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The Power of Writing a Personal Essay When Applying to a PhD Program

written by: John Garger•edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch•updated: 6/10/2010

The personal essay is a powerful tool to help you get into a PhD program. Follow these 5 tips to help you develop a sample personal essay for a PhD program that stands out in the crowd and makes you look like a serious and dedicated student.

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    The personal essay is a necessary but difficult part of the PhD program application process. You have to simultaneously emphasize your strengths as a potential doctoral student, but not cross the line into bragging, boasting, or outright lying. The admissions committees that read these personal statements have seen it all, so no amount of gilding the lily is likely to impress upon its members that you deserve a seat in the program.

    The 5 tips outlined below will not guarantee that an admissions committee will take your personal essay more seriously in your application to a PhD program, nor will it make up for serious deficiencies in past academic achievement, lack of extracurricular activities, or lack of job experience. However, coupled with the right elements, the 5 tips below for a sample personal essays for a PhD program can help you stand out in a crowd of lesser personal essays and plant the seed in the minds of the admissions committee members that you are the right choice.

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    1 – Lead with Your Strengths But Don’t End with Your Weaknesses

    Write a Powerful PhD Personal Essay Although it is true that you should lead with your greatest strength in the personal essay, you should not rank order your strengths and include them in your essay from strongest to weakest. By doing so, the reader of the essay may perceive a less and less capable student as the essay begins to close.

    Instead, make a list of your top three strengths in order from strongest to weakest. Include them in your essay starting with the strongest first, then the weakest, and then the one in the middle. In this way, the last thing the committee members read is anything but your weakest strength. You’ll leave the committee with a better perception of you as a PhD student candidate.

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    2 – The Personal Essay is Not a Repeat of Your Resume in Paragraph Form

    In any admissions application, your resume should stand on its own as a document that briefly describes your past accomplishments and achievements. Some information in the personal essay will expand upon what is in the resume, but the personal statement should not be a repeat of what is already stated on the resume.

    Instead, try to give the admissions committee something that can’t be expressed on a resume. Give the committee a demonstration that you are a dedicated student and will likely graduate from the program. You can impress these things on a committee by focusing on your future whereas the resume is a record of your past.

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    3 – Answer the Questions Asked of You in the Application

    This one may seem obvious but too often admissions candidates in a PhD program do not answer the questions asked of them. This impresses on the committee that you are not a person who works well with details and instructions.

    You may want your personal essay to go in one direction but the committee may be expecting something else. Being creative is one thing, not following directions is something else. If you really have the need to include something the application does not call for, include it as supplementary material rather than as a replacement for what is really expected from you.

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    4 – Be Candid But Not Overly Revealing

    If you are the type who does not have many inhibitions talking about yourself, make sure you have someone read over your personal essay for areas that get too personal. Candidness can be a wonderful trait, but revealing too much personal information to the committee can make its member feel uncomfortable accepting you as a PhD student.

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    5 – Have Someone Else Proofread Your Essay

    It is a fact that the worst proofreader of any text is the very person who wrote it. It is very difficult for an author to find fault with his/her own writing so elicit the help of someone else to proofread your essay.

    Have the proofreader take on the role of an admissions committee member and judge the content, flow, and prose of your personal essay. This method is more likely to reveal areas that need work. If you can find someone who has experience being part of a PhD admissions committee, all the better. In fact, look to one of your past professors to help with this step so you can write the most powerful personal essay possible.