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I have found that most top US CS PhD programs don't require a personal statement (PS). Only a few schools put the PS into their application checklist.

As for the requirement of PS, take an example from UC Berkely, the personal statement shall emphasize the obstacles for one's achievement. It means that unlike statement of purpose (SOP) which demonstrates one's research ability and potential, PS seems to care more about personal life challenges.

I am wondering about how much weight the PS has in a PhD application. If it is not that critical, then I tend to write later and spend less time.

I am really appreciated if someone could share their experience. Thanks!

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  • I'll guess that the meaning is too variable to have a real definition. The UCB statement surprises me a bit, but too many people put that stuff in the SoP where it doesn't belong.
    – Buffy
    Jul 25 at 16:24
  • @Buffy Thanks for the reply! May I ask where the surprise comes from?
    – Kato
    Jul 25 at 16:40
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    Surprised only that they factored that out specifically. I think it is a good idea, actually, so that it doesn't show up in SoP, pushing out more important things.
    – Buffy
    Jul 25 at 18:17
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Let me answer your question in two parts.

First, weight:

I am wondering about how much weight the PS has in a PhD application. If it is not that critical, then I tend to write later and spend less time.

This is not a good way to think about a PhD application. A competitive program may have several hundred applications and perhaps ten spots. In such an environment each part of your application should be as strong as you can make it. While some of the folks competing for spots in the program might weight their effort like you suggest, there are enough good people that will produce thoroughly polished applications that one with an obvious deficiency will not make the cut.

Deadlines for most programs begin November 1st and end sometime in mid-December. You will be judged strongly if you cannot write a good personal statement and research proposal within the next three months (as of the time I write this answer). Start writing some drafts now, get plenty of feedback from good writers you trust, and you'll be fine.

Second, what is the personal statement for?

Zeroth, to demonstrate writing ability.

Academia is about continuously justifying and advocating for yourself, in writing. This happens in grant applications, fellowship applications, the papers you write, cover letters, emails to colleagues, Twitter posts, &c. If you cannot write in a compelling fashion, grad school will be harder.

But, primarily, to contextualize your application.

This is especially true if your application has "deficiencies". Your CV might show a multi-year break in research or your research proposal might be somewhat under-developed. Perhaps this is because you were a single parent at some point, or had a medical condition you needed to sort out, or you're first-generation and didn't have good advising during/before/after your undergrad, or you're switching fields, or you decided to take time off to travel the world.

All of the above possibilities, and more, can lead an application to look academically weaker. But, with the appropriate "spin" a personal statement turns your weaknesses into advantages. You learn things through adverse experiences and they can drive your desire to pursue a particular path.

Will I take the straight-A student from a wealthy New Jersey background who happens to have an interest in anaerobic digestion, or a slightly less stellar student who grew up having to dig pit latrines and wants to research ways of improving them? The latter has a lot of personal motivation and context that may lead them to do better research, but this is not easily expressed on a CV and may not be appropriate in a research statement.

Second, to show something of your character.

Grad school can be hard. Graduate students as a population have high rates of depression and work, often alone, in environments with poorly-defined objectives, competing priorities, and minimal oversight, often while facing financial stress. 50% of PhD students leave (power to them!) their programs. Completion of a program does not necessarily lead to personal enrichment or dream jobs.

A personal statement which can speak to one's resiliency and goals provides evidence that a potential admit will be able to handle the challenges described above (whether directly or by finding the support they need and advocating for themselves).

Both of the above reasons are why a program might want, as you say,

the personal statement [to] emphasize the obstacles for one's achievement

Third, to show something of your personality.

Ted put it well in his answer: if someone walks away from reading your personal statement thinking, "I like this person" or some variant thereof, you've done well.

Finally, as an argument.

Your research proposal may or may not have room to discuss why, intellectually, you belong at your chosen program. But your personal statement surely has room. Personal statements tell the Story of You, and that story explains why, logically, your chosen institution is the right place for you given what you've done and what you plan to do in the future.

The personal statement and research proposal complement and support each other in making the argument that what you're doing makes sense, that your chosen institution is the best place for you to do that, and that you being there is of mutual benefit.

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  • Hi @Richard This is a great answer and thanks a lot for your effort put in. I guess I should not overlook the PS. A follow-up question of mine is would there be any difference if I submit a PS (hopefully a good one) despite PS is not one of the requirements of a program? I know this can vary case by case but I want to learn your opinion. Much appreciated!
    – Kato
    Aug 5 at 5:48
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    @Kato: I suggest submitting all and only what the admissions committee has asked for unless you have strong reasons/extenuating circumstances requiring otherwise.
    – Richard
    Aug 5 at 5:52
  • Yeah that makes sense. Thanks for sharing your knowledge, your help is very valuable.
    – Kato
    Aug 5 at 6:23
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Personal statements are a hold-over from an earlier era, where schools were more interested in assessing character. Even as late as the 80s (and still in places today) grad schools saw themselves as producing well-rounded, thoroughly awesome übermenschen, and not just anyone would do. Academia has become more and more professionalized, standardized, and bureaucratized (more's the pity), so achievement metrics have taken on a greater role in candidate selection. But I wouldn't neglect the personal statement.

Think of the personal statement as an opportunity to make a personal connection, above and beyond the (for lack of a better term) clinical data that will make up the rest of your application. You want to tune it so that if a reviewer is sitting there trying to decide between you and an equally qualified other, he'll think: "You know, I like this person." A good, honest personal statement gives a small edge in highly competitive environment.

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    I'd guess that idea is/was more prevalent at the undergraduate level. The school I went to had a statement of principles that we were all supposed to aspire/adhere to.
    – Buffy
    Jul 25 at 18:26
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Since asking for a Personal Statement isn't ubiquitous, let me suggest that the meaning is likely dependent on the university that asks for it. Hopefully, like UCB, they provide some guidance.

Nearly everyone in US will want a Statement of Purpose (SoP) so spend some time and effort on that one. Make it forward focused on goals. Use the past only to support the future, not to explain past failures or obstacles.

But you might also keep something for a personal statement, perhaps in the form of an outline or set of bullet points that you can draw on to write a specific one, tailored to the definition given by some university. I suspect that the requirements will vary from place to place so keep an idea of lots of things - inspirations, obstacles overcome, key influences, and the like.

The weight of it will also depend, but I doubt that it will be determinative, except at the margins. A US application depends on a broad look at many aspects with letters being more important than elsewhere.

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