ask at least one person who is a good writer to carefully proofread your statement. Don’t be jokey, self-deprecating, or overly clever. Remember the guiding principle: do no harm.
Don’t mention your two-or-more-body problem
It’s best not to call attention to the fact that your ultimate decision about where to attend graduate school will depend in part upon your significant other’s (or others’) decisions, even if this is true. (This is the piece of advice I am least confident about.)
These are only meant as general guidelines. I am certain that some applicants have been helped by personal statements that violate all of them! And as I said before, I’m not especially confident in them: they seem plausible, and the people I’ve asked about them tend to agree, but it is hard to know. I’m quite interested to hear what others think.
Let us know in the comments section below!
Geoff Pynn is associate professor of philosophy at Northern Illinois University, where he has been the graduate adviser for the department’s terminal MA program since 2011.
English Language and Literature
University of Northern Iowa
I would guess virtually all grad-school applicants, when they write their first draft of the statement of purpose, will get it wrong. Much of what you have learned about writing and also about how to present yourself will lead you astray. For example, here's an opening to a typical first draft:
|I am applying to the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at the University of Okoboji because I believe my writing will blossom at your program since it is a place where I will be challenged and I can hone my writing skills.|
How's that? It's clear, it's direct, and it "strokes" the MFA program, right? Wrong. All of it is obvious and extraneous.
The admissions committee knows you are applying to their MFA program because everyone in the stacks of applications they are reading is applying for the same thing. The admissions committee will also know that your writing will "blossom" there since they feel they have a strong program. Of course you will be challenged — all undergrads going on to a grad program will be challenged, no matter how well-prepared they think they are. And of course the new grad student will "hone [her] writing skills" — isn't that the main purpose of the MFA program?
Let's assume the required length of this particular program's statement of purpose is 300 words. Well, with this opening you will have used up 15% of your space saying virtually nothing. 15%!
In fact, not only is this opening paragraph obvious, extraneous, and space-stealing, it's boring! Imagine who's reading this and where: five professors "locked" in a room with 500 applications. Do you think this opening paragraph will command their attention? Will they read the rest of this statement of purpose with an open mind that this applicant is the kind of student they want? Will they remember this application later? You be the judge.
Remember what you learned in first-year composition? You need a "hook."
A former student of mine applying to enter a master's program in library science had a great hook. I don't remember Susan's exact words, but the opening paragraph of her statement of purpose went something like this:
|When I was eleven, my great-aunt Gretchen passed away and left me something that changed my life: a library of about five thousand books. Some of my best days were spent arranging and reading her books. Since then, I have wanted to be a librarian.|
Okay ... it's clear, it's direct, it's 45 words, and, most important, it tells the admissions committee about Susan's almost life-long passion not just for books but for taking care of books. When the committee starts to discuss their "best picks," don't you think they'll remember her as "the young woman who had her own library"? Of course they will, because having had their own library when they were eleven would probably be a cherished fantasy for each of them!
Suppose Susan had written this opening paragraph instead:
|I am honored to apply for the Master of Library Science program at the University of Okoboji because as long as I can remember I have had a love affair with books. Since I was eleven I have known I wanted to be a librarian.|
That's 45 words too. Do you think the admissions committee will remember this application among the 500 applications they are wading through? Probably more than half of the applications, maybe a lot more than half, will open with something very similar. Many will say they "have had a love affair with books" — that phrase may sound passionate until you've read it a couple of hundred times.
All of us have had some event, some experience, like my student's personal library at eleven, which drives us toward the discipline(s) we inhabit. I was speaking to a group of students recently about this. One student — let's call her Jennifer — said she wanted to get a master's degree in speech therapy. When I asked her why, Jennifer said she had taken a class in it for fun and really loved it. But then I pressed her: was there some personal reason she found that field significant enough to spend her whole life doing it? At first Jennifer said no, but after more questioning she revealed that her brother had speech problems. This was a discovery to her; she had not entered the field with that connection in mind — at least not consciously. But there it was; Jennifer now had her hook.
You have to really dig. Be introspective. Don't settle for "I love this field." Why do you love this field? Why do you want to work in this field for the rest of your life? Why does it complete you? Cut through the bull you tell your parents and relatives and friends. What is your truth? Find it and then find a memorable way to say it. Grad schools require the statement of purpose not only because they want to find about you as an applicant, they want you to really think about why you are taking such a life-changing step — truly and profoundly why.
Okay, back to the scene of the five professors surrounded by stacks of applications, maybe more than 500. Do you know who they are? What they want? What they like to eat? Obviously, no. Conversely, do they know you? Well, no. But ... the statement of purpose is your chance to help them get to know you! Your statement of purpose should portray you as a person, not just an application among hundreds of others. Not just paper and ink.
Here's one way to do it. When I was an undergrad senior first applying for grad schools, I knew a grad student — I'll call him Nigel — who told me he had written a three-sentence statement of purpose to get into Stanford:
|I want to teach English at the university level. To do this, I need a PhD. That is why I am applying.|
That was the whole thing. That's only half of 45 words. It certainly portrays Nigel as brash, risk-taking, no-nonsense, even arrogant. If this is how you want to portray yourself, then by all means do this. But you should also know that Nigel's statement of purpose is an all-or-nothing proposition. You can bet there will be members of probably any admissions committee who will find Nigel's statement of purpose offensive, even disrespectful. And they might not want such a student at their school. But then I suppose Nigel wouldn't want to be a student at that school, either.
Try to make your paper-and-ink self come alive. Don't just say, "I used to work on an assembly line in a television factory, and one day I decided that I had to get out of there, so I went to college to save my own life." How about this: "One Thursday, I had soldered the 112th green wire on the same place on the 112th TV remote, and I realized the solder fumes were rotting my brain. I decided college would be my salvation." Both 35 words. Which narrative do you think will keep the admissions committee reading?
Tell stories (briefly). Use vivid language. Be specific. Be dynamic. Liven up a moment in the lives of those five professors trapped with those 500 applications. Maybe 600. Maybe more.
At the same time, be careful not to be glib. Don't be slick. Don't write your application in a sequence of haiku. Don't put in photos. Just be yourself, but a more heightened version of yourself in words (since face-to-face nuance and gestures won't be there to help).
Remember your statement of purpose should portray you as (1) passionately interested in the field; (2) intelligent;(3) well-prepared academically and personally; (4) able to take on the challenges of grad school; (5) able to have rapport with professors and fellow grad students — in other words, collegial; (6) able to finish the graduate degree in a timely fashion; and (7) a potentially outstanding representative of that grad school in your future career.
That's a lot to cover in a few hundred words (the length of a statement purpose, as required by different schools, tends to be around 300 to 1000 words). "Passionate interest in the field" will be covered by the kind of hook I have described above. "Intelligence" will be conveyed by the overall writing, organization, expression, etc. of your statement. Being "well-prepared" can be demonstrated by using the lingo of the field (theory, craft, etc.), describing the specific kinds of coursework and other accomplishments you have in the field. Ability "to take on the challenges of grad school" can be shown by describing the rigor of the work you have done. "Collegiality" is not particularly important but is nevertheless a factor — if you can show yourself as a generally nice and cooperative person, that will do — just be true to your own style. Ability "to finish the graduate program" can be conveyed implicitly by your success thus far and more explicitly if you can tell some (brief) story about adverse obstacles you have overcome. Being a "future outstanding representative" can be implied by your being an outstanding representative of your undergraduate school — for example, don't "bad-mouth" your current college or professors.
Often, grad schools will ask you to address other or similar qualities as I've listed above. Just use common sense in focusing on each. Don't address them in the same order as the grad school has listed. Combine them; rearrange them; do whatever you need to do to show yourself as an imaginative person, not a parrot following a line of Brazil nuts to crack.
If you have some problematic academic background, address that as well to reassure the admissions committee. For example, let's say that you got all C's one semester. Take a (brief) paragraph to explain that you had some emotional setback that semester but then demonstrate how your grades have been sterling since then, and that you now have a 3.83 grade-point average in the discipline. If you spin this well, your story will enhance the admissions committee's image of you as someone with the abilities to "take on challenges" and "to finish on time."
Here's an organization I would recommend: (1) passionate hook; (2) segué to your background in the field; (3) specific classes by title and professors you have had (especially if well-known in the field); (4) related extracurricular activities (especially if they hint at some personal quality you want to convey); (5) any publications or other professional accomplishments in the field (perhaps conference presentations or public readings); (6) explanations about problems in your background (if needed); and (7) why you have chosen this grad school (name one or two professors and what you know of their specific areas or some feature of the program which specifically attracts you).
I should probably expand on item 7. This is a practical issue as well. If you are applying to ten grad schools, it's a mismanagement of time to write ten separate, tailored statements of purpose. Items 1 through 6 above can be exactly the same for all the statements. Then when you get to item 7, put in a different paragraph for each school. Remember this means the ten statements will all be as long, in terms of word count, as the shortest required length among the ten schools. If the shortest length is 300 words, probably that length will be okay for the 500-word school (in fact the admissions committee at the 500-word place may see you as savvy for not going on and on). But those 300 words will clearly not work for the 1200-word school, so you'll need to expand that one. Don't pad. Find other engaging material in your background.
About mentioning professors at each grad school: doing this will portray you as someone "who has done her homework," as someone who is genuinely interested in the field, enough to have done some prefatory work in that area. Don't just mention their names (anyone who can browse a web site can do that). Say something of substance about each professor by name, something that reveals you know and appreciate that person's work. Don't necessarily pick the most famous professor at the grad school; chances are many other applicants will do the same, and the admissions committee members will soon be unconsciously filtering those mentions out. (Besides, the most famous professor doesn't always work with all graduate students or may be out of town half the year, and you may come off as naive if you say you're looking forward to working with her.) Find a lesser-known professor whose work truly intrigues you (and truly is the operational word here). Then say something about what you know of that professor's work — remember that person may be on the admissions committee. Don't suck up — don't be a sycophant. Be fair and honest.
Be sure to show your statement of purpose to several professors. Remember they will have different ideas about what constitutes an appropriate and effective statement of purpose. If one of your professors has a connection with a specific grad school, she may have some inside knowledge about what kind of statement of purpose will work best at that school. Make your final editing decisions based on what will convey you most accurately as you see it. Again, be specific, be dynamic, come alive on paper. Continue to get advice from your professors on later drafts.
Proofread your statement of purpose. Copyedit for consistency, accuracy, and style. Ask your friends to copyedit and proofread your statement; perhaps you can do the same for them if they are also applying for grad school.
Remember that style in writing can be parallel to style in dress: the second affects your image in person while the first affects your image when you may not be present. Leaving in typos and misplaced commas is like dressing in your grubbies for a coat-and-tie / cocktail dress event. Being too wordy is comparable to dressing in an evening gown or a tuxedo for a casual get-together. Being too glib, too mannered, may be like wearing a furry rabbit costume to a party which turns out not to be a Halloween bash. Be careful. Be a perfectionist.
Keep working on your statement of purpose even after you have sent it to the school(s) with the earlier deadline(s). You might have a later epiphany about your personal and academic background, your motives for applying for grad school, your long-term plans, and this epiphany may be just the thing that gets you into the school(s) with the later deadline(s).
To close, the statement of purpose, in the eyes of Department Heads, Program Chairs, and Admissions Committee members, can be the most important document in the application. Other parts of your graduate-school application — test scores, transcripts, letters of recommendation, writing samples — do not say as much about you as a person as the statement of purpose can: your proudest accomplishments alongside your fondest hopes and dreams.
Checklist for Writing a Statement of Purpose
Vince Gotera | University of Northern Iowa
|[ ]||Organization ... |
|[ ]||A "hook" that demonstrates your passion for the field |
|[ ]||Segué to your background in the field |
|[ ]||Description of your academic background in the field |
|[ ]||Specific classes you have taken, given by name |
|[ ]||Specific professors you have had, especially if well-known in that field |
|[ ]||Extracurricular activities in the field |
|[ ]||Publications or other professional accomplishments in the field (perhaps conference presentations or public readings) |
|[ ]||Explanations about problems in background (if needed) |
|[ ]||Explanation of why you have chosen the specific grad school |
|[ ]||Mention one or two professors in that school and what you know of and appreciate about their work |
|[ ]||Specific features of the grad program which attract you |
|[ ]||Get advice from several of your professors — philosophical advice as well as specific writing advice |
|[ ]||Proofread and copyedit; ask friends to proofread and copyedit as well |
|[ ]||Keep working on the statement of purpose, even after you have already sent it to school(s) with earlier deadline(s) |