How to Write Your PhD or Graduate School Application Essay and Statement of Interest

Fall is approaching and this means graduate school applications will soon begin to open up.  And one of the most important aspect of your application is your statement of interest or statement of purpose or personal essay or application essay, whatever you want to call it. No matter what field you are in, you absolutely are required to write one. It allows admission committees to better understand your background and interests. Plus they would be able to tell if you are even a good match for their program. And yes, I know, I know, there are tons of advice on this all over Al Gore's Internet. But I wanted to write something practical and straightforward or at least give some tips on writing one. It can be very overwhelming to start out with an essay like this, but it's not impossible. Okay? Okay, let's go.

Tip  #1
Don't get all sentimental or inspirational. Let me explain. You know how in your college essays you can tell the story of how you always wanted to be an astronaut because you are the one that will save the world. And how for some reason, you are expected to recount and vomit all the traumas you have experienced. Well, no, not in this case. Nobody wants to hear how you always dreamed of being a college professor. What matters is that you explain why you want to do research and demonstrate that you CAN in fact do research. You do this by showing that you have done research before or at the very least, have clear research interests you hope to do. Of course, tell a story of you but in my opinion, it is best to tell the story of you to show your trajectory up till this point and why you want to continue pursuing research. Perhaps then, there was something that happened in your past that spurred your interest for research, well explain it. But seriously, academics barely have time so don't get all sentimental. Be genuine and factual.

Tip #2
Do not get too specific with your research interests. Yes, have clear research interests. For instance, say you want to understand how rain particles affect soil patterns or harvesting (I don't even think this makes sense,  but just for illustration purposes, humor me). Being overly specific might look something like how rainfall in August increases the harvesting of something with some obscure insects (humor me!).  The former shows you get what research is all about in your field and how to propose interesting research questions. The latter is too specific and somewhat dangerous because research interests change all the time. Many people come in with some goals and interests and end up changing drastically. You should demonstrate that you can adapt and flexible to change your research if the situation warrants. I want to make this as broad as possible so I refuse to give an example  linking my own specified research interests in my statement of interest to my current research agenda.  If you are too specific, it might seem that you are dogged and thus there is no fit for you in the department you are applying to. Ultimately, display an enthusiasm for your research. You need intellectual curiosity to survive a Ph.D. program and it matters to faculty that you display this curiosity and enthusiasm. You should also demonstrate not just your research interests but your research experiences, which have given you the skills you need to do research. Remember the famous show don't tell advice? Use it.

Tip 3
Demonstrate your fit within the department to which you are applying. Broadly speaking, when it comes to Ph.D. programs, your department matters more than the school whether this is in ranking or even culture. For that reason, you want to show that you are a great fit for the department. You do this in your essay by showing why you are a good match and demonstrating your knowledge of the department. Specifically, show how your research fits with research agendas of specific professors in the department.  Avoid just trite praises for the professors and do more of "I'm a fit because I am interested in or I have done research on XYZ and Professor Linda's work on X strongly relates to mine." Or "Professor John's work on hexapod invertebrates and their genetic composition (yup, this is a real thing!) is very compelling and would add immeasurable value to my research."  So definitely name professors you would like to work with and show that you indeed know what they do. It's easy to find out about professors or department on the Internet. However, the usual caveat applies: remember that you shouldn't just name one person and make your entire research about one professor. Because if that person leaves, what happens to you? Don't tie your entire career to this one person that may very well be leaving before you enroll. This is information you would not have access to and because of that they might reject you even if you have an amazing application overall. So diversify, baby!

Tip #4
Address past issues. This is broad, but if you once failed a class in college or you have a criminal record or something in your application package is suspect, take the opportunity to address it head on in your essay. You should not just say this for saying sake, say it to show that you have bounced back from it.

Tip #5
Edit. Edit. Proofread. Edit. Proofread. Over and over. You do not want a typo in your essay, of course. But also you want to be sure it is concise AND compelling. Even if there is no word limit, try not to go over two pages. That's why it's a recursive process. Not a one-and-done thing.  Remember that apart from sharing your background and future plans and fit for the department, you are also showing your writing skills. A Ph.D. comprises a great, GREAT deal of writing and communicating research. Let your essay show that. Share it with people as well, to read it for you, and ASK for feedback on the essay. Give it to all kinds of eyes. Someone in academia, someone not in academia like your current boss, and someone informal like your friend or family. Don't to that thing where you are applying to University of Love but then your essay has "I would really love to attend University of Faith". That's why it should be proofread extensively and get feedback.  Related to this is that you customize each essay to the program you are applying to. It's painstaking and hard work but rewarding work ultimately. The one size fits all approach is how you mistakenly send an application to one school that has the name of another school. But more than that, you want to make sure you tailor each application to the respective schools.

Tip #6
A bonus and completely short tip: if there is a prompt, then follow it. Sometimes, it's as easy as literally answering the questions in the prompt.

I planned on including a sample template/structure (that you can follow) to this post but it is already so long so that will come in a later post. So take a minute to digest the information in this post. Maybe even sketch a very preliminary and rough draft and then you will be able to restructure if when I post the sample template.



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