When Personal Statement Instructions Differ

A student who is applying for admission to PhD programs in philosophy has noticed that at some universities, what the university’s graduate school asks applicants to include in their personal statements differs from what the same university’s philosophy department asks applicants to include.

He asks:

When one submits a personal statement/statement of purpose, does one include in it those things that both the individual program and the graduate school require? 

It might seem that one should err on the side of inclusion, but doing so may make the statement worse by diluting its message or making it seem overstuffed or rushed. That’s especially so for statements sent to departments or schools that put word limits on them.

Here’s an example the student provided from a school to which he is applying:

The Philosophy Department asks for a statement of purposes that merely consists in “a statement of your academic goals and interests.” However, the Graduate School says that the writing statement should include (i) information about the candidate that cannot be expressed quantitatively; (ii) the reasons that the candidate is undertaking graduate work, their ultimate plans, how the candidate happened to select for their desired field; and (iii) details about the candidate’s preparation, their strengths and weaknesses as a student, any academic honors, scholarships, etc. So one might be confused about how much info should go into their statement of purpose when applying to this school.

While much of what the graduate school is asking for here could probably be fit under the heading of “academic goals and interests,” not all of it can. Should applicants massage as much information as they can to fit under the narrower instructions? Should they include more than that?

My advice would be to contact the department in question and ask. It may be that they don’t even know about the discrepancy. But if one cannot get a helpful answer from the department on this, I would err on the side of writing for the department, as it is the graduate admissions committee, composed of members of that department, who will be looking most closely at your application materials. Readers are asked to share their thoughts on this. Thank you.
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7 years ago

Write for the department.

More importantly, write a *professional* personal statement for the department.

In my experience, the net effect of the personal statement is more often negative than positive. This is because a great many applicants write personal statements that make them seem immature, pompous, silly, snobbish, and/or self-indulgent. Probably the easiest way to make this mistake, in my view, is to write an extended love letter to philosophy, telling the committee how passionate you are about the search for truth and wisdom, how utterly fascinated you are about this or that paradox, how your mind yearns for ever-deeper immersion in the life of the intellect, and how, in these respects, you are quite exceptional if not entirely unprecedented. [Hint: you’re not.]

Yes, we want to know, inter alia, if you have the right sort of character to take on the long slog of a graduate degree and produce innovative work along the way. But trying to explain to us that you do indeed have that character is very often self-defeating. [As in: “I know words. I have the best words.”] Don’t say, show.

So tell us: (1) what areas you think you would like to focus on, and why; (2) what problems you have worked on in these areas and what you have argued; (3) what problems you think you would like to work on in graduate school, and why; (4) whether you have had any additional academic background or any distinctive personal experiences that bear on these philosophical problems; (5) whether you have any distinctive plans for when you complete your degree; and (6) whether there is anything about your undergraduate record that you need to speak to–e.g., your low GPA in your second year was the result of a serious illness in your family, etc.

P.D. Magnus
7 years ago

My experience is that departments make their admissions decisions. So nobody from the graduate school is going to reverse the department decision if the personal statement did not include (e.g.) a list of scholarships.

7 years ago

I am actually just in the process of writing my letter of intent/personal statement for the upcoming application cycle. I was curious, seeing as we are on the topic: how do departments generally feel about dropping names — both of faculty members that one has worked closley with and faculty members that you hope to work with at the school you are applying to. Thoughts?

Reply to  A.F.
7 years ago

It’s very useful for the committee to know if you want to work with Prof. P on XYZ issues since it helps them see whether you’re a good fit for the academic orientation of the department, but just make sure you know exactly what it is that Prof. P actually does–ideally, you should know more than just what can be gleaned from a webpage–and don’t think that making flattering remarks about him/her is going to help you at all. [I’ve sometimes learned from applicants that I’ve made important contributions on topics I’ve never written about–I’d like to think they’re right, but that’s probably not very plausible.]

Re: people you have worked with, if you worked closely with them then ideally they should be writing a letter for you. If for some reason they are not one of your letter writers, then mention them only insofar as it helps explain why your thinking on XYZ issue took a certain path or suchlike. Mere name-dropping for the sake of it comes across as deeply superficial, so to speak, and no more useful than including a picture of you rubbing Hume’s toe.

Eric Schwitzgebel
7 years ago

My experience is that committee members don’t pay any attention to what the form letter asks for in a personal statement and are looking for statements like the ones I discuss in my advice in this posts (with links to three successful sample statements of purpose):

Eric Schwitzgebel
Reply to  Eric Schwitzgebel
7 years ago

“this post” not “this posts” — sorry for the horrid typo!