This post is based on an answer I recently contributed to Quora. I’ve been wanting to write a comprehensive guide to computer science grad school admissions (like the ones by Mor Harchol-Balter or Justine Sherry) for a while now — rather than letting such a large task intimidate me any longer, perhaps it’ll actually happen if I post it in pieces.
By the time you begin applying to grad school, the single piece of your application that you have full control over is your statement of purpose. You can’t change the grades that are already on your transcript, and moreover, those only tell an admissions committee whether you’ve proven yourself to be a good student in the classroom. Similarly, your recommendation letters are another critical part of your application, but you probably won’t have much control over exactly what’s written in them.
Given this opportunity, don’t blow off the personal statement. Instead, use it to your advantage by covering important points that don’t surface elsewhere in your application. Here are the things I would include when applying to a research-oriented graduate program:
A research statement.
This should comprise the majority of your essay. The reader is likely concerned with your ability or potential to conduct research, so hopefully you already have a successful track record of research and related coursework. Discuss what research you’ve done and things that you might be interested in working on as a graduate student.
Explain what motivates you to pursue graduate study.
Are you looking for a career in academia or research? Did your previous research experience convince you to pursue a career in research? Do you want to teach as a professor? This is the place to say so.
Convince the admissions committee that you’re qualified.
You should have already done this while covering the above points, and your recommendation letters and CV serve this purpose as well. Even so, address any remaining red flags that might be on your application. For example, if you are switching fields, you might want to explain why, and if your background doesn’t have an obvious alignment with your new interest, discuss what makes you qualified to enter the program (eg. a non-technical person entering computer science would likely require remedial courses to make up for the lack of technical undergrad training).
Explain why you’re applying to this particular school.
You should explain why the school and program are a good match for you. What does this school offer you that others do not? How might the program help you fulfill your career goals? If there are individual professors whom you’re interested with working with, you might want to mention them and which projects of theirs interest you – this is a good way to nudge your application to their inbox even if they’re not on the admissions committee. Are there research papers from this school that have interested you? (If you put school-specific things in your essays, be careful to submit the right copy with each application!)
Another reminder that was mentioned on Quora is that this is very different from the essay you probably wrote for undergraduate admissions. A PhD admissions committee cares about your research abilities far more than it does about your quirky hobbies or childhood defining moments (unless they’re related to your research!). That said, it’s still used to evaluate your written communication skills, which are very important considering that your deliverables as a researcher will be in the form of publications, so take the time to exterminate any typos or grammatical errors from your essay.
Beyond this general advice, I highly recommend that you ask fellow students and friends in your discipline for their personal statements. If you’re working with students who are currently applying, volunteer to review each others’ drafts. In addition, get advice from people who are already graduate students — they were clearly successful at navigating the process you’re going through.