Applying to graduate school can be an overwhelming process requiring multiple components. In the second of a three-part series on applying to graduate school, Fernanda Andrade, a fourth-year PhD student at Duke University, and Katie White Austin, a fifth-year PhD student at the University of Texas at Dallas, discussed best practices for preparing a strong personal statement, avoiding “kisses of death” throughout the application process, and creating a well-structured CV as part of SPSP’s Free-Form Friday sessions on September 10, 2021. For those students who were not able to attend the session, the SPSP co-editors have recapped key insights below.
Preparing a personal statement
The personal statement is a crucial part of the application process where applicants can discuss their previous research and academic experiences, research interests, and goals for the future. In writing the personal statement, applicants typically end up with several different versions of their personal statement, each tailored to specific programs and potential advisors to demonstrate their excitement and interest for that particular school and person.
So, what are potential advisors looking for in a personal statement?
- Research focus and research match: Potential advisors will check to see that an applicant is hoping to research topics related to their own research interests. Applicants’ research interests often do not need to be identical to a potential advisor’s research, but they need to overlap enough that the potential advisor can see a good fit for growing their line of research with a potential applicant. For example, if an applicant discusses their hopes to study political psychology in their personal statement, but a potential advisor doesn’t research political psychology, that potential advisor wouldn’t be a good fit for that applicant. Relatedly, potential advisors will check to see whether applicants’ research interests are feasible within their lab. In other words, even if there is an overall research match, potential advisors will want to see that an applicant understands what research methods are available in their lab. For example, if an applicant discusses in their personal statement their desire to examine memory using fMRI technology in a lab that does not use fMRI technology to study memory, this will still be considered a poor fit by the potential advisor.
- Program fit: Potential advisors will also check personal statements to see whether an applicant would be a good fit within the larger program. Applicants should discuss in their personal statements how the classes and training offered at a particular school will help advance their larger learning objectives or facilitate their future career goals. If an applicant discusses desired coursework or training that is not available at a particular school, it can be a sign to a potential advisor that they have not looked into that particular academic program carefully.
- Research experience: Because PhD programs are research-intensive, potential advisors will want to see that an applicant understands the research process and is excited about the idea of conducting research with them the next several years. As such, a significant portion of the personal statement should be devoted to discussing one’s past research experiences and relevant research skills and training.
- Writing ability: The personal statement also serves as a writing sample. Potential advisors will want to see that an applicant is a strong writer (i.e., can write clearly with appropriate sentence structure and flow). Applicants should proofread their personal statements carefully to avoid sending statements with grammar and spelling errors.
How should applicants structure a personal statement?
- Paragraphs 1-2: The first paragraph or two should focus on who the applicant is, their goals for graduate school, and their long-term career goals. These opening paragraphs are a great place to discuss what drew an applicant to psychology, their research interests and motivations, a sense of enthusiasm, and long-term goals.
- Paragraphs 2-4: The next few paragraphs of the personal statement should discuss in detail past experiences (research and academic) and how these experiences have prepared the applicant for graduate school. Applicants should explicitly mention the parts of the research process they have experience with as well as any skills gained from these experiences (e.g., data analysis, putting together an IRB, writing, presenting results).
- Paragraphs 5-6: To wrap up the personal statement, applicants should spend some time writing about why the particular potential advisor and program would be a good fit for them and their long-term goals. These final sections are a great place for applicants to explicitly name the potential advisors they want to work with and why they would be a good fit for these advisors’ labs.
Avoiding “kisses of death”
Sometimes applicants can make mistakes in the application process that will result in immediate rejection of their application materials. These are referred to as “kisses of death” or “red flags” in the process. Here are some common examples:
- Damaging personal statements: Personal statements that are not tailored to specific school or program will be an immediate tip off to the reviewing committee and to a potential advisor that the applicant has not read up on their program. Relatedly, statements that include excessive self-disclosure will also typically lead an applicant to be rejected. For example, while many applicants may have a personal or family history with psychopathology that initially sparked their interest in graduate school, applicants should avoid too much discussion of these or other highly personal topics. Instead, applicants should keep their personal statements focused on their research interests and motivations for their graduate studies.
- Being professionally inappropriate: Throughout the application process, applicants should strive to be as professional and polite as possible. Applicants should use honorific titles (i.e., “Dr.”) when addressing any communication with potential advisors and other faculty or staff. Further, applicants should avoid colloquial language and swearing throughout the process. Relatedly, misfired attempts to impress like being overly confident in the application process can deter potential advisors and programs from accepting an applicant.
Creating a CV
Often times an applicant doesn’t have previous publications or formal conference presentations yet when applying to graduate school. However, this doesn’t mean an applicant is unqualified or doesn’t have valuable research experience.
- Research experience an applicant does have should be front and center: Applicants can list the project name, the person they worked with, specific tasks, and the duration for each project they worked on even if it was within the same lab. It’s also okay to include relevant coursework like literature reviews, proposals, and class research projects.
- Applicants can also include relevant leadership experiences, volunteer work, and activities/awards: Finally, applicants can mention other clinical experiences, volunteer work, leadership positions held, and any awards/honors received.
The application process can be intimidating, but the personal statement and the CV are a chance for applicants to highlight their strengths and prior research experiences. These are two crucial elements of the application which can heavily influence an admission decision. The SPSP student committee hopes these tips are helpful for applicants, and strongly recommends applicants reach out to trusted professors or graduate students to receive feedback on their personal statements and CVs before submitting.
This Free-Form Friday session was recorded and is available to members through the link below. Stay tuned for announcements pertaining to the next Free-Form Friday session in the Roadmap to Graduate School series, “Interviews, Plan B, and the Myth of the Linear Trajectory” which will be held in November 2021.