In a particular math PhD application, there are multiple questions along the lines of "please describe personal experiences and perspectives and what you would bring to our community", as well as a place to attach unspecified "supplemental documents". It appears that these areas of the application are not specific to the math department but rather are shown to all applicants to the university's graduate school.

Honestly, I don't think I have anything to add in these areas, having written about my experiences already in my statement of purpose. I was not expecting to have to provide so much personal (i.e., not research-related) information in the PhD application.

Would it negatively impact my application to leave these areas blank? Should I say "see statement of purpose"?

Background: this is a top 10 pure math PhD program in the USA.


Actually, don't assume that this question isn't about research and academics. In fact, it sounds like an invitation to provide a "personal statement" beyond the CV and SoP. What is it that motivates you? What have mentors taught you that you want to emulate? What projects and courses have been important in setting your direction? On and on. Lots of possibilities that some would put (incorrectly) in the SoP instead.

What you say doesn't need to be entirely "academic" but a lot of it can be.

  • I am just curious - why do you say mentioning influential projects, courses, and the motivation is not appropriate for the SOP?
    – user142983
    Nov 7 '21 at 19:08
  • 1
    The SoP is about the future. What are your plans for study and beyond. Short phrases of motivation can lead into a statement of the plan, but focus on the future expectations themselves. What do you intend to do in grad school (field, subfield, any tentative research ideas...)? What are your long term goals? Don't make the SoP about you specifically, but about the future direction you intend to take. And don't recapitulate the CV there or make excuses for any past failings. Onward.
    – Buffy
    Nov 7 '21 at 19:14

Obviously, it's not possible to answer definitively whether not answering such questions will negatively impact your application in this particular instance. However, it seems unlikely that it would positively impact your application. For instance, if the admissions committee uses that field for review, having to go dig through you SoP for the answer would not help your application.

Also, even though these questions might not be relevant to "research", many PhD programs care quite a bit about department culture and want to admit students who will contribute positively to this culture. This is certainly the case in my department, even though we are almost entirely research focused. So, I also wouldn't assume that the department will not care about your responses to such questions.

  • Exactly. Having people around who're combative or hostile or biased about "who looks/acts like a mathematician" are a net loss... Poisoning the atmosphere. Demonstrating at least an awareness that such issues are part of real life (math or not) is a plus, in my dept. Nov 7 '21 at 20:29

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