Whether for an undergraduate program, a post-doctoral program or anything other form of education, admissions essays and personal statements are crucial elements of any application. They can distinguish an applicant in a virtual sea of other candidates with similar qualifications. Properly executed, the right essay or personal statement can minimize problematic aspects of a resume or an application, and make any candidate stand out.
So, what makes a good personal statement? A good admissions essay? The specifics vary from one program to another and at different levels of academic and professional life, so the first ingredient to a good essay is a strong understanding of one’s audience.
Beyond that, though, there are two elements that make a really good admissions essay: one is the science, or craft, of writing, and the other is art –personal expression shaped and manipulated for the greatest effect.
The well-crafted admissions essay answers several questions and begins with their careful consideration. Who are you and what are your ambitions? What can you do and what do you want to be able to do in the course of the program? After it concludes, what will you do with what you have learned? Why do you want to do this? Many students have a difficult time deciding on a subject for their essay; but carefully considering these questions should provide an idea. There is no “right” subject for an admissions essay – at least not beyond what is right for each individual student. What an essay is about is secondary. It matters less that a student write about one particular topic than that that topic is well-expressed and honest.
One of the most common complaints from professors, employers, and admissions officers who work with students in the sciences is that many do not put enough effort to their writing on either technical or creative levels. Writing a well-thought out, organized essay and demonstrating a willingness and ability to communicate will counter this stereotype, helping the applicant as a candidate for admission and working against the unfair idea that scientific achievement necessarily impedes communications skills. It shows effort and organization, both of which are invaluable in STEM fields, and the ability to communicate ideas and results.
The art of writing an admissions essay, of expressing something personal as it applies to a professional or academic field, is somewhat trickier. The key, which is perhaps easier said than done, is establishing a real connection. The essay should not just be about the writer’s ambitions or abilities, or about the university or department’s good qualities, but about a meeting of the two. Any applicant should consider what he or she wants to accomplish, why, and how the program in question will contribute to that. Conversely, what will they bring to the program, as a student and beyond?
“Be yourself” is usually disingenuous and unhelpful advice, especially in this area. How can one be anyone else, and what exactly does it mean? It is not advice offered here. Instead, we will offer an alternative: