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Ingredients of a personal statement

Regardless of where you apply for graduate education, your application is guaranteed to ask for a statement as to why you in particular are a good fit for the program. These statements go by many names, commonly the Personal Statement or Statement of Purpose, and all entail crafting a careful concoction to describe to the admissions committee why you are an excellent candidate for the program. 

Where to begin on a recipe this complex? Here we’ll walk through some of the ingredients that the Through the Porthole writing team found in common between our own applications to the MIT-WHOI Joint Program, as well as feedback from Woods Hole Oceanographic faculty on what they personally find grabs their attention in an application. You can find quotes from faculty through this link, and their thoughts are incorporated into our five key ingredients. We hope that these tips will help you cook up a delicious personal statement!


  • Grit & overcoming obstacles

Graduate school is hard. Depending on your area of study, you will face some mix of challenges with fieldwork, inevitable failures in the lab, and the impersonalness of the peer-review process when publishing your science. This is completely normal and you will have many peers to commiserate (and celebrate) with over your time as a grad student. In the personal statement, it can be incredibly valuable to describe specific situations in which you have shown true grit and determination in the face of obstacles. It can feel intimidating to share stories that may begin by describing a time in which you felt that your performance didn’t match your desired outcome. These stories aren’t always academic, so really dig down and consider times when you’ve felt you overcame something that was incredibly hard for you. Telling the story of how you were able to work hard to overcome a perceived “failure” can give your future advisor a taste of how you will perform as a scientist when the inevitable difficulties of primary research come knocking at your door. 


  • Intrinsic personal curiosity and motivation

One of the biggest changes in graduate school is that you will need to be your own best motivator. Have you felt personal gratification in completing a task or understanding a new concept? Talk about it. When has a topic grabbed your curiosity and motivated you to learn more, perhaps requiring you to seek out information or study in new ways? Describe that experience. Telling the story of specific instances in which you felt a drive to figure something out in the pursuit of curiosity will help potential advisors see how your brain engages with science and research. Intrinsic validation, in which you feel personal motivation because of a feeling of satisfaction from your work, is a key aspect of being a scientist. It is a skill that can be learned, and highlighting the ways in which you have already engaged this skill is an excellent addition to any personal statement. 


  • Examples of prior research experience

Unlike undergraduate education, many STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) graduate education paths are ultimately about working as a researcher in some capacity. In many cases, coursework comprises an important, but secondary, aspect of that education. Therefore, if you’ve done research as an undergraduate, highlight it! What made you love that research? What aspects of the project were incredibly engaging and made you want to understand more? How did those experiences lead you to want to study your chosen field for graduate school? Be specific. It is easy to wax poetic about your love for (in my case) the ocean. If it feels like a good fit, by all means, include a little of that. However, the vast majority of people who apply to an oceanographic program likely love the ocean, and it is important to specifically state both why you want to study a certain thing and why the particular program you’re applying to will allow you to achieve that goal. Tailor this statement to each institution.

A note about what to do if you don't have formal research experience: While having previous research experience can be highly valuable and advantageous, it is important to note that not everyone has access to formal research opportunities prior to applying to graduate school. You can use your personal statement to explain what you have learned from less formal research experiences, such as jobs, lab-based projects, and volunteer positions! By elaborating on your unique experiences (whether formal or informal) you can show that you understand what research is and why you want to pursue a graduate degree.


  • Book smarts

For some faculty, grades will be very important. For others, a decent grade record that shows increasing aptitude will be of more value (did you get a C in freshman calculus and an A in differential equations senior year? Fantastic, share that!). Regardless, your grades can be a place to highlight overcoming a difficult topic that you worked hard to understand, or a place to acknowledge a consistently high performance in your coursework, or a place to give context to grades that may not reflect your true aptitude and pivot to concurrent research experience that better displays your strengths. Wherever you’re at, tell the story of those experiences that best highlight the strengths you value most in yourself!  


  • Authenticity

As you mull over how to incorporate some, all, or none, of these aspects into your personal statement, it’s important to consider how they actually align with your lived experience as a young scientist. While you can certainly game the system and write the “perfect” personal statement for your application, we encourage you to write genuinely, and above all, with authenticity. Only you know how you approach your work and the challenges that arise to face you, and being truthful to what works for you is a critical aspect of any strong personal statement.  


Read more of Through the Porthole Issue #4

Learn more about Through the Porthole

Learn more about the MIT-WHOI Joint Program