So, how about a Ph-D Part 3: Essays and test prep

Ian Pendleton is a Ph-D. student at the University of Michigan. He is a four year ACS member and a recipient of the Division of Organic Chemistry Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship. He is currently researching organic chemistry with a focus in methods development. When not working in the lab, he enjoys rock climbing and scuba diving. (Photo courtesy of Eastern Michigan University)

Welcome back!  If you haven’t already, check out part 1 and part 2 of Ian’s advice for those applying to graduate school!  In this installment, Ian covers the personal statement, the research summary, and the GRE.

Essay writing: How to write an interesting and effective personal statement

Essay writing is a big part of the application process, and for good reason.  Your personal statement demonstrates how you write, who you are, and why you should be granted admission to the committee that will ultimately decide to admit you to the school of your choice…or not. This means you need to pay attention to what they ask you to write; an essay which doesn’t even follow the basic directions of the prompt won’t impress a committee trying to fill a limited number of spaces.

If you read through a general Google search of “personal statement” you will see a plethora of various concepts, forms, and approaches.  The American Chemical Society (ACS) has a helpful guide to writing a personal statement in its Graduate School Reality Check (see page 4).  The best additional advice I can give you is to write with the specific school in mind.  Take time to figure out what a school is looking for by reading mission statements and department goals, but also make sure you stay true to yourself. The admissions committee looks for unique individuals, not simply chemistry geniuses.

To start, look at the prompt of the essay. Even if you are recycling from another application, look at the prompt.  You cannot know what you are being asked to include if you do not read the prompt.  Then, write an outline for your introduction.  When writing an introduction you should think about a “funnel” format.  You want to drop your readers into the essay, and allow them to flow from the very first sentence into the body of your essay.  This means start with a broad reference that is relevant to your essay, but not an obvious cliché that will insult your audience (e.g. I have a lot of lab experience and one of the most important parts of a chemist’s job is working in the lab.).  An introduction that acknowledges the benefits of diversity in higher education, the personal advantages of pursuing a degree in chemistry, or even the personal satisfaction of doing chemistry lab are all reasonable opening sentences.  And if you can’t come up with a clever introduction, don’t sweat it, just write the rest of your essay and come back to your opening.

The most important transition is between the opening paragraph and the body of the essay. The final sentence in the introduction should summarize the entire essay, but it should also be the most specific sentence in the introduction.  It is called the thesis sentence, and it should summarize the entire argument of your personal statement. Because it is so important, many resources are available to help refine its structure and form.

Following the thesis sentence is the main body of the essay. Depending on the prompt, this can be vastly different from essay to essay.  Some things to keep in mind while you write the body of the essay:

  1. Stay with the prompt.
  2. You are writing an argument.  Your goal is to convince and persuade the admissions committee to accept you.  Give them every reason to say yes!
  3. If you are discussing research, don’t use discipline-specific jargon (stereoselectivity, methodology, diastereomers, chromatography, boson, etc.).
  4. Focus on personal experiences, but don’t forget you are attempting to explain why you want to join their specific Ph. D. program!
  5. Write about specific research you are interested in at the university. For example, if I were starting to write my essay for Princeton, I would visit the Princeton Graduate admission homepage, follow the link to the chemistry department, find faculty, and then search through until I found someone interesting, say, David MacMillan.  From there, I would visit his group page, find his publications, and read a couple!  If I didn’t find his work interesting, then I would cross him off and move on.  If I liked the research, then I would write about my favorite project that he or she has published. Also look at DGRweb, an excellent chemistry faculty list through the ACS. (Do not follow this if it deviates from the prompt!)
  6. Remember that graduate school is all about the research!  If you show that you are interested in something that the professor is investigating, he or she will want you as a student!  Make the connections!
  7. You are writing about the journey that has led you to graduate school.  You want to address why you want to be a part of a Ph. D. program and what their program has for you specifically.  Give examples.

You should address your career goals in your personal statement.  Even though a career may be a ways off, showing that you have a goal depicts you as focused and as a long-term thinker.  Also, remember that the people you are writing to are professors by choice.  So, if you have an interest in teaching, make sure to say it!

Lastly you have to conclude and make it sound serious.  You want to be in that program.  Summarize and be clear: “I will”, “I intend”, “I am ready to contribute to chemistry at your university”.  Make sure that there is no doubt you want to join their program.  This is implied in almost every prompt, so make sure to include it!

Oh, and once you’re done, proofread it, and if possible, get someone else to proofread it, too.  Remember, you may not worry about grammar, but a reviewer will.  The essay you send in should not be a first draft.  Review, review, review!

The ACS has an excellent library of resources for essay writing and graduate application help.  The Purdue Online Writing Lab provides an excellent list of general advice, some of which I have already touched on.  If you are unsure about the angle you wish to take on graduate school, check out the ACS handbook on Planning for Graduate Work in Chemistry.  This may give you an idea of important points to include outside of research.

Research summary, statement of purpose, and other essays

You may be required to write other types of essays. I will describe a couple below. Remember: Essays are your chance to shine. Your personal statement is your appeal to the school, whereas your essay is your opportunity to explain exactly what you have done to earn a place at their institution.

In a research summary, focus mainly on why you started research. Discuss three main points of your work, and explain where that research has taken you. Don’t go into gory detail about every reaction, experiment and trial from your undergraduate research.  Make three key points and don’t bury them with irrelevant data. Feel free to include diagrams and key tables of data in order to enhance your work.  And in direct contrast to the personal statement, use technical terms, because experts in your field will hopefully be reading your application.

A successful research summary will highlight your accomplishments as a scientist, but not bore the audience with irrelevant data. An irreplaceable tool for accomplishing this is the ACS Style Guide.  This book contains the do’s and don’ts of effective scientific communication including common errors, proper syntax, and citation management.  I highly recommend this guide. It will be useful far beyond graduate school applications!

Another type of essay is the statement of purpose.  Approach these essays as a research summary and personal statement combined.  Sometimes the prompt will be extraordinarily different than the essay name; always follow the prompt!  In my case, the University of Michigan’s prompt asked for an explanation of how past research and personal experience influenced my decision to attend graduate school.  Thus, my essay addressed both my research (jargon included; they asked for it by wanting research information) and my personal history.  I also knew that scholarships were available to first generation college students, so I included that in my personal history blurb.

The best advice I have heard is threefold: Follow the prompt, write to your audience (follow the style guide!), and tell a true story.  I hope these tips will help you assemble a good set of essays, but the writing process still takes time.  Make sure you start early and give yourself time for edits and final proof reading so you can submit quality work on time. Keep a checklist. And remember: these essays should not be a first drafts.  Review, review, review!

4. GRE battle: test preparation

I’m going to keep this section short, because like most chemistry students, you have already taken a few standardized tests by this point in their education and you know how to go about studying.  So, the most useful advice I can provide: Study frequently.  Part of test taking is training your brain to think in the ways the test wants.  You can find various guides at Amazon.com, Half.com, or your local bookstore.  While studying every one of them is probably not necessary, spending time with any GRE prep book on a daily basis is an excellent investment of your time.

To prepare for the chemistry subject test, I used “Cracking the GRE, Chemistry Subject Test.”  This one is still a little weak in my opinion, although it does provide a good starting point.  There’s also The Best Test Preparation for the GRE Chemistry.  Again, just put time into studying, and all will be fine.  Take your first test early, so if you need to take another, you’ll have plenty of time.  Testing has already begun, so register soon!

Remember: Don’t panic, and always carry a towel.  Seriously, relax.  One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to burn yourself out.  As always, good luck, and if you have questions, leave a comment!

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2 thoughts on “So, how about a Ph-D Part 3: Essays and test prep

  1. Pingback: So how about a Ph.D.? Part 4 – How to Work Smart and Grad School Visits |

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