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Personal Statement Double Spaced Or Single Member

by Geoff Pynn

As the graduate adviser for my department’s terminal MA program at NIU, I answer a lot of questions about applying to PhD programs in philosophy. I feel pretty confident about my answers to most of them. But there is one question about which I don’t feel confident at all:

What should I say in my personal statement?

Departmental websites tend to be pretty vague about what they’re looking for in this part of the application. “[I]f you can tell us a bit more about your background and interests, this information might be helpful,” Yale advises. Rutgers asks for “a short essay on why you are interested in applying to your program.” These instructions are pretty representative.

Since now is the time of year when prospective applicants start to worry about these things, I thought it would be useful to share the general advice I give in response to this question, and find out how it squares with the expectations and experiences of the people reading them. If it’s terrible advice, I’d like to know! And if it’s good advice, it seems worth sharing with others. So, here goes:

Do no harm

This should be your guiding principle. A great personal statement is unlikely to make the difference between your application being accepted and being rejected, but a terrible personal statement might result in a borderline application being moved to the reject pile. People on admissions committees will pay significantly closer attention to your writing sample, grades, test scores, and letters of recommendation. Taking risks in your writing sample can pay off; taking risks in your personal statement is unlikely to help and may very well hurt.

Be concise and substantive

Less than one double-spaced page is probably too short; anything more than three full double-spaced pages is probably too long. Don’t waste time on platitudes about how much you love philosophy, how deeply you cherish the life of the mind, what a privilege it would be to join the department at X, etc. Everybody reading your statement already assumes those things are true. Why else would you be applying to their program? Make each sentence count; don’t make your reader feel like she has to work to get to the point.

Be specific, but non-committal, about your interests

Describe your philosophical interests honestly, intelligently, and in specific terms. Don’t just say you’re interested in epistemology (for example); say what problems or topics in epistemology interest you and why. If you can, show you know something about what is going on in the field, talk about your best paper or conference presentation on relevant questions, and describe some issues and arguments you’d like to work on further. If you wrote a thesis that lays a groundwork for future research, it can be good to describe it. But don’t give the impression that you already know what you’re going to argue in your dissertation. You’ll have two years of coursework and probably another year or two of guided research before your dissertation topic is even settled. Departments aren’t interested in applicants who don’t think they have anything to learn.

Show you’ve done your homework, but only if you really have

If there is a particular researcher or group you’re excited about at the department, talk about this. But only do this if your excitement is based on real knowledge of what those folks are actually doing — ideally knowledge acquired by reading their work, seeing them give talks, having conversations with them, talking with your own professors, etc. Do not just copypaste the names of all the people who work in your areas from the department website and proclaim your excitement about working with them. This makes you look like a bullshitter. 

In my experience, students invest the most time and energy into trying to sell their interests as a good fit to the most prestigious, competitive departments to which they’re applying. This is not an unreasonable strategy, but I think you can expect more bang for your homework buck by researching the departments that may not be your top choices. Just about everybody applying to NYU with an interest in metaphysics is going to talk about Kit Fine; you won’t stand out by showing off what you know about his work on vagueness or grounding. There are brilliant philosophers doing fascinating, exciting work at all of the departments you’re likely to consider, even the places you might think of as your “safety” schools. You can make a great impression by showing that you’re familiar with what’s going on at somewhat lower-prestige programs, and evincing genuine enthusiasm about them.

If you have a compelling history or relevant personal background, mention it, but don’t disclose too much

If you’ve had to overcome significant hurdles to make it where you are today, it can be helpful to tell your story (briefly). If there is some cool, interesting, memorable element of your personal history, feel free to work it into the statement. (I still remember the applicant who grew up in a travelling circus!) If you have a non-standard background — you’re in the midst of changing careers or fields, you aren’t currently enrolled in a philosophy degree program, or you didn’t graduate from one within the last few years — say what led you to philosophy and how your background prepares you to succeed in graduate school.

However, be cautious about disclosing too much personal information. I’ve read statements from applicants describing their struggles with addiction, eating disorders, mental health problems, appearances before disciplinary boards, family troubles, and run-ins with the law. Personally, I am drawn to people who have dealt with these kinds of struggles, so these stories tend to make me like the applicants more. But that attitude is not universally shared! There are some tricky moral and legal issues here, but you should avoid giving the admissions committee reason to worry that you are going to have trouble completing the program, or become a “problem” student.

On the other hand, if your personal situation is directly relevant to the academic work you want to do, it would probably be helpful to talk about it. So, for example, if you want to work on the philosophy of disability, and you have a disability, it would probably be helpful to discuss how your own experience as a person with a disability has shaped this interest, if it has. But even in a case like this, you would do well to talk with a trusted advisor, preferably someone who is also writing one of your recommendation letters, when thinking about how to frame your personal story. Unless they are directly relevant to your interests, avoid discussion of your political views or religious beliefs (and even if they are, err on the side of caution).

Unless it’s major, avoid the temptation to explain any weaknesses in your application

Perhaps your Verbal GRE score is low. Though many philosophers say that they do not care about GRE scores, my inductive evidence strongly suggests that many do. A poor GRE score is likely to hurt your chances, at least at some programs. But attempting to explain this problem away in your personal statement (“I have always struggled with standardized tests…”) is almost certainly not going to help. Moreover, it may hurt by calling attention to something the people reading your application may not have been worried about before. One exception to this piece of advice is when there is a major problem with your academic record; e.g., if you got terrible grades in most of your classes one semester because of a medical emergency or family tragedy. Then it is worth explaining the situation briefly, again keeping in mind the advice above about not disclosing too much. If you can, you should discuss how to discuss major issues like this with your recommendation letter writers. The assurances they can provide in their letters that the issue does not reflect your abilities or current situation may be more valuable than your own.

Miscellania: be professional but humble; be polished; don’t be cutesy

You should come across as an early career academic, a self-driven grown-up who can be expected to meet the demands of an exacting program. You should not come across as someone who thinks they are the next Wittgenstein, or as someone who regards themselves as an academic peer with the people reading your application. Don’t refer to your professors or those at the program by their first names, even if you know them and would do so in person; be deferential and respectful. Keep in mind that whatever else it does, your personal statement provides further evidence about your writing skills, so ask at least one person who is a good writer to carefully proofread your statement. Don’t be jokey, self-deprecating, or overly clever. Remember the guiding principle: do no harm.

Don’t mention your two-or-more-body problem

It’s best not to call attention to the fact that your ultimate decision about where to attend graduate school will depend in part upon your significant other’s (or others’) decisions, even if this is true. (This is the piece of advice I am least confident about.)

These are only meant as general guidelines. I am certain that some applicants have been helped by personal statements that violate all of them! And as I said before, I’m not especially confident in them: they seem plausible, and the people I’ve asked about them tend to agree, but it is hard to know. I’m quite interested to hear what others think.

Let us know in the comments section below!

Geoff Pynn is associate professor of philosophy at Northern Illinois University, where he has been the graduate adviser for the department’s terminal MA program since 2011.

Categories ServiceTags applications, editor; Michaela Maxwell, Geoff Pynn, Grad School, Graduate School, Personal Statements

The following are the instructions for the Personal Statement length and Optional Essay instructions that are contained within each application.

Yale

PS: No stated page limit

Other essays: Required 250 word statement on any topic

Harvard

PS: Maximum 2 pages with 11pt font, 1” margins, double spaced

Other essays: Optional diversity statement

Stanford

PS: About two pages

Other essays: Optional diversity statement

Columbia

PS: No stated page limit

Other essays: Optional diversity statement (“brief”)

U Chicago

PS: 2-4 pages suggested

Other essays: N/A; include diversity information in PS

NYU

PS: No stated page limit

Other essays: Optional diversity statement

UPenn

PS: 2 pages double spaced

Other essays: Optional diversity statement, optional “Penn Core Values,” optional essay about experience on a team — all 1 page maximum double spaced

UVA

PS: No stated page limit

Other essays: Optional addenda (open-ended, multiple addenda accepted)

UC Berkeley

PS: Maximum 4 pages double spaced

Other essays: Optional diversity statement

Duke

PS: No page limit

Other essays: Optional “Why Duke,” optional diversity statement

Michigan

PS: No stated page limit

Other essays: Supplemental essays — 8 options, choose 1 or 2 (or none). Should be about one page, 11pt font, double spaced, but no more than 2 pages. Topics: (1) Say more about your interest in the University of Michigan Law School. What do you believe Michigan has to offer to you and you to Michigan? (2) Describe your current hopes for your career after completing law school. How will your education, experience, and development so far support those plans? (3) If you do not think that your academic record or standardized test scores accurately reflect your ability to succeed in law school, please tell us why. (4) Describe a failure or setback in your life. How did you overcome it? What, if anything, would you do differently if confronted with this situation again? (5) Describe an experience that speaks to the problems and possibilities of diversity in an educational or work setting. (6) What do you think are the skills and values of a good lawyer? Which do you already possess? Which do you hope to develop? (7) How might your perspectives and experiences enrich the quality and breadth of the intellectual life of our community or enhance the legal profession? (8) Describe your educational experiences so far. What kinds of learning environments, teaching methods, student cultures, and/or evaluation processes lead you to thrive, or contrariwise, thwart your success?

Northwestern

PS: Recommended 1-3 pages double spaced

Other essays: Optional “Why Northwestern,” optional diversity statement — choose neither, one, or both. Length should be one or two paragraphs.

Cornell

PS: Maximum 2 pages 11pt font double spaced

Other essays: Optional diversity statement. Short answer (2-3 sentences) “Why Cornell” in app

Georgetown

PS: No page limit

Other essays: Optional diversity statement, optional 250 word response from four prompts: (1) One of the core values of Georgetown Law is that students and faculty learn from each other. As you imagine yourself as a member of the Georgetown Law community, what is one lesson that you have learned in your life that you will want to share with others? (2) What do you regret not doing? (3) What is the biggest ethical challenge you have ever faced and how did you handle it? (4) Fill a 5 1/2″ long by 2 1/2″ wide box in any way you’d like. (See online paper form for an example.) (5) Prepare a one-minute video that says something about you. Upload it to an easily accessible website and provide us the URL. (If you are using YouTube, we strongly suggest that you make your video unlisted so it will not appear in any of YouTube’s public spaces.) What you do or say is entirely up to you. Please note that we are unable to watch videos that come in any form other than a URL link.

UT Austin

PS: Maximum 2 pages 11pt font double spaced

Other essays: Optional diversity statement, maximum 3 pages 11pt font double spaced

UCLA

PS: Maximum 2 pages 12pt font

Other essays: Optional diversity statement, optional “programmatic contribution” essay about specializations/joint degrees, optional public interest essay

Vanderbilt

PS: Maximum 2 pages

Other essays: Optional diversity statement

WUSTL

PS: Approximately 1-3 pages

Other essays: N/A

Emory

PS: Maximum 2 pages double spaced

Other essays: N/A

GWU

PS: 2 pages double spaced

Other essays: Optional diversity statement (maximum 300 words)

U Minn

PS: 2-5 pages double spaced

Other essays: Optional diversity statement

USC

PS: 2-4 pages 12pt font double spaced

Other essays: Optional diversity statement

Alabama

PS: Approximately 2 pages

Other essays: N/A

William & Mary

PS: No stated page limit (“brief”)

Other essays: Optional essays for applicants that have a special interest in the Institute of Bill of Rights Law, Center for Legal and Court Technology, Election Law Program, Law Library, Public Service Admission Ambassador, Special Education Advocacy, Veterans Benefits, and Virginia Coastal Policy Fellowships

U Washington

PS: 700 word maximum

Other essays: 500 words maximum on one of three prompts: (1) If you were asked to create a non-profit organization, what would be the organization, its mission, and its purpose; (2) How would you define “global common good”? Provide an example of how you have contributed to the “global common good”; or (3) What life events or experiences have had the greatest influence in shaping your character and why?

Notre Dame

PS: Maximum 2 pages double spaced

Other essays: Optional “Why Notre Dame” essay, optional diversity essay

Boston U

PS: Approximately 2 pages double spaced

Other essays: Optional diversity statement

U Iowa

PS: 2-3 pages

Other essays: N/A

Indiana U Bloomington

PS: Suggested length of 500 words

Other essays: N/A

UGA

PS: Maximum 4 pages double spaced

Other essays: N/A

Arizona State

PS: Maximum 2 pages double spaced

Other essays: N/A

Ohio State

PS: Generally 2-3 pages

Other essays: Optional diversity statement, optional essay on leadership, optional essay on public interest dedication

UNC

PS: Maximum 4 pages 10pt font double spaced. MUST include why you want to enter the legal profession and why you want to attend UNC specifically

Other essays: Optional diversity statement

U Wisconsin Madison

PS: 2-3 pages 12pt font double spaced 1” margins

Other essays: N/A

Wake Forest

PS: No stated page limit

Other essays: Optional diversity statement

Boston College

PS: 2-3 pages double spaced

Other essays: Optional diversity statement

BYU

PS: Maximum 2 pages 12pt font double spaced

Other essays: N/A

Fordham

PS: Maximum 2 pages double spaced

Other essays: Optional diversity statement

UC Davis

PS: Maximum 4 pages double spaced

Other essays: N/A

U Arizona

PS: 2-4 pages double spaced

Other essays: N/A

U Illinois

PS: 2-3 pages double spaced

Other essays: N/A

SMU

PS: Approximately 2-3 pages double spaced

Other essays: Required “Why SMU” (1 page double spaced), diversity statement (2-3 pages double spaced) optional but required for scholarship consideration

U Colorado Boulder

PS: Maximum 1,000 words

Other essays: Optional diversity statement (maximum 500 words)

Washington & Lee

PS: Maximum 3 pages 12pt font double spaced

Other essays: Optional diversity statement, optional ethical dilemma essay (500 words maximum)

FSU

PS: Maximum 500 words

Other essays: Optional diversity statement (maximum two pages 12pt font double spaced)

George Mason

PS: Maximum 500 words

Other essays: Required “Why George Mason” (maximum 250 words), optional diversity statement

Tulane

PS: Suggested 2-3 pages double spaced

Other essays: Required “Why Tulane,” optional diversity statement

U Maryland

PS: Maximum 750 words

Other essays: Optional diversity statement – approximately 250 words

U Florida

PS: NO personal statement — “Academic Admissions Statement” that focuses on academic interests and experiences. Maximum 4 pages 12pt font double spaced

Other essays: Optional diversity statement, maximum 2 pages 12pt font double spaced

U Utah

PS: 2-3 pages double spaced

Other essays: Optional diversity statement

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