Working Collaboratively at ABRCMS 2019 to Build Personal Statements

Nov. 27, 2019

Are you looking to get critical feedback on your personal statement prior to graduate school deadlines? Join ABRCMS Online for an interactive webinar that provides peer feedback on personal statement drafts on Tuesday, December 10, 2019 at 6 p.m. E.T. 
At the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) on November 13-16, 2019, many of the professional development sessions targeted towards community college, undergraduate and post-baccalaureate students focused on necessary skills to maximize their research experience, build their professional network and aid their transition to graduate and professional school. A core topic of focus for these students is the personal statement—a document that introduces the applicant to the admissions committee. To support students formulating and refining their personal statements, ABRCMS hosted two sessions entitled, “Building Your Personal Statement” presented by Dr. Victoria Freedman, Assistant Professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Dr. Nancy Schwartz, Professor at University of Chicago. Each session engaged approximately 350 students in an interactive exercise to formulate an effective personal statement.

Freedman opened the session with a description of the session goals: to provide general guidelines about the personal statement and to work with participants in drafting the personal statement. Freedman had the students explore the central question, "Why should the school invest in you?" The consensus was the school should invest in you because you can:
  • Express yourself clearly and concisely
  • Follow instructions and provide the information the committee is seeking
  • Introduce yourself to the admission committee as a scientist and person  
She emphasized that the personal statement is only one part of a graduate or professional school application and students should make sure that it supports other parts of the application. The personal statement should do a good job of highlighting the part of the application you want to stress, setting you apart from other candidates, appearing as a person to the admissions committee (as opposed to a sheet of paper) and convincing the committee that you are a good match for their institution.

Freedman urged attendees to start early on the personal statement by making an outline, writing a draft and showing it to someone—and doing this without being too concerned about making it perfect. She stressed, “The least private thing is a personal statement. Get people to read it!” To draft your personal statement, think about a basic 3-paragraph structure:
  • Paragraph 1: How has your interest in science (or medicine) developed?
  • Paragraph 2: What were your significant research experiences about?
  • Paragraph 3: Why are you pursuing a Ph.D. or M.D./Ph.D.?
The students drafted each of these paragraphs and received peer feedback. From these conversations, 4 principles for drafting a personal statement emerged.

Principle #1: The personal statement should present a unique experience and a distinct pathway.

Many students presented compelling stories of their budding interest in science. These stories helped the audience contextualize a student's introduction to science and map this to their research journey. For application reviewers, this allows them to tap into your personal motivation for pursuing a career in the sciences.

Principle #2: The personal statement is a research description, but it is NOT ONLY a research description.

Students presented their research experience by focusing on the big picture of their research, followed by their specific contributions to the project and how the experience influenced their decision to pursue a degree. This goes beyond a simple enumeration of the details of your research, but focuses on your experience gained through research. The admissions committee can then see the value of your research experiences in your scientific development.

Principle #3: Leverage all of your work and experiences in your personal statement.

While students in the session only described a single research experience, many students may have multiple research experiences prior to entering graduate or professional school. You should include necessary experiences for the committee to see you as a capable scientist. No experience is irrelevant—what you get out of an experience that yielded negative results can be just as valuable as an experience that resulted in a publication.

Principle #4: Think very intently about why you are pursuing the degree.

Students came up with many reasons why they are pursuing a Ph.D. or M.D./Ph.D.:
  • To become an expert.
  • To learn from other good students.
  • To sample the ideas of faculty.
  • To get to know prevailing wisdom of a field.
  • To take interesting and exciting courses.
  • To gain technical skills and learn intellectual strategies to do creative and significant research.
  • To find a mentor who is thoughtful and caring.
  • To have an exciting career. 
The admissions committee can tell if you have taken the time to sincerely think about your reasons for pursuing a degree and choosing their program. Make sure to take the sum of your experiences and channel them into your motivations for the next step in your scientific maturation.

Following this interactive session, Schwartz presented some culminating thoughts:
  • Make sure that you read the statement prompt carefully.
  • Ensure that your statement specifically answers the question(s).
  • Formulate a readable statement.
  • Adhere to the word count and other stated requirements. 
  • Use an introductory sentence in each paragraph to direct the flow of the statement. 
  • Avoid common “gimmicks,” such as using quotes.
In a particularly compelling conversation, the participants discussed how to address struggles and challenges in the personal statement. The most important thing is to mention challenges, but make sure that you illustrate what you have done to overcome those challenges to make you ready for this next step. As a parting note, the presenters urged students to remember that anything written in the personal statement is fair game for the interview. Make sure that you are familiar with what you include in your personal statement—admissions committees take these very seriously, and you should as well.

Author: Christopher Skipwith, Ph.D.

Christopher Skipwith, Ph.D.
Dr. Christopher Skipwith is an education specialist for the American Society for Microbiology, responsible for coordinating education and training resources for the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS), including ABRCMS Online.