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Grad School: How Do I Write a Personal Statement?

2014 January 9

Grad School Series: Applying to Graduate School in Industrial/Organizational Psychology
Starting Sophomore Year: Should I get a Ph.D. or Master’s? | How to Get Research Experience
Starting Junior Year: Preparing for the GRE | Getting Recommendations
Starting Senior Year: Where to Apply | Traditional vs. Online Degrees | Personal Statements
Interviews/Visits: Preparing for Interviews | Going to Interviews
In Graduate School: What to Expect First Year

So you want to go to graduate school in industrial/organizational (I/O) psychology? Lots of decisions, not much direction. I bet I can help!

While my undergraduate students are lucky to be at a school with I/O psychologists, many students interested in I/O psychology aren’t at schools with people they can talk to. I/O psychology is still fairly uncommon in the grand scheme of psychologists; there are around 7,000 members of SIOP, the dominant professional organization of I/O, compared to the 150,000 in the American Psychological Association. As a result, many schools simply don’t have faculty with expertise in this area, leading many promising graduate students to apply elsewhere. That’s great from the perspective of I/O psychologists – lots of jobs – but not so great for grad-students-to-be or the field as a whole.

As a faculty member at ODU with a small army of undergraduate research assistants, I often find myself answering the same questions over and over again about graduate school. So why not share this advice with everyone?

This week, I’d like to cover one of only two parts of a graduate school application that you have direct control over: your personal statement.  This sometimes called a “statement of research interests” or “entrance essay” or similar.  The core problem is always the same though: you need to write a page or two about yourself.  So what do you write?

Before you get started, you need to plan.  You shouldn’t just dive into a personal statement, because it says several things about you, and you want to make sure those messages are on target.  Here’s what it says, and here’s what to do about it:

  1. This is the best quality of formal writing that you are currently capable of.  
    • The situation: Graduate school involves a lot of writing.  A lot.  You will be writing proposals, you’ll be writing term papers, you’ll be writing theses, you’ll be writing journal submissions, and on and on.  Despite this, most graduate programs don’t explicitly teach you how to write – instead, they assume you learned it in college. As your potential mentors read your application, they’ll in part be thinking, “just how much work is it going to take for this person to become a decent science writer?”
    • The solution: Treat your personal statement like a formal paper. Remember everything you’ve learned previously about how to write. You should have an introductory paragraph, several paragraphs of specific content (each with an appropriate topic sentence that explains the purpose of the remainder of that paragraph) and a conclusionary paragraph. You should ensure there are absolutely no spelling or grammatical errors. You should ask someone that doesn’t know you very well – and preferably someone who is a good writer – to read it over and tell you what they think.  Often, your college or university will have a career services unit that will help you with this if your academic advisor won’t (or can’t) help.
  2. This explains why you are applying to graduate school (in I/O psychology).
    • The situation:  A lot of people apply to graduate school for terrible reasons. The most common terrible reason is, “I finished college and didn’t know what else to do.” This is pretty obvious in an unfocused personal statement, because it’s hard for you to explain exactly why you are going to graduate school. You need a good reason, and you need to explain it well. The reason this is important is because people without good reasons burn out. Grad school is hard.  I like to refer to it as “trial by fire.” If you don’t come in with long term goals that you are fully committed to, you aren’t likely to finish – and that means advisors aren’t going to want to spend their time training you only for you to leave after a year.
    • The solution:  You really need to sit down and think about why you’re going to graduate school. This is different for every person, so there’s no single right answer here. Maybe you’ve always dreamed of being a professor. Maybe you’ve worked in human resources before and want to make it better. Maybe you just want to make a difference in the lives of employees and see applied I/O work as the best way to do that. All of these are fine answers – but your personal statement needs to explain your answer and how you came to it.
  3. This explains why you are applying to this particular graduate program.  
    • The situation: It’s fine if you want to apply broadly – in fact, I recommend it. But that doesn’t mean you can get away without doing in-depth research on each school you are applying to.  Faculty want to know why you applied to their program.  A single, untargeted, generic personal statement sent to a dozen different programs is one of the worst things you can do with your personal statement.
    • The solution: Remember that applying to graduate school is very unlike applying to college: you’re not applying to take classes, you’re applying to work with a particular faculty member (or perhaps a few faculty members).  If you have particular, targeted research interests, you need to say what they are, which faculty members you want to work with, and why.  If you don’t have particular, targeted research interests, that’s fine too, so you should say that – but you still need to explain why you applied to this particular program. Did you talk to graduate students already in the program? Were you recommended to apply by your advisor due to the quality of the program? Something else? No matter what, you should have a different personal statement for every school you apply to. Don’t ever say you’re targeting a school because it is convenient to you (e.g. near family, lets you keep your job, etc.). If something like that is your only reason, you shouldn’t apply there.
  4. This explains how you’ve prepared for graduate school.  
    • The situation: Something you’re likely hear a lot in I/O graduate school is “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.” One thing that faculty want to know is how – specifically – you have prepared yourself for graduate school. This also speaks a bit to #2 above.
    • The solution: If you’ve been following my blog’s advice since your sophomore year or earlier, you should have a lot of information to talk about here. You need to discuss what you learned in each research lab you’ve worked in and how this experience prepared you for graduate school. If you worked on particular projects that inspired you in your research interests, describe a specific anecdote or two (e.g. a particular research challenge you faced) and how you solved it and learned from it.

There are a few common problems with personal statements:

  1. Your statement is not your life story. While your 8th-grade teacher may have had an amazing influence over you that eventually led you to I/O psychology, it’s not very relevant to your application. Traumatic experiences (e.g. the death of a family member) are the same way.  Although your great-grandfather’s death may have inspired you to do something with your life, it doesn’t really have much to do with your I/O career path.  For each paragraph (and thus every sentence), you should ask: does it help the person reading this statement accomplish one of the four objectives listed above? If not, get rid of it.
  2. Your statement is not an opportunity to get creative.  Remember point #1 above. This is a formal paper. It is the closest thing to scientific writing of yours that the selection committee is likely to see. Creative narratives, clever use of spacing, etc. make you memorable, but not in a way you want to be memorable. You want to be memorable for your qualifications. Don’t start your statement with a quote or cliche; for example, I cringe every time I see, “Life is a marathon” at the start of someone’s statement.
  3. Your statement should be about what you think and what you know, not what you did. When you apply to graduate school, you’ll also turn in a curriculum vitae (the academic equivalent of a resume). This should say which labs you worked for and when. It should also cover which classes you took. Don’t waste space in a personal statement reiterating this information; assume that the people reading your application have already seen your vita and build from there.
  4. Your statement is not exhaustive. Even if you have a ton of information that you want to share, and even if the program doesn’t provide a specific page limit, you should keep your personal statement under 2 pages.  Maybe 3 if what you’re including is exceptionally compelling. Writing your personal statement should be an exercise in brevity – sharing as much critical information as possible in as small a space as you are able.

There’s no single “right way” to write a personal statement, but these guidelines will give you a good start to make a compelling argument for your acceptance.

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  1. Rachael permalink
    December 15, 2014

    Do you know where I could find an example of a personal statement for industrial organizational psychology? I’ve read numerous examples of psychology personal statements but none that are IO oriented.

    • December 15, 2014

      A good statement is honestly very different from student to student – and I’m afraid I don’t have any examples of good IO statements specifically.

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