Six Tips for Writing Your Grad School Personal Statement

Don’t be overwhelmed by writing your personal statement. By following these six tips, you can successfully tell your story and explain why you’re an excellent fit for the particular graduate school program.

1. Give yourself enough time.

Writing is a process. The personal statement may only be around 1,000 words, but you will still need time to develop and polish your essay. Give yourself at least a few months to brainstorm, write a rough draft, edit the draft, and elicit feedback from mentors and friends, particularly if you dislike writing or find it difficult.

2. Define your personal narrative.

Everybody has their own “story.” Personally, I have always enjoyed neuroscience, but I initially pursued a medical career before I realized I was more interested in biomedical research.

In my essay, I used this narrative to highlight my experiences in science-related fields and link them to my current research interests. Your story might involve a particular course, individual, or experience that made you interested in the field of neuroscience.

3. Identify what makes you stand out from the candidate pool.

Admissions committees often read tens, if not hundreds, of applications every cycle. The personal statement is an opportunity for you to highlight what makes you unique. This might be related to your personal story (see above), but it doesn’t have to be.

My experiences in science policy, writing, and health care economics set me apart from the traditional neuroscience graduate school applicant, so I made sure to emphasize these experiences in my essay. You might have extensive research experience, a unique undergraduate field of study, distinctive training or participation in specialized shadowing, or come from a diverse background.

4. Be specific: Show, don’t tell.

When you’re explaining why your previous experiences have prepared you for graduate school, it is tempting to simply tell admissions committees that you are hardworking or creative. However, it is much more effective to show admissions committees that you have desirable characteristics through specific anecdotes.

For example, instead of saying that you are hardworking, you could write about how you published a first-author paper while maintaining a full-time course load. Or you can demonstrate your resilience by mentioning that you retook organic chemistry after receiving a poor grade — and received an A.

5. Personalize each statement for the school/program.

Although most of your personal statement can be reused for different programs, it is important to include a section that is customized to each school. In this section, you should address why you want to attend the program. If you’re having trouble identifying why you want to attend a particular program, you should research what makes the program unique and make a personal connection to that feature.

For example, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, where I’m currently pursuing my PhD, emphasizes translational research and non-traditional careers, which interested me because of my previous experience in science writing and policy.

For more information on how to research graduate programs, see my previous articles on How to Find a Neuroscience Graduate Program That Matches Your Research Interests and 5 Factors to Consider (Besides Research) When Applying to Graduate Programs. Also check out SfN’s directory of neuroscience departments and programs.

6. Omit typos or simple grammatical mistakes.

This should go without saying, but your essay should be aesthetically flawless. A typo may seem trivial to you, but to admissions committees, it indicates that you are careless or that you did not put sufficient time or effort into crafting your personal statement. Neither of those interpretations will benefit you.

What tips do you have for writing personal statements for graduate school? Did any of these tips help you? Let us know in the comments section.

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Kavya Devarakonda
Kavya Devarakonda is a second-year neuroscience PhD student at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Sparking Global Conversations Around Neuroscience