STATE YOUR PURPOSE

4 APRIL 2011 — CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA

Now that my admission cycle is over, and the dust has cleared, I’d like to write a few posts about the grad school application process. This first post will be about crafting your statement of purpose (sometimes known as a “personal statement”). It’s a statement that broadly describes your reasons for pursuing a PhD at a particular university.

Around four months ago, I was interested in reading a few good examples of personal statements. Unfortunately, it seems that few people like to share. The one exception I found online (and later met at MIT’s visit days) was Jean Yang. So to current grad school applicants: I empathize with your pain, and I’m crazy enough to share one of my statements. [1] This is the one I sent to Stanford, where I’ll be starting a CS PhD next fall.

So how do you write a statement of purpose? In all honesty, I don’t actually know. However, I do understand what worked for me, and so I can mention a few things that I kept in mind:

  • Write Well: This is both fairly obvious, and obviously hard. I’m not qualified to give you writing advice, but two things that annoy me (and more notably, Stephen King) are passive voice and unnecessary adverbs. I recommend reading On Writing and The Elements of Style.
  • Talk About Research: Write about things that relate to your abilities as a researcher. Nearly everything else is extraneous.
  • Tell a Story: And by this I do not mean “make things up.” As you describe your many fine qualities, draw things into a narrative. Humans love storytelling. We usually don’t like reading lists of facts.
  • Use Concrete Examples: Speak about things that you have accomplished, or attempted. Most people will see your past as a strong predictor of your future. Describe the research you’ve done, and the ideas you’ve explored.
  • Tailor the Statement: For each school, mention reasons that your research interests are a good match for particular faculty. Make each statement specific to its target program.
  • Carve Out Responsibility: If you have done research, speak to those elements of the research that you “owned.” Show that you did more than implement someone else’s ideas.
  • Have Vision: What plans do you have for your future, and for the future of your research? If you don’t have any plans, consider making some up. You are not beholden to your personal statement. Admissions committees are more likely to admit you if they can envision you in their program doing real research.
  • Make Yourself Awesome: You are the second coming of Alan Turing, and your statement should make this clear. Be sure, however, to show deference to the professors at the school to which you are applying. They are even more awesome than you.
  • Your Childhood is not Relevant: This is perhaps cliché, but don’t regale the admissions committee with tales from your childhood. They don’t want to hear about it. Only say things which speak to your research potential.

That should be enough to get you started. I hope it goes without saying that you should take my advice only so far as you trust it. I was rather successful in my admission results, but that may have been despite my personal statement. If you are applying now, I wish you luck. Hopefully, this post has given you some new ideas.

1 My personal statement.