Applying to Grad School: What should I say in my Personal Statement?

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.

4 thoughts on “Applying to Grad School: What should I say in my Personal Statement?

  1. Having served on grad admissions at two places, this seems to me to be excellent advice. I agree with every bit of it. One small thing, just strengthening one of the points you make: be very careful about how/if you “name names” regarding who you might be interested in working with.

    There are errors on the side of over-inclusion: you mention people who (a) are never around or are not taking on new students or are leaving, or (b) are not really working on the topics you are in interested in any more. Knowing either (a) or (b) can require a lot of very current local knowledge, and while you can’t be blamed for not having it, it can make us worry about your interest/fit in the program if it turns out (a) or (b) is the situation.

    And there are errors on the side of under-inclusion: you don’t mention people who (c) are working in the area and (d) might be offended (we all have our frail egos…) not to be mentioned and who might be reading your file. You can sometimes be blamed for not knowing (c), but not always, if people’s interests don’t align perfectly with what they have already published, etc.

    All of this makes it kind of dicey to name people, rather than areas. And I don’t see much upside to “naming names,” given that you shouldn’t get so much credit for being able to identify who works on what topics…

  2. Programs want people who are likely to succeed in completing their graduate work on time and getting hired in the profession. But if you eat, drink and sleep philosophy you’ll come across as someone who is not well-rounded, or, worse, as someone who is unbalanced! So, mention (one sentence will do) other interests: from cooking to camping to children–DO mention that you compete in chili cook-offs, or go camping and forage for wild edibles, or volunteer at the local library to read books at storytime on Saturday mornings. Hobbies and non-academic interests show that you are a well-rounded human being, not some nut case who is seeking nirvana through the study of Nietzsche.

  3. Dr. Pynn, thank you for the thoughtful comments on preparing a statement of purpose. As you are in the position of interacting with students both applying to enter MA programs as well as students moving on to PhD programs, I’m curious: Would your advice remain the same for students writing statements of purpose directed at MA programs, or would you tweak any of your emphases above?

  4. Hi Connor, good question. I would say in general for MA applicants it is less important to have a detailed and specific statement describing your interests than it is for a doctoral program, but that may vary from program to program (some departments, eg Georgia State, have fellowships reserved for people working in specific areas, and if I were applying to such a program and had the relevant interests, I would definitely play that up in my statement). But speaking just about us, everyone will be required to take a broad range of courses, which we expect them to approach with equal gusto across the board, and there is no thesis requirement, so you aren’t going to develop any long term research relationships with your professors here. So while evincing some familiarity with the general thrust of our department (contemporary “analytic” philosophy, faculty who work in epistemology, ethics, language, metaphysics, and philosophy of science) and expressing an interest in stuff within that broad purview is good, we aren’t worried about whether your interests align with the research interests of our faculty. Hence concerns about “fit” are somewhat less important for us.

    On all the other points I would say yes, my advice remains the same.

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