Your Personal Statement for Graduate School

Starting From Scratch

The personal statement is your opportunity to speak directly to the admissions committee about why they should accept you. This means you need to brag. Not be humble, not humblebrag, but brag. Tell everybody why you are great and why you’ll make a fantastic physicist (just, try not to come off as a jerk).

There are three main points you need to hit in your essay:

  1. Your experience in physics. Direct discussion of your background in physics and your qualifications for graduate studies should comprise the bulk of your essay. What research did you do, and did you discover anything? Did you take inspiring coursework or go to a cool seminar? What do you want to do in graduate school? There’s a ton to discuss.
  2. Your personal characteristics. What makes you stand out? You’ve probably done a lot in college that’s not physics research or coursework. You need to mention the most impressive or meaningful of these commitments and accomplishments, and you need to demonstrate how they will eventually make you a better physicist. Are you a leader? A fundraiser? A teacher? A competitive mathematician? A team player? An activist for social change?  All of these not-physics experiences may translate over to skills that will help you as a physics professor or researcher someday, and you can point this out!
  3. Context for your accomplishments. Is there anything else about your personal history or college experience that an admissions committee needs to know? The application form itself may only have space for you to list raw scores and awards, but graduate schools evaluate applications holistically. Thus they ask for the essay so you have a chance to tell your story and bring forth any personal details (including obstacles you overcame) to help the committee understand how great you truly are. Your application readers want to help you, and they’re giving you the chance to show how hard you’ve worked and how far you’ve come. But it’s up to you to connect the dots.

This type of essay is a lot more serious and a lot less creative than a college essay, a law school essay, or an essay for admission to a humanities PhD program. You’re basically trying to list a lot of facts about yourself in as small a space as possible. This is the place to tell everyone why you’re great. Do not hold back on pertinent information.

The following is going to be a general guide about how to write a first draft of your main graduate school essay. By no means think this is the only way to do it — there are plenty of possibilities for essay-writing! However, see this as a good way to get started or brainstorm.

If you’re completely stuck, a good way to start writing your essay is to compose each of the five main components separately.

  • Your research experience
  • Your outside activities or work experience
  • Personal circumstances
  • A story about you that can serve as a hook 
  • Your future goals + why you chose to apply to each school

At the end, we’ll piece these five different disjoint pieces together into one coherent essay.

1. Your research experience (and scientific industry employment)

This is the most important part of your essay, so it’s the place that we’ll start. We’ll pretend we’re structuring each research experience as its own paragraph (you can go longer or shorter, depending on how much time you spent in each lab or how much progress you made). Let’s see how it might work:

  1. .Simple overview of research: what you worked on, the name of your primary supervisor (professor or boss), and the location (university + department or company + division). The first time you mention a professor, you call them by their first and last name:
    “I worked for Emmett ‘Doc’ Brown in Hill Valley.”
    All subsequent times, you address them by their title and last name:
    “Dr. Brown and I worked on time travel.”
  2. Your major contributions to research (3-4 complex, long sentences). What were the main things you worked on? What were your main contributions? Did you publish a paper or present your work at a conference?
    • “My research group was trying to build a time machine. My specific project was to improve the flux capacitor needed to make the machine work. I was able to make the capacitor exceed the 1.21 gigawatts needed for it to work. In addition, I helped do minor mechanical repairs on the DeLorean in which we built it.”
  3. If it’s relevant: a one sentence reflection on the research. Did you stay in that lab or decide that area of research wasn’t for you? Did you learn something that influenced a future project? Did you try to find more work in a similar area? Did you take more courses in that area to learn more?
    • “When I came back, I decided to take two additional graduate-level courses on time travel, and I found a similar internship the following summer.”

Then you just jam it all together into a semi-coherent paragraph:

In 1985, I worked for Emmett ‘Doc’ Brown in Hill Valley. Dr. Brown’s research group was trying to build a time machine. My specific project was to improve the flux capacitor needed to make the machine work. I was able to make the capacitor exceed the 1.21 gigawatts needed for it to work. In addition, I helped do minor mechanical repairs on the DeLorean in which we built it. When I came back, I decided to take two additional graduate-level courses on time travel, and I found a similar internship the following summer.

You’re not a character from Back to the Future, and it’s not beautiful prose, but you have to start somewhere. It’s more important to get all the facts you need down on the page before you work too hard on editing. Save that for after you have a well-structured and mostly-written essay.

2. (A) Your primary extracurricular activities or (B) your primary life experiences

(A) Tell the committee about any other major honors or experiences you’ve had in physics. Also write a paragraph or two about your interests outside of physics class and science research. Use this space to highlight the really impressive features of your activities:

  • a second major or minor
  • leadership positions in clubs, student representative to department/university committees, elected position in student government
  • science clubs: Society of Physics Students, Math Club, engineering organizations, societies for students underrepresented in the sciences, etc.
  • teaching activities: TA positions, tutoring, volunteer teaching commitments in any field of study, coaching a team, etc.
  • other regular volunteering activities
  • science advocacy and activism: political issues (government funding, global warming, nuclear policy, etc), improving diversity and inclusion in the sciences, science outreach on campus or in the local community
  • a significant time commitment: varsity sports, heavy school-year employment, etc.
  • other relevant skills: writing/publishing experience, public speaking, proficiency in other languages
  • major fellowships, scholarships, honors, prizes, or awards you’ve won and if needed, an explanation of their significance/meaning
  • attendance of physics conferences, symposia, summer schools, etc. that you haven’t already been able to mention in conjunction with the description of your research

If you have done many extracurricular activities, focus your 1-2 paragraphs on leadership positions, teaching, and service, particularly in the sciences.

(B) If you came to college a few years after you left high school, or if you are coming to graduate school a few years after you left college, then you need to write a few paragraphs discussing those life experiences. What did you do during that time? What experiences led you to choose physics graduate school as your next step? If you applied earlier but your application was rejected, how have you become more qualified since the last time you applied? You can feel free to ignore some of the advice we give later about how much of the essay you should focus on discussing physics experiences — structure the essay however you need to, to get the pertinent information across. Also, use Google extensively to find advice from other people who were in a situation similar to yours.

3. Personal circumstances

Now, look back at the various disjoint pieces of your essay that you need to fit together. What else might be relevant about you that you haven’t been able to mention yet?

Are there any major shortcomings in your application package? You need to address these, but do so INDIRECTLY. If you point your own flaws out to the committee directly, you are setting yourself up for failure. However, it is possible to leave pointed explanations for them in plain sight in your essay. For example, if you have a GPA that might seem low by normal graduate school standards, you could explain the significant amount of time you devoted to other major activities or a job, or describe any obstacles you have had to overcome (with the implication that you did so while still maintaining a GPA and completing your degree).

Even if your raw scores are perfect and your research excellent, you need to make your application stand out by letting the reader know who you are as a person. More specifically, you need to give some indication of how you will contribute to the diversity in background, experience, perspective, talents, and interests of students in the program.

  • To quote a CommonApp essay prompt, “Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”
  • What makes you you? What makes you interesting/fun/cool? What makes you stand out that won’t already be visible from your transcripts, recommendation letters, and application forms? How might you contribute to the diversity in background, experience, perspective, talents, and interests of students in a graduate program?
  • How did you end up in physics? Why do you want to pursue physics? Is there some event, course, experience, or activity that was particularly meaningful for your life or that guided you into this path?
  • Was there an extenuating circumstance that affected your performance in college? Think carefully about how and where you will discuss it. For example, you could frame it in a positive light so that you come off as resilient. An example might be “Despite [this factor], I was still able to [accomplish that].” You can also ask a trusted professor to mention it in their reference letter.

4. The hook

The final major piece of writing we’re going to do is a hook to open your essay. Do you have some anecdote, story, or achievement that will really grab the reader’s attention right away? They’re reading through nearly a thousand applications in hopes of narrowing down the pile to under a hundred, so what will make you be among those who stand out? Think about this as you assemble the rest of your essay.

5. Your future goals and why you’re interested in each graduate school

For every school you’re applying to, you need to write 1-2 paragraphs (~10% of the essay) about why you’re applying to that school.

Now this can be tricky. You need to gather some information via the Google about each individual school beforehand:

  • What would you be interested in researching at that school? Are there particular professors who stand out?
  • Does the school prefer if you have a fairly defined idea of the 2-3 people you’d want to work for ahead of time, or do they favor applicants who aren’t certain yet?
  • Does the school evaluate all applications at the same time, or do they send your application to separate committees for the research subfield(s) you indicate on the application form?
  • Why are you going to graduate school and/or what do you want to do afterwards? How will your five to seven year experience doing a PhD at a certain place prepare you for that path?

Even if you definitely know what you want to do or even if you’re completely sure you need to explore a few areas of physics, you need to write this section of your essay to cater towards each school. This involves a few hours of research on each school’s website, looking up the research fields in which the department focuses and learning about the specialization of each professor.

Here’s a good way of compiling your first draft of this section:

  • I [am interested in/want to] work on [one or two research fields you might be interested in]. Specific professors whom I would want to work for are [three to four professors].
  • My life experiences that led me to pick these choices are [something].
  • I am especially excited about [university name]’s [resource/opportunity] in [something to do with physics].

6. Compiling your final essay

By now, you should have written (most of) the disjoint individual pieces of the puzzle. You might be under the expected word count, you might be over the expected word count, or you might be right on track. You can forget about all that for now — it’s more important to get something together, and we’ll fix all those details later.

Because you’re probably submitting about a dozen distinct essays, let’s ignore the “Future plans” piece of the essay and try to just get one main body of the essay put together with the other paragraphs. For each school, you’ll tack the “future plans” part of the essay either onto the end of the essay or in some spot you’ve chosen in the middle that helps everything flow. For now, ignore word count and just get words on the page. You can go back through and slice out sections of the main essay to meet smaller word counts for certain schools.

Look at the pieces of your life. How do they logically fit together? Is your story best told chronologically, with one research experience or activity falling logically after the other? Or is there something that makes you so unique and special that it belongs right at the very beginning of the essay? Sort the pieces so that they assemble in a good order.

Next, we need to check on the size of these pieces. At the very least, discussion of research activities/STEM work experience and your future goals in research should make up 75-80% of your essay. If you wrote many long, elaborate paragraphs about your time in your fraternity or on the women’s tennis team, now is the time to scale that back to only a sentence. Remember that the admissions committees truly only care about your potential to succeed in the future as a physicist. If you couldn’t give a clear explanation to your major advisor about how a tangential experience shows your potential to succeed in physics, you shouldn’t include it. (Note that “I got straight A’s in graduate courses while also involved in [major time commitment]” is an acceptable reason to include something and is beneficial to state.)

Did you talk about anything that happened in your childhood? (“I was interested in physics since in the womb”) Get rid of it. The only things that happened before college that are appropriate to mention are:
(1) some significant aspect of your personal background that your application would be incomplete without, or
(2) major college-level achievements: research leading to a publication, getting a medal in the International Physics/Math Olympiad, or dual-enrollment programs. However, mention items from (2) sparingly. You want to show that you’ve made major strides in the past four years; do not focus on your glory days in the past.

Do your paragraphs transition neatly from one to the next, or does your essay still feel off-kilter? A simple one sentence transition between paragraphs – either at the end of one or at the start of the next – can do wonders for your essay. Make sure it would make sense to someone who doesn’t know your background as well as you. Use the transition sentences to make your essay more interesting. Tell a story.

Congratulations. Now you have your first real draft of facts. Before you joyously run to your computer to submit your graduate application or run to your professor to give it a look over, go to one of your friends first.

The biggest danger with a graduate admissions essay is that you come off as really self-centered or boring. Nobody wants to read a thousand essays that merely list every single fact about a person’s life; they want to read a story. We helped you put together the bare bones of a graduate admissions essay, but did you tell a story? Did your personality shine through?

It’s a lot easier to go back and do an overhaul of an essay if you have something down on the piece of paper. Your friends might be able to help point out places that you can make your essay flow better or seem more interesting. They can tell you where to add more pizzazz in an otherwise boring research statement (“I worked on computational models of astrophysics during the month of July.” versus “I was so stoked when I found out I’d be modeling exploding stars that summer! That was the moment I knew I wanted to be a physicist.”). Take a day off, walk around, and then go back to your draft ready to show the world how excited you are to be a physicist and what an exciting physicist you are.

Our next section gives general tips for editing your personal statement, no matter whether you took our advice on how to start writing. Go through these steps very carefully to make sure you have an essay you’re proud of to send off to the admissions committee. 

By the end of this process, you should have an impressive, interesting, factual draft of your qualifications that you’re ready to show a couple of trusted professors. You’ve worked super hard, and you’ve done a good job, we’re sure. However, professors are always critical, so don’t be upset if they tell you quite a few things to change. A young student reads an essay a lot differently than the older professors who are on the admissions committee, so it’s really important to get their perspective. Listen to what they say and truly consider making those changes. Edit once more, and repeat as many times as you need to.

At some point, you’ll finally be done with this long, difficult process and can proudly press “submit!”

General Tips for Editing

First things first: a step-by-step method for proofing your essay:

Here’s what to do step-by-step once you’ve followed our advice and have created a full first draft.

  1. Read your essay aloud to yourself. Is it interesting? Would everything make sense to someone who doesn’t know you? Probably not… See our advice below for making your draft better. You’ll probably need to repeat step 1 many times before you get to something you think has pretty good content and is pretty interesting.
  2. Check your grammar, spelling, and style. We have a guide to doing that at the very bottom of this page. Also, pay attention to your word processor: if there are any bright red or bright green underlines, that should be your first warning sign!
  3. Have a trusted friend (or two) in the sciences read the essay for style and voice. Do you have a good opening hook? Are there any passages that make you come off as arrogant, whining, or annoying? (You absolutely have to brag about yourself, but don’t say it in a way that makes you come off as a jerk — scroll down for advice on that.) Have them proof your rewrite for any final errors.
  4. Once you’ve gone through steps 1-3 and are completely certain that this is a nearly-perfect draft, have a PHYSICS PROFESSOR or two read your nearly-final essay. (Don’t send them an incomplete draft; they’ll get peeved. They’ll probably also only look over it once, so use your one shot wisely. They have a lot of students, you know.) A graduate admissions essay is very different from a college essay. The physicists reading your application aren’t looking for the student with the most well-rounded course choices, the head of the most clubs, or the person who can write the most creative statement. They’re looking for evidence of the specific attributes that show you have the capability of being a future physicist. This is why you need to ask a professor in the field of physics. Not just a biology professor, not just a physicist in industry; make sure you ask a physics professor. Have we made this clear?
  5. Listen to what you’re proofreaders say and amend your essay, but you don’t have to follow every last bit of advice. If your gut tells you to ignore one or two of their suggested changes, that’s okay. That is, it’s fine to make sure your essay sounds like you and says everything you want it to say. 
  6. Rinse and repeat. (redo steps 2-5)
  7. At some point, you’ll either get right up close to the deadline or have a draft you think is final. READ IT ALOUD before you press submit.

General Content Advice

You’re applying to a physics program!

Don’t forget this! The people reading your application care most about your background in, preparation for, and involvement in activities related to physics research. You should be spending almost all of your essay demonstrating your interests and ability to do physics.

It’s okay to mention substantial time commitments and achievements outside physics; however, pay attention to how you do so. Your capacity and potential to perform scientific research are what you are mainly being judged on, so description of physics-related research, coursework, and goals should make up most of your main essay (you should aim for 75%+). If an application allows you to write separate research and personal statements, then the former statement needs to be 100% focused on physics, and the latter should frame your physics experiences/goals within the context of your personal life.

  • Absolutely mention teaching and outreach experiences if you have any. Grad schools really do care about these! It’s great too if some of your teaching experience is in a STEM field.
  • Also, don’t be shy about mentioning participation in activism, particularly related to diversity and inclusion in STEM or higher education.  These are generally not seen as minuses on a physics application, and there are fellowships/ programs related to diversity at some graduate schools.
  • Mention of activities tangential/irrelevant to the sciences should only make up a small portion of your essay, and you should mainly highlight your biggest achievements/time commitments. For example, you shouldn’t make a long list of every one of the dozen intramural sports teams you participated on in college. However, it would be great to mention that you captained the club soccer team or that your volleyball team won a local championship.
  • You need to make sure it doesn’t seem like you would prefer to pursue one of these activities as a full-time career instead of physics research. Remember, you’re applying to a physics program! (Perhaps you could frame non-physics activities as demonstrating good aspects of your character: you’re hardworking, a leader, work well on a team, can balance multiple commitments, etc.)

Your essay isn’t meant to be a restatement of your CV. 

The essay illuminates the how and why of what’s on your CV, and connects the dots between experiences.

  • You need to describe your research experiences in depth. What did each of the labs you worked in generally do, and what were your specific contributions? What did you learn about physics in each lab or what new physics did you observe/discover/create? What skills did you develop that will be useful in graduate studies? What did you learn about your own interests and talents in each lab? Did you write any reports or publish any papers? Did you present the work anywhere? Were you listed as an author on someone else’s presentation? Do you have any papers in preparation for publication, or do you plan to in the near future?
  • Second of all, the essay should connect the dots. How did you choose to do what you did in college? How did you choose the research experiences in which you participated? What do you want to do in your graduate studies and further in the future? Why?

Make sure you’ve included information specific to the graduate school you’re writing about. 

Why are you applying to this specific program? What general research area are you leaning towards, and are there any specific professors you would be interested in? This isn’t a binding commitment. But don’t make yourself seem too narrow: if you say you only would want to go to a certain school if you could work for one or two people, that will severely hurt your chances of getting in.

Have you addressed your shortcomings adequately?

Are there any major shortcomings in your application package? You need to address these, but do so INDIRECTLY. If you point your own flaws out to the committee directly, you are setting yourself up for failure. However, it is possible to leave pointed explanations for them in plain sight in your essay. For example, if you have a GPA that might seem low by normal graduate school standards, you could explain the significant amount of time you devoted to other major activities (with the implication that you did so while still maintaining a respectable GPA and completing your degree)…

Have you fully explained your personal background?

…but even if your raw scores are perfect and your research excellent, you need to make your application stand out by letting the reader know who you are as a person. More specifically, you need to give some indication of how you will contribute to the diversity in background, experience, perspective, talents, and interests of students in the program.

Your essay should contain the highlights of your college career: your experiences, your activities, your awards. But an essay shouldn’t be just a two-page-long list: a good essay conveys a sense of who you are as a person, your personality, and why you are unique or a unique fit for the program.

The application essay is your chance to explain any aspect of your background that is not reflected elsewhere, but that your application would be incomplete without. This is up to you: only you can fully explain your own story.

Along the same line, graduate school admissions committees don’t just admit the set of 22-year-olds who attended the top high schools, then the top-ranked colleges, where they got the top GPA in the toughest classes and were SPS president. Admissions committees consider all criteria in light of where each individual student started out and any circumstances he/she faced along the way.

Students who followed nontraditional paths, came from disadvantaged backgrounds, or faced other extenuating circumstances during college might wish to either mention these in their essay or ask a trusted advisor to write about it in their letter. Some topics you may wish to address are:

  • Factors from before WashU. Normally, you’re supposed to mention your pre-college experiences only sparingly (or not at all) in an admissions essay. However, there are circumstances in which it may be beneficial. Do you come from an under-resourced background, and you started out college in pre-calculus, which set back your study of physics to sophomore year? Were you hyper-accelerated in math or science, which makes your transcript look very strange and uneven? Did you transfer from a community college? From another college? Does a high school research experience relate to your future interests? Are you graduating early, and why? Anything else? If it’s important, mention it and explain how it affected you!
  • You’re not 22! Did you take a few gap years to find yourself, work off loans, get married and have kids, or serve in the military? Are you super young? What exactly is your background? What would you want the committee to know to help them evaluate if you’re a good candidate for graduate school? What life experiences have you had that made you want to go to – and that will help you succeed in – graduate school? It would be abnormal if everyone entering a PhD program were 22! If you came from a nontraditional background, explain it, and don’t take our advice too seriously. A different essay style/structure may be more suitable.
  • Personal circumstances. A parent lost their job mid-college, which impacted your enrollment. You or a family member faced a major health problem. Your hometown suffered a natural disaster. You worked a full-time job while still in school. Another major event in your life. Tips we’ve seen online? You only need to mention the pertinent details, don’t make it the focus of your essay, and be positive — phrase it as what you were able to accomplish in light of a circumstance (instead of describing it in a way that might come off as a complaint). Another option is to ask a close professor to mention the situation in their reference letter instead. 
  • You made a mistake. You had trouble adjusting your freshman year of college, but things went up from there. You made bad choices on what to spend your time on a couple semesters. You faced university disciplinary action or committed a non-traffic crime. Talk to your four-year advisor, major advisor, or a trusted professor about what appears on your record, what you have to report on your application, and how to mitigate its negative effects on your future to the greatest extent possible through your personal statement and other minor essays on the application. Always be honest, but always be positive: show how you’ve moved forward and grown since then.
  • Anything else. The list above was by no means comprehensive! If there is something an admissions committee needs to know in order to understand how great of a fit you are for their program, then mention it. If you have any questions about your essay and it’s contents, please ask a trusted professor.

Make your essay interesting!

The science graduate school application essay may not seem nearly as freeform or fun as your undergraduate CommonApp essay, the paper your roommate’s submitting to an MFA program, or a law school essay. However, the physics professors spending hours reading literally hundreds of essays will appreciate if you make yours more interesting than a list of your achievements. Make your essay stand out as one they’ll remember.

Showcase your personality. Once you’ve gotten all the necessary facts together in your essay in some sort of coherent order, it’s time to make sure the essay is actually interesting to read. Read it aloud, and have a friend read it aloud. Does the essay convey who you really are, or does it sound like you’re reading some really dry, boring report? Most likely it’s the latter at this point.

Pull out another piece of paper or a new window on your computer screen, and start writing a new version of each paragraph that sounds a bit more interesting, enthusiastic about physics, and fun. It’ll take time, but you can do this without going over the word count. See how different these two sentences sound, even though they’re about the same length and convey the same content:

  • Boring phrasing: In my sophomore spring, I worked in the theoretical kinematics laboratory of Sir Isaac Newton at Cambridge. We studied the manner in which balls roll down hills.
  • Better phrasing: Sophomore spring, I enjoyed the opportunity to study the fascinating theoretical nature of how balls roll down hills with Sir Isaac Newton at Cambridge.

Both students convey the necessary facts the graduate committees are looking for: (1) the student worked abroad in a famous person’s lab, (2) the student did theoretical research, and (3) the specific project regarded how balls roll down hills. The first example sounds like a true but boring listing of facts. The second example not only tells what the student did, but also shows the student’s appreciation for the opportunity, as well as that the enthusiastic student found that they enjoyed work of a theoretical nature in this specific subject area. Instead of directly writing “I love and care about physics,” show it through the way you phrase your essay. 

Don’t come off as unlikable

By now, you have probably been advised a thousand times about what not to write in an application like this one – insults, complaints, or bigoted remarks; opinions on polarized topics distant from physics; any trouble you got into in college that you wouldn’t want your parents to know about; etc.

But sometimes we still say things in personal statements that are meant with entirely good intentions but that other people read the completely wrong way. Your friends and professors should be able to pick some of these out in your essay, but here’s a simple guide to help yourself too.

(1) Don’t name-drop unless it has to do directly with your accomplishments in physics. Look out for areas of your personal statement that may turn off a reader because you come off as arrogant, spoiled, or out of touch with reality. Also remember that life is not a complete meritocracy. It is much easier to get ahead if you have lots of connections that help you along the way — but despite this, you should not overtly use your personal statement to pull connections that are not directly physics-related.

Here are some exaggerated examples:

Bad: The summer after junior year, my best friend’s father, Albert Einstein, hooked me up with an internship at Princeton with Eugene Wigner.
Better: The summer after junior year, I took a research internship at Princeton with Eugene Wigner.
You don’t have to tell someone you got the internship because you happened to have a great connection (nobody will care that you’re friends with a famous person). It’s better to just say that you did the internship. They will, however, care about the name of the famous person you worked for.

Bad: I did not do as well on the GRE as I hoped because I crashed my Lamborghini on the way to the test.
Better: I did not do as well on the GRE as I hoped because I got into a car accident on the way to the test.
It might be easier to have a friend read for subtle (or not-so-subtle) phrasing and word choices that might read the wrong way to a reader. Here, the mention of the luxury car brand makes it look like the student is trying to show off (and probably doesn’t realize that the car costs more than they’ll earn from graduate school all five years total). 

Bad: Your university’s biggest donor is a family friend, and five generations of my family have attended your physics graduate program.
Better: When I visited my physics PhD brother at your campus, I enjoyed seeing X, Y, and Z facilities, which I think will be greatly beneficial to my physics education.
Also good: I spent a summer in the laboratory of Professor — at your university, and I would love to continue working for her in graduate school.
If you have a connection to the university, don’t just state it. Find a way to phrase it to make you seem more like a better fit for their graduate program.

(2) Please remember that the admissions committee does not owe you anything for any reason. So, please don’t claim that you deserve admission, honor and recognition, or anything else from them. Do not even make the mistake of phrasing something badly so that it seems like you think that way. It will only make them dislike your application.

Bad: Given the fact that I won a Fields Medal, a Wolf Prize in Physics, and the Nobel Peace Prize, I am clearly the best applicant out there.
Better: Some of the highlights of my college experience include a Fields Medal, the Nobel Peace Prize, and a Wolf Prize in Physics.

Bad: I worked so hard in college that I clearly deserve the opportunity to attend your university.
Better: I found the time and effort I put into physics very worthwhile and fun, and I hope to keep working in this field in the future.

Bad: I am a great fit for your program.
Better: Your program would be a great fit for me.

(3) You got where you are because of hard work, not just raw intelligence. Or at least, frame it this way. Nobody wants to hear how naturally intelligent you think you are — instead, your personal statement should demonstrate the achievements that your intelligence has earned you. Leave it to your reference writers to provide an external evaluation of your mental capabilities. Just trust us on this one. Using the same reasoning, don’t tell everyone about qualities of your character. Show them. Graduate admissions committees are smart. They can infer these things.

Bad: Because of my natural intelligence and talent for physics, I won the “Best Physicist” prize.
Better: Because of my research efforts, I won the “Best Physicist” prize.

Bad: I am a super nice person because I help people with physics all the time with volunteer stuff.
Better: Every weekend for two hours, I enjoy showing small children the wonders of physics at the Volunteer Science Thing.

Bad: I am super smart because I have published three papers.
Better: I have published three papers.

(4) Claim credit for your accomplishments, but give credit to others too where it’s due. We’re sure you did a ton of hard work in college, and that’s great. However, you need to recognize that it wasn’t just you. Your research advisers, graduate student mentors, classroom professors, and many others helped you get where you are today.  Acknowledge your own successes, but give credit where it is due.

Bad: Last summer I built the first-ever time travel machine.
Better: Last summer I worked at a secret government agency with a team of twenty scientists under the guidance of Aristotle to build the 21st century’s first-ever time machine.

Bad: I wrote and published a particle physics paper myself, even though there are three authors.
Better: Professor — guided me through the process of writing and publishing my first-author particle physics paper.

(5) Don’t be overly negative  or critical of any of your physics experiences. That is, be yourself, and don’t give opinions that are completely untrue. If you didn’t like doing theory research, then you don’t have to say you did. But it’s not a good idea to express extreme distaste for any area of physics in your essay — try to find something good about every experience and phrase it in a positive light. Here’s an example of a fib, the way you might be tempted to fix it, and an even better way of doing so:

  • Your original attempt to seem happy: I worked on computational and analytical aspects of string theory at the Institute of Advanced Study. It was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life and I could see myself doing the exact same thing in graduate school at your great string theory program. I like experimental work too.
  • The way you actually feel about things: I worked on a project about string theory at the Institute for Advanced Study. My research advisor had me split my time between computational work and pen-and-paper problems. I absolutely hated doing pen-and-paper math. It sucked!
  • A more positive way of phrasing the truth: I loved the computational aspects of my string theory work at the Institute for Advanced Study. However, the next summer, I discovered that I more enjoyed applying my computational skills in a laboratory setting.

The mechanics of your writing: sentence and word choices

You can make a drastic difference in the quality of your essay just by checking on a few more mechanical aspects of your writing: sentence structures, phrasing, and even grammar. As you work on your drafts, continually try to improve these things. Here are a few of the many aspects to which you might want to pay attention…

Are all of your sentences good sentences? Are all of your sentences complete? Do any of the sentences run on? Do all the sentences logically follow one another? Does your story make basic sense? Make sure that nothing you wrote sounds or seems awkward!

Make sure your sentence structures aren’t repetitive. It’s very easy to get caught into the habit of writing, “I did this. I did that. I did the other thing.” Your essay is going to use the first-person pronouns “I” and “we” more than you’re probably used to, but that’s okay and not self-centered. You are writing about yourself, you know! However, there are ways to do it that seem less obnoxious or monotonous. Let’s look at a few examples of how we can rephrase or rearrange sentences so that we don’t get stuck in the same patterns too often.

Example 1:

  • I did research about nuclear reactors under the supervision of Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago last summer.
  • This past summer, I researched nuclear reactors with Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago.
  • Enrico Fermi taught me about building nuclear reactors last summer at the University of Chicago.
  • Nuclear reactors captivated me during my summer internship with Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago.
  • My first exposure to nuclear reactors was last summer, when I worked for Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago.
  • At the University of Chicago, I studied nuclear reactors with Enrico Fermi.
  • When I was at the University of Chicago last summer, I studied nuclear reactors with Enrico Fermi.

Example 2:

  • I want to study theoretical physics in graduate school.
  • At graduate school, I want to study theoretical physics.
  • My preferred area of graduate research would be theoretical physics.
  • My graduate research interests are in theoretical physics.
  • The theoretical physics research opportunities at [insert university here] excite me.
  • Theoretical research most attracts my interests for graduate studies.

As you can see, there are seemingly endless choices for rearranging the words in your sentences or finding ways you can rewrite them that carry across the same (or more!) information.

Make sure your word choices aren’t boring or repetitive. You might find yourself using only commonplace adjectives over and over again (good, bad, happy, sad, etc.). Or perhaps you do the opposite — you have a plethora of repetitions of the same unusual adjective (like plethora) used multiple times in the same paragraph, one after the other.

Pull out a thesaurus and find some good synonyms! Or better yet, be more accurate about what you want to say. For example, consider word replacements in the overused phrases:

Professor Bender’s least favorite word: interesting. As in, “That research is/was/seems interesting.”

  • intriguing, fascinating, inspiring, delightful
  • appealing, enticing, exciting, fun
  • novel, cutting-edge, exhilarating
  • challenging, thought-provoking, stimulating
  • etc.

The verb around which your essay is centered: research. “With Arthur Holly Compton, I researched…”

  • worked on, studied, learned
  • examined, analyzed, investigated, probed, observed, experimented, tested
  • found [a result], discovered, came up with [an idea], unraveled, explained
  • calculated, computed, solved, answered, evaluated
  • formulated, designed, fabricated, planned, developed, created, invented, built, prepared
  • etc.

Be clear and concise. Most graduate schools only give you two pages to tell your story, even if you think it would be easier to hand in a novel. If you find yourself sitting at your computer with an incredibly long draft, you’re going to need to take out some material.

Start with irrelevant details: you don’t need to tell us that last spring, you worked on a laptop with exactly 16 gigabytes of RAM, 2 terabytes of storage, manufactured by a small company from your homestate, that has exactly 6 bumper stickers decorating its case. Get rid of that paragraph!

Next, look at your research and activity descriptions. Only include the most relevant information. If you got second place in an international physics competition and fourth place in the local math contest, you can remove the latter from the main body of your essay. If you worked on four projects with your biophysics group, two of which led to a paper and two of which mainly consisted of cleaning your mentor’s Petri dishes, then it should be obvious which should deserve most (or all) of your essay’s attention. Don’t be afraid to be vicious with your red pen.

Once you’ve gotten rid of things that are very obviously unnecessary and have cut your essay down to a couple of paragraphs above the required word count, it’s time to start modifying the lengths of your sentences and paragraphs themselves. While it may seem like you’ve done everything right, and that every single thing in your essay is utterly necessary, think again! Remember the paragraph in which we discussed the many ways in which you could rewrite a sentence? (scroll up…) Time to use that same strategy to shorten sentences or combine two short sentences into one long, complex one. Also, if you’re trying to make your essay meet a page count, make sure that none of your paragraphs end with a single word on a line — try to fill up each line with as many characters as possible by changing word choices or phrasing. The best way to do this is to look at some examples.

Example 1 – using abbreviations

  • Old essay. I worked in the Compton Group at Washington University my freshman summer…The next summer, I went to Fermilab to work on particle physics…In junior year, I worked in an optics laboratory at Washington University…As a senior, I worked on biophysics at Washington University.
  • New essay.  I worked in the Compton Group at Washington University (WU) my freshman summer…The next summer, I went to Fermilab to work on particle physics…In junior year, I worked in a WU optics lab..As a senior, I worked on biophysics at WU.

Example 2 – combining sentences

  • Old. At graduate school, I would like to study particle physics. I am deeply interested in this topic because of my experience working in Professor Compton’s research group.
  • New. My past work with Professor Compton has motivated me to study particle physics in graduate school.

Example 3 – choosing shorter words or phrases, even if you think they sound less fancy (scientists prefer clarity and conciseness over clunky phrasing)

  • Old. My research provides incontrovertible evidence for this.
  • New. My research proves this.
  • New. My research demonstrates this.

Example 4 – condensing information that can be grouped together

  • Old. Team experiences comprised a large and enjoyable part of my college years, both in the laboratory and outside. My junior year, our math team was in the top ten in the Putnam competition. My senior year, my physics team got a gold medal in the University Physics Competition. I am also on the varsity underwater basket weaving team, which won the University Athletic Association title.
  • New. During college I enjoyed working with teams both in and out of the lab. Some of my notable team achievements include a top-ten finish in the Putnam math contest, a gold medal in the University Physics Competition, and winning the division title in underwater basket weaving.

There are many other creative ways you can cut down on space in your essay. It may be difficult and time-consuming to cut down your composition to an appropriate length, so be sure to budget enough days before your essays are due!

Look out for silly mistakes! Make sure you didn’t type something careless like “form” instead of “from.” Double-check that you didn’t confuse your/you’re or there/their/they’re. Are all your commas in the right places? Carefully and slowly read through your essay. If you accidentally had one mistake when you submitted, it probably won’t be a big deal. But if you have multiple careless errors in your essay, the admissions committees might get the wrong impression that you didn’t care enough to write your essay properly.