How to Write a Personal Statement or Statement of Purpose

At Tsinghua this semester I am teaching academic writing. Almost all the students are seniors and almost all of them are applying to graduate school, so I spent several weeks on how to write a personal statement. Each student wrote a draft. I read each draft and made suggestions in one-on-one meetings. The students wrote down my suggestion, and these summaries were compiled into the following guide.

Tips on writing sentences and paragraphs

Never use many big words! Especially don’t use two big words in a sentence.

Make the sentence shorter and clearer. e.g. ”I’ve set my career determination to…” is better replaced by ”My career determination is…”

Use less space (simple and short sentences) on things people know and more on things they don’t know. E.g. you might want to list the statistical courses taken to emphasize your data skill. However, it’s better idea that you write more about some experience when statistical method is successfully used.

Make it clear. Especially don’t begin with something complicated and confusing. Stand in the professors’ shoes and figure out a better way to get through.

Put the main interest in first paragraph. E.g. I’m interested in cognitive neuroscience, so I need put it at the first paragraph and make it obviously.

Put the topic sentence at the beginning of the paragraph. E.g. I should put the main ideas of every paragraph at the first sentence to make it clear. My first research experiment, I should point out I learned cognitive science by practical experiment.

Saying things more directly for people to get points. Example: I wanted to tell the readers why I had more interests in one specific field in psychology than others, but I did not mention this intention in the first place and only began with saying that some experience interested or not interested me, which might make the readers confused.

Things you should write about

Write things that have personal flavor, things that are unique. E.g. quoting from Einstein to illustrate love for cognitive science is not that unique, since everyone heard about them before.

Write about interesting experiences, rather than normal and boring things. Or write about experience that make you come up with some interesting thoughts.

Figure out what experience is important for your application. E.g. I want to apply to a Ph.D program in educational psychology, then my voluntary teaching experience is equally important as research experience. I should write more about it.

Add a good story or something original. Example: I mentioned my little brother in my PS and wanted to point out that it was him who made me get interested in education, yet it lacks some original experience in this part.

What really happened is more important than what supposed to happen. Better write on past achievement than babble about plans.

Explain the relationship between two events more clearly. E.g. explain the causal relationship: why something happened make you fall for psychology? Give specific reasons.

Usually use chronological order. Example: In the opening paragraph, I firstly said that I had studied psychology for three years blah blah, and then wrote what I once desired to be in high school, which is not in a chronological order.

Show important time. E.g. I did my second research in my first year, it was a early time. So, I need make it obvious.

Show the level of a prize. E.g. I won the Second Prize of the competition and I should show the difficulties of this prize.

Tell about yourself, rather than talk about the university.

Introduce yourself at first. E.g. I start with a sentence by a famous police officer but it has nothing to do with me.

Show your desire for the program. E.g. UCL’s program is the one I want to apply for most, so I could say “UCL program is my first choice because of … ”

In short, distinguish yourself from other applications by writing things interesting and convincing in a coherent way.

Things that better not appear

Don’t write something professors are familiar with, write something they don’t know but in a way they can understand.

Don’t write something sounds unlikely.

Don’t say negative things. E.g. do not say ‘I wasn’t interested in psychology at first’, for it is obviously negative and should be prevented.

Don’t write about anything irrelevant. e.g. Don’t write about your second major in economics if it’s irrelevant to your goal in application. (In this case, writing about economics may convey that you are good at math!)

One of my more unusual” is not interesting. Go for “one of my best”

Tips on writing about researches

Explain why you are interested in your research topic.

If collaborate with someone in a research, refer to them.

When talking about a research, the results and achievements are important.

No use referring to what you didn’t do for a research! (E.g. I didn’t do the literature research in my first psychology experiment. Although I didn’t do the literature research, and I didn’t know if others do it, the research is still meaningful and I came up with the idea by myself.)

Tell story in a powerful and persuasive way. E.g., I wrote about the story of my first voluntary teaching in local elementary school in Beijing. To make the story more convincing, I should write about more details, like how often I went there, how many students there were, what subjects I was teaching, the reactions of the students. Etc.

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