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I am working on my application to UC Davis. It requires a Personal History Statement separate from the Statement of Purpose. I've been through this process with UC Berkeley, and the prompts are almost exactly the same. Davis, however, also has a diversity fellowship that I'd like to apply to that requires a short statement, and if I leave my Personal History Statement essentially the same as what I submitted for Berkeley, I'm afraid I may repeat a lot. I'm trying to figure out if and/or how to make them distinct.

This is the Personal History Statement prompt:

The purpose of this essay is to get know you as an individual and potential graduate student. Please describe how your personal background informs your decision to pursue a graduate degree. You may include any educational, familial, cultural, economic, or social experiences, challenges, community service, outreach activities, residency and citizenship, first-generation college status, or opportunities relevant to your academic journey; how your life experiences contribute to the social, intellectual, or cultural diversity within a campus community and your chosen field; or how you might serve educationally underrepresented and underserved segments of society with your graduate education.

In my personal history statement, I talk about the interaction between my having a significant physical disability and the progression of interest and confidence in my ability to succeed in higher ed, discussing in one para. some of the challenges I faced. I also talk about helping interpret for my sister, who had speech production limitations after getting a tracheostomy -- how it really made me cognizant of language and grew a desire to affect some kind of difference for those who have language challenges.

The diversity fellowship prompt says to briefly explain how you fulfill their criteria. The ones that could apply to me are these:

To be eligible for a fellowship that promotes diversity, applicants must have an interest in an academic career in teaching and research, be a United States Citizen or Permanent Resident, and meet one or more of the following criteria:

  1. Demonstrate potential to bring to their academic research the perspective that comes from their understanding of the experiences of groups historically underrepresented in higher education or underserved by academic research generally.

  2. Provide evidence of academic achievement while overcoming barriers such as economic, social, or educational disadvantage.

  3. Demonstrate potential to contribute to higher education through the understanding of the barriers facing women, domestic minorities, students with disabilities, and members of other groups underrepresented in higher education careers, as evidenced by life experiences and educational background. Examples include, but are not limited to:

    b. ability to articulate the barriers facing women, racial minorities and other groups in fields where they are underrepresented;

I have fairly substantial experience volunteer tutoring ESL to refugees, too. I'm trying to figure out where and how exactly I could talk about that. So, my question for you all is, would it be a poor choice to focus on my disability in both statements?

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    The personal statement is personal; you decide what goes in it. You should include evidence that you will be a good graduate student. – Anonymous Physicist Jan 12 '16 at 9:31
  • I just don't want to overemphasize it.. or come across as shallow for focusing on that one aspect of me. I'm just trying to figure out how it would come across... – Danielle Jan 13 '16 at 4:16
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The two sections are read by two different (if sometimes overlapping) committees. The personal history will be read by the general admissions committee. They might note issues of diversity and disability which can lead to a fellowship, but if there is a separate question for that -- they may assume that that information will be duplicated there. Still, if your disability played a significant role in shaping who you are as an academic -- the kinds of questions and approaches, or the empathy you bring to particular subjects or students -- I would include it in your personal history statement as that will speak to your motivation for study.

The diversity / disability fellowship question is also important. There are many small fellowships in the UC system and faculty try very hard to ensure that students get every penny they can -- but this is only possible if students self-declare. I would not feel shy about repeating any information in the diversity fellowship response -- again, you want to ensure that you have the funds to study what you want to study.

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I don't have any experience in evaluating graduate admissions, so you should probably wait for someone who does to reply to your question, but reading the statement descriptions makes me think that they're looking in your personal statement to figure out your motivations (i.e. what is going to keep you going through the hardest parts of graduate school), while they're looking in your diversity statement to figure out how educating you will benefit the world. I think it'd be a good idea to not focus on diversity prompt #2, which sounds pretty similar to what you talk about in the your personal history statement, but the other two could apply -- so I'd focus on those.

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The short answer to the question is: You should not focus on the disability in both essays, unless the two essays are going to be read by different committees, and they will not have access to the other essays. (The department secretary will know the answer to that.)

Some general advice, to take to heart in all of your application:

  • You have a limited number of words to impress upon the committee who you are; don't waste those words repeating yourself.
  • Impressing 'upon the committee who you are' is not the same as 'impressing the committee with who you are.' You don't need to have climbed Everest, ran for Congress at 26 and come up with a unique proof of Bayes theorem. Part of the desire to focus on the disability comes from this impetus that many students have to seem larger than life, but we all live in our lives, so make sure that you show who you are, even in instances that are more mundane.
  • Don't be overly humble either. Make sure that the great things you do are stated clearly.
  • Graduate programs are looking for potential scholars, not leaders, characters or great stories. Above all else, you need to come across as a valuable contributor to the field in which you are applying, with potential to contribute long into the future. Your disability shouldn't hinder that, but you still need to meet that standard, and your disability won't help there either.

A few notes on the disability:

  • Don't ever focus on the disability focus on overcoming the disability. You are not your disability, but your disability made you who you are, in part. Show them that.
  • Don't focus on special needs you will have (e.g. wheelchair access) since they will be providing that anyway, but but forthcoming about anything non-typical that you will need to do your research. The objective here is to demonstrate that you have already done enough work or thought enough about the field to know what special needs you have to do it right, not to get them to pay for those things (which they may).
  • Don't whine or try to create a 'special class' for you disability. Any disability is sort of self-defining, and has disadvantages--which is why it is called a disability. If you overstep that, however, and try to create 'additional disadvantages' you begin to sound like you are trying to exploit your disability for unfair advantages. (e.g. "Most people can imagine that it is hard to be blind, but what people don't realize is how bad anti-blind bigotry is!") Let the story speak for itself.
  • Do mention funding opportunities for people in your situation you that have or will apply for.
  • Do be grateful. On most local news stations there will be a story about once monthly about someone who has had something terrible happen to them, and they will be described as 'brave', 'strong', or 'an example to us all.' Generally, they meet their challenge, and remain grateful for the things they do have. Try to capture that spirit. The fact that you are applying to top programs indicates that you have had opportunities, in spite of your disability, so show that.
  • Don't use your disability as an excuse, but Do explain instances when it affected performance legitimately. If you are paralyzed because of a car accident that happened your sophomore year, it probably also affected your grades. Explain this clearly, because although the readers may understand the timing of the accident and the grades, they may not connect the two.
  • If possible, show a positive trajectory. If you weren't diagnosed as dyslexic until you were a senior in high-school, you probably had bad grades up until then, but after the diagnosis, you should point out you improving grades as your ability to cope improved.

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