Writing Your Personal Statement as a Computational Biologist
Updated: Oct 9, 2020
Figure 1: Using our twitter platform, @blkwomencompbio we polled Science twitter with the following question: “What stood out to you the most in a prospective student’s application package?”. The answer to this is displayed in the pie chart, and most answered that personal statements, also known as a statement of purpose, play a crucial role in applications. (N = 64)
What is a Personal Statement?
Applications for graduate school, grants, and fellowships often require an essay (1-2 pages max) detailing your history, goals, and a reason for choosing their program. It paints a picture of who you are, where you came from, and where you would like to go. Your statement is an excellent opportunity to showcase your strengths and discuss your weaknesses. It should complement the other parts of your application. Lastly, this statement represents an opportunity for you to set yourself apart from the other applicants allowing the reviewers a chance to get to know you. Oftentimes in computational biology, applicants come from a wide array of fields and have many unique combinations of experiences. Readers of your personal statement are especially looking to see how you articulate your unique experiences and why you are passionate about refining your skills further in the field. Now is your time to paint a portrait of your strengths that people can use to understand both your personality and your work ethic at once.
Brainstorming Your Story
Take a moment to reflect on your journey thus far, consider the ideas you would like to convey. Here are five (5) critical parts to include:
Academic or professional goals
Achievements and Research experience
What you bring to the program
What the program has that is important for your success
This order is not set in stone, but these five points should make up the bulk of your personal statement. After reflecting, formulate an outline based on your writing style (whether that be bullet points or just throwing down sentences) and refine your draft through multiple stages of edits and revisions.
Try to get as many people to give you feedback as possible; note not all suggestions are good suggestions so use your discretion. Make sure the people reading your statement are people you trust and who may have some idea of your writing styles, so that they can provide feedback from a perspective that preserves your voice as much as possible. Remember this statement is YOURS and you don't want to lose your story. Take feedback as you see fit.
It is very tempting to put off writing your personal statement as it can be extremely daunting. However, keeping in mind your timeline for brainstorming, receiving feedback, and making revisions may also be helpful in your planning phase to help you stay focused on what you would like to communicate.
Begin your statement with an introduction that reflects your personality. A compelling, relevant, and current first sentence will ensure the reader is “hooked” and engaged with your story, and more interested in you as an individual. Write what comes naturally and aim to be specific about your goals. When writing your introduction avoid the following:
Cliche openings like “For as long as I can remember”, “Ever since I was a child”
Opening with a quote - if it’s not directly driving you daily don't use it. Start with what is driving you now.
Your body paragraphs should focus on your strengths (achievements, experiences, etc.) and weaknesses (things you hope to improve and how you’ve been working to improve them, explaining poor grades in courses, etc.). A good applicant is someone who is not only intelligent but someone who knows that there is always space to improve. You should spend your last 1-2 paragraphs discussing your reasons for choosing specific programs--this is the part of the statement you will modulate the most for each school that you apply to. Discuss specific faculty you’re interested in, why the environment suits you, specific aspects of the curriculum or program requirements that are particularly conducive to your learning style, etc. This shows them that you did your research and you’re genuinely interested in your program before applying.
Summarizing General Tips:
Concentrate on your introduction
This is the most important as it sets the tone for your statement, here you either grab the reader's attention or lose it.
Why are you interested in computational biology? How did you find the field and what have you done to build skills in it?
Tell a Story
Using concrete experiences, distinguish yourself from other applicants by telling a compelling story of your scientific journey.
Introduce your goals and motivations
Discuss your interest and experience
Conclude with reasons for choosing the program
You should be telling your journey and this program should be the logical next step.
What about the field of computational biology (broad term) excites you and what scientific questions are you most interested in asking
How does the structure of the program cater to your interests or specific needs (if you’re interested in biomedical research, is the program in a medical school that provides that environment for you?)
Recycle your introduction and body, but not your closing paragraphs!
Each application’s personal statement should conclude differently as you should end showcasing the research you did into the program.
Beware--careless mistakes such as submitting a personal statement to college X while discussing faculty from program Y could severely affect your chances of admittance to program Y.
Write well and correctly
Type and proofread very carefully.
Choose your reviewers wisely from your network of trusted and experienced individuals
The story you tell about yourself is an ever-evolving narrative that will stick with you at many stages of your professional career. It’s a great idea to start working on this early, often, and with consistent effort so ensure you deliver a polished draft that best reflects you at that stage of your career.
If you’re an active member of The Network and would like to see specific examples, email email@example.com with subject [Personal Statement Example Request] and your name, educational background, and field of interest. We’ll do our best to match you with someone with a similar background.
Khadija Wilson, Kaylyn Clark, Markia Smith, Jenea I. Adams, Pathways To Computational Biology Board