This topic came up recently on the Physics Forums site. A number of people responding said essentially what I have said here in the recent past in this post. You should make it about your research, but it should not be too personal about yourself. Online resources such as this one in The Guardian don’t make sense to me. I have a feeling that this is specifically for applying to undergraduate level in Europe and the UK. They have a very different situation – you must apply in your field, but you are also applying to undergraduate level, so they do want to know more about you. An undergraduate application essay is more personal because undergraduate admissions want to make interesting and well-rounded classes. Graduate schools in the US do not care to do that – except maybe trying to diversify with more women and minority students (hopefully).
As I said before, your application to graduate school is a professional application. Graduate school is a professional school. It doesn’t matter so much to me when you got excited enough about science to want to do it for a living and go to graduate school. As one person writes on the Physics Forum, your interest in Prof. Proton as a child really has no baring on your success as a graduate student. Your success as a graduate student, and beyond grad school, are our only concern.
Here are some really good reasons why I don’t care about your personal reasons:
1. I should not care because it enters a bias. If one student says they have had a passion for science since they were 4 when they looked to the stars and wondered how many there were and how big the universe was, is that any meritorious than the person who didn’t realize it until high school? Or better yet, the person who entered college wanting to do history, fell in love with a science gen-ed course, changed tracks, took an extra year to finish with a science major and now really wants to go to graduate school? The when you decided to devote your career and life to science does not matter. And it should not matter because I have no way to evaluate it objectively, so it isn’t even fair to put in. I usually just ignore it all together, trying to skip past until you get to the real information I need.
2. It wastes time and space you could be saying something real. By making your first 1 – 3 paragraphs about personal drivel that I cannot, by good standards of judgement, use to evaluate you for graduate school, you are wasting my time and your personal real estate in the statement. I have to spend time getting past it to the real information I need. You are wasting words from your word count to tell me things I don’t care about and cannot use.
3. Another indicator that it is not what you should do. In all my years serving on graduate admissions, no one has EVER said, “Well, this person has wanted to do science since they were in junior high, so we should accept him.” No one uses the information. In fact, it is often a source of negativity within the discussion. I have heard people say, “Not another one of these quotes! Did they at least quote a scientist this time?” or derisive comments about what the applicant writes. Again, this is not the best thing for YOU, the applicant, so why give them this information.
I hope this information is helpful to some of you preparing your applications to graduate school. I am serving on admissions again this year, so maybe I will read some of them myself. If I can even get one student to remove this useless personal information and give me what I really need, it will be worth it. Feel free to forward this post to your friends and colleagues. Make comments or post here or at the Physics Forum to continue the conversation.