Oh my goodness, how do I write a Personal Statement for an REU application?

Every time I’ve been required to write a personal statement, I freak out.  In the past, I thought these essays needed to be mind-blowing narratives to convince people how “awesome” I was and that I “totally understood” science.  This was incredibly intimidating—especially when, if I was honest with myself, I didn’t think I was that remarkable to begin with, and there was so much that I didn’t know yet.  Yes, I made fine grades, but when I thought about the thousands of other students out there fairly similar to me (or in my mind, even smarter or more well-qualified), I wasn’t sure I’d be able to convince the admissions committee that I was worth accepting.

If you have a similar thought process, I’m here to tell you (and past-Becky) not to freak out.  Research programs are competitive, and you should apply broadly to give yourself the best chance to get in to one, but what the admissions people are looking for is a true narrative about your interests to determine if your passions match what they are looking for.  They want to know about you: how you developed your interests through your experiences, and what you plan to do in the future based on those interests.  So rather than generating an over-inflated statement, the goal is write so that the committee can get to know who you are and what your motivating factors are as clearly as possible.  Part of your statement should narrate some of your accomplishments, but remember that the personal statement is not just a reiteration of your CV; it should be a narrative about what brought you to this process of applying for the program of interest, why you’re interested in it, and how participation will help you accomplish your goals.

If I were to offer past-Becky some advice, it would be this: sit in a comfy chair with a cup of coffee or hot chocolate, grab a pen and paper, and take some time to really think.  When did you develop your interest in science?  What specific experiences in the classroom, in lab, with a teacher, or outside of school have expanded or reinforced this interest?  Take some time to really think through your past and take some brief notes. You’ll want to make your passion clear, so make a short list of impactful experiences.  Explain what it is about science that is the most interesting to you: maybe you appreciate how science builds on past knowledge, or maybe you have learned how much critical thinking or creativity is required for discovery, or maybe you’ve realized the complexity of life can be studied by exploring one small aspect of it.  How have your experiences shown you this? Make this personal to your own passion.  Really think hard about why you’re pursuing the career path you’re on and write it down.  What do you want from your future professional life based on your current passions?  What experiences have you had, and what experiences do you need to ensure that you’re on the right path?  Do you understand the purpose of the program you’re applying to?  Have you looked up the program or institution to learn more about the details of the program, environment, and the science being studied?  What in your background will demonstrate your ability to seek out and be successful in this kind of opportunity?  Be specific in naming any programs you’ve previously participated in, describe what they are (not everyone will know the acronyms you’re familiar with), and explain their impact on you.  How have they fueled your passion or provided insight into science?  If you’ve done research before, be sure to name specifically your contributions to discovery.  And finally, what kinds of experiences have enhanced your resilience, persistence, initiative, and independence as a learner?

To reiterate, the format of your personal statement should be a narrative about yourself.  With that in mind, you want to demonstrate how thoughtful you are about your goals and the steps you’ve taken to achieve them.  However, don’t write this like a checklist of your personal / professional strengths or experiences; these factors should be implicit (not explicit).  I’ve seen students list off their experiences and write “this experience taught me resilience / independence / etc”.  It is best if you demonstrate mature writing skills by weaving a story that explains your growth and doesn’t read like a checklist.  One more note on this: programs are looking for strong writers, and the maturity of this essay will be taken into account.  It is certainly a good idea to have your peers check your essay for grammar, and don’t be shy about sending it to a faculty member for critique, too (giving plenty of time for feedback, of course).

A note about format: there isn’t a standard formula for these essays, but to help, I’ll provide a rough suggestion.  The first paragraph could be about how your scientific interests were piqued, the middle section could describe how you’ve matured as a scientist (detail experiences and what you learned from them), and the final paragraph could describe why you’re applying to the specific program.  Some programs will impose word limits, but in general, brevity is best.  I’d aim for a 1-page single-spaced essay.

Another note for REU programs: they are looking for students who specifically want to gain research experience, and some may also only consider students who have had experience doing research in the past (especially the highly competitive programs).  It is best to make it abundantly clear why you’re interested in gaining research experience (or more research experience).  A statement that says anything about research being a requirement for graduate / medical school is not a sufficient explanation (and would be bad to say).  Instead, think harder about how this experience will impact your understanding of science and how discoveries are made or how it will inform your career pursuits.  As you would like to attend graduate school in the future, it is certainly important for you to gain research experience at a research-intensive institution.  If you’ve done research in the past (perhaps you’ve participated in SURFs or taken BIO 4700 at Belmont), explain clearly what you discovered.  What approaches did you use, what hypothesis were you testing, and what did you discover?  Note that it is NOT appropriate to simply list all of the techniques you’ve performed, whether from lab or from a research experience, instead, explain why you did these experiments.  Committees are looking for students who can describe their discoveries and how it fits into a larger biological question, not just people who can perform a specific technique.  Additionally, describing a lab exercise (from a class) as a discovery is not appropriate.  You should only list a true research experience as such—it is important that you can distinguish lab exercises from research / discovery.

It would also strengthen your personal statement to specify what areas of Biology are of most interest to you.  What classes did you like best, or what parts of those classes did you want to learn more about?  It would even be helpful to look up the programs you’re applying to and specify whether there are labs that are of interest to you.  You’ll want to demonstrate that you’re not just applying every program out there: demonstrate that you’ve put effort into choosing the specific program you’re apply for by naming some specific aspects of the program or areas of study that are most exciting to you.

Finally, check out these posts (here, here, and here) for some more advice from admissions folks!  They are aimed at applying to graduate school, but some of the info might be helpful.

It just takes a short time to sit and think before you start writing to help you describe your own story.  Before writing any sentences, briefly answer the questions in the third paragraph above.  I wish past-Becky knew that her own story was interesting and compelling if she would just take the time to think before writing—maybe that would have made her less nervous, and hopefully this advice will make you feel more confident in starting your essay.  🙂

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