A part of the typical graduate school application is the “essay” or personal statement

I also did this, when I were a wee lad.

I came from Europe, but for obscure historical reasons was mostly applying to universities in the US.
Upon reading the application forms, I found a small box which said something to the effect of “tell us why you want to go to grad school”.
It was, typically, a very small box.
Because US application deadlines were, much to my surprise, much earlier than typical European deadlines, I was in a bit of a rush.

So I wrote, in #2 pencil of course: “I like physics. I have a lot more physics to learn.”

Bit verbose, but I managed to fit it in the boxes and it was more or less legible.
– I think one university form had a Box of Unusual Size, so I added on that one only “It seems like Institute X is a good place to learn physics”, the other forms did not leave enough room for that.

A bit later a friend of mine asked to see one of my applications, so I showed her, and after she stopped screaming, she explained that this was meant to be an 1-2 page essay, explaining my motivation and interests and passion.
Oh, said I.
Well, write one and attach, how many applications do you have.
Well, a few, but I already mailed them. This one (to Prestigious Fancy Pants University) is the last one.
Argh. Well write one for that.
So I did.

They rejected me. That they then rejected me twice more for postdoc is a coincidence I am sure (they had no openings as I recall when I was applying for faculty).
All the other US universities I had applied to admitted me.
I don’t know if those ever read my “essay”. I am sure the Fancy Pants University people did.
I don’t think I mentioned Bob Dylan though.
This is a true story though.

In the meantime, if you seek effective and pragmatic advice on the issue, go read the Female Science Professor

Ok, I don’t actually advocate writing what I did. If nothing else it’d be plagiarism, and I suspect that this is like the “No” as an answer to an essay question, it amuses once and after that it just annoys people. But, if in doubt, err on the terse and to the point side and go light on the poetry, childhood memories or defining moment.

We want to know how you did in advanced E&M, whether you took enough serious math classes, and whether you will pull all-nighters to get a project finished and a paper written, and then stick with it despite having to do crap like that. . That is what you need to convey.
And that you liked it.


  1. #1 mihos
    January 30, 2008

    I disagree a bit. On the essay, I don’t want to know how you did in advanced E&M, or whether or not you took serious math classes. I know that already from your transcript. If the transcript doesn’t reflect your preparation accurately, I do want to know *that* (“Yes, I got a C- in Quantum Mechanics II, but that’s because they taught it in Sanskrit, for crying out loud.”)

    What *I* look for is whether or not you can speak science, ideally by telling me about your research experience. What did you do? Why is it an interesting project? What were the results? What skills did you bring to bear? What kind of research are you interested in doing in graduate school? Why?

    And what I mean by “speak science” is can you convey these ideas in a way that is intelligible to an educated (but not expert) audience. That is, I don’t want to see a “it’s interesting because mankind has always wondered about the sky” kind of essay, and I also don’t want to suddenly find myself in the middle of an essay about absorption cross-sections and radiative diffusion in Ap stars without any context.

    And I really, really, really don’t give a damn about you always wanting to look at the stars ever since you were three years old. That’s a warm-and-fuzzy story to tell your mom, but I need to hear whether you can do science…


  2. #2 Janne
    January 30, 2008

    Chris, the problem as I see it, is how can a free-form essay actually convey whether you can do science or not? What it shows is whether you (or the ghost-writer you hire if your family has the dough) can compose a readable text _about_ doing science, not whether you’d actually have any ability doing so. It’s a great data-point for someone aspiring to be a science writer, perhaps, and some indication as to whether you’ll be able to string together a readable paper.

    I can probably write a decent essay about the experience of pregnancy and giving birth, but seeing as how I am male that obviously does not give a reliable indication as to how I would do if I actually tried to get pregnant.

  3. #3 mihos
    January 30, 2008

    Sure, Janne, I agree that the essay wont tell me if you can do science. That’s what I hope to get out of the grades and letters. If someone writes a great essay, but has poor grades and poor letters, I’m not interested in their application.

    My point is that I believe that being able to communicate your science well is very important, and if I see that someone doesn’t communicate well, that makes me think twice about accepting them into the program. Particularly if I have in my other hand another application with good grades, good letters, AND a well written essay.

    Ultimately it’s a flawed system — reading an application package (grades, letters, writing all together) will never tell you absolutely whether or not someone can succeed. But, we have to work with the information that’s in front of us.

  4. #4 Chris
    January 30, 2008

    (Not the same Chris as before)

    Back to the topic of Steinn’s anecdote, I did something somewhat similar for my undergraduate application essays. I was a bit tired of the attitudes of my circle of friends, who were being pressured by their parents to apply and be accepted at all the Ivys. They had all gone to SAT prep classes and had been coached on how to write the best focus-group-tested Miss-America-pageant-answer type essays (“I want to come to your school because it is the best avenue for me to achieve my goal of ending world hunger”). Everyone was digging out the family typewriter to type their essays, because the conventional wisdom was handwriting anything was a certain path to doom.

    My girlfriend (who had *really* overbearing parents) outright told me that unless I typed my essays, no college would be willing to accept me.

    So, I handwrote my essays, and to be even more insufferable, the *topic* of my essay for Notre Dame’s application was this one — I wrote about how sad it was that my graduating class felt that typing an essay was a requirement for getting in to college.

    I got in to ND, but went to Penn State anyway, where at the time they didn’t even require an essay.

  5. #5 Janne
    January 31, 2008

    Chris, agree on communicating being important – and after reviewed some conference submissions just recently I _really_ agree.

    But then, asking for an essay about them doing science may not be the best subject. It is after all something they almost by definition know rather little about. Better in that case to ask applicants to find a paper in the field they want to work in, and write a two or three-page popular summary and explanation of it as they see it, and turn it in together with the original paper. That would probably reflect the applicants’ ability to write about science (rather than writing about doing science) better; it would test their ability to read and absorb science writing; and their approach to the task would probably also tell you something about their view of the science field in general.

  6. #6 mihos
    January 31, 2008


    Maybe you misunderstood (or I explained poorly) what I mean about “doing science” — I meant pretty much what you just described: pick a paper/project, explain it (the background/context, what was done, what the results are, why it’s important, etc), etc. But I’m looking for it to be a project that they’ve worked on — ie their undergraduate research experience.

    Nearly all students applying to our graduate program have done undergraduate research, so they should be able to do that. If they *haven’t* done any research, then I agree your model (picking something from the literature) works well. But I find it a rarity, at least in my field, to get applications from students who have had no undergraduate research experience.


  7. #7 Steinn Sigurdsson
    February 1, 2008

    I worry a bit about the push to have undergrads do research – most ugrad research is not quite the same as long term grad projects, necessarily. In some fraction of cases the ugrad research also puts people off, although better to know sooner than later, assuming most of those would not enjoy grad research either… but undergrad should primarily be about preparation and aptitude (including aptitude to soak up the workload).

    From my perspective the “essay” ought to primarily inform me that the applicant is enthusiastic about something, and secondarily that they have some notion of what they are getting into.
    I’m a cynic on undergrads knowing what field they really want to get into, some do, but that may be primarily due to their limited exposure to the opportunities.
    Some notion of theory vs observation vs experiment is useful; though some of that is obvious from the transcript.
    Some notion of preference of sub-field is useful, since it is somewhat indicative, and can also filter people out (we don’t do THAT!).

    The essays should be short, light on personal or anecdotal issues, and quite unlike undergrad application essays (which should also be quite unlike themselves…)
    Personally I want to see some statement of desire or motivation, discussion of research experience if relevant, and some statement of the nature of the stuff they might be interested in.


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