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Make a Statement with Your Personal Statement

A Q&A with Robert Riehn on what admissions committees want to know. Riehn is the associate director of graduate programs in the physics department at North Carolina State University. His responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash.


How do you write a good personal statement, statement of purpose, or cover letter?

Show us, the graduate admissions committee, your strengths through a narrative. Many students have a wide variety of strengths, and it is hard to provide such a diverse group with a prompt that effectively encompasses this range of strengths.


Good letters provide a compelling narrative and highlight the applicant in a unique way. Students have diverse interests when applying to graduate school, and so you have to explain to us why you believe you will be a good researcher and why you are well suited for a challenging program. Many students provide a narrative of how they decided to go to graduate school. If you do this, know that we are looking for the ability to present this as a path with reasoned steps.


The strongest essays prove that the applicant is a suitable student and a good researcher and that our school is a good fit for them. It’s important to state why you’re interested in our institution and relate your interests to our program. From the cover letter we can also judge how well you write, which is very important to us since writing is a large part of completing a PhD.


How does a student stand out as an applicant?

Achievements. Students often lower the impact of their application by writing about things they did but not identifying why their contribution to the field is unique and why their work is significant. When you write your story, your narrative, in terms of achievements and with context, that is a strong indication that you can write and that you are aware of where you stand in the world.


If students have done research, should they discuss that?

Research is a very important part of being a graduate student. If a student has a research background, we look for an explanation of that research, the findings, and the student’s contribution to the field of research. We expect all strong applicants to identify who they would want to work with within the program, why they want to work with those specific groups, and why they believe they are specifically suited to that work. Make sure that your letter has this piece and that it fits into the broader narrative.


Additionally, if you have overcome significant hurdles in your life, provide a description of how you approached and overcame these hurdles. How people overcome hurdles tells the committee a lot about how they will address challenges as a researcher.


In an application, how many labs should a student mention being interested in working with?

I suggest mentioning three. Research groups are often 3 to 5 students per faculty member, but in many fields there are multiple professors and researchers working on overlapping projects. It’s totally possible that a specific group will not have space for you in a given year but that there is space in a different group in the same field that collaborates with your first choice. If you identify three faculty members, you usually can find a research home, even if it is not with the one person you identified first in your application.


Interestingly, about 50% of students decide to join a PhD adviser they didn’t foresee working with when they started their program. This typically happens when students arrive on campus, take classes, and discover a new field of research that lights a fire for them. I recommend listing not too many potential advisers, and if you can’t decide on whom to list, it’s best to be honest about it. Authenticity is an important aspect of an application—write what you mean.


What other advice would you give to students applying to graduate programs?

Contact the graduate program if you have any questions at all. If you are not clear on something—required grades, tests, or groups you could work with—contact the program. If you don’t have all of the required preparation, some schools will work with you on a way to complete the coursework necessary to succeed.


If you have a transcript from a well-known school, admissions staff will be able to judge your transcript easily. If your transcript is from a less well-known school, ask if there is anything the admissions committee is interested in seeing, such as a textbook list or syllabi. If you are a mathematician or a computer scientist or an engineer and you discovered your passion for physics late, departments can still work with you. If you are worried about your application, ask if there is anything the committee would like to know about you. Programs want applications that help them understand you at a deep level.


Many professors are willing to start a conversation with you before you apply. They may be able to tell you the kinds of skills they are looking for and whether you may be a good match. You could find a research adviser even before joining the graduate program. Be sure you do your homework before writing that first email—the more you know, the better your email, and the more likely you are to engage the professor in a conversation. //


This is an excerpt from an article published in the fall 2020 issue of The SPS Observer.