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I am hesitating whether to apply to some of the "University of California" universities. The problem is, many of them ask for a "personal history statement":

Describe how your background, accomplishments, and life experiences led to your decision to pursue the graduate degree for which you are applying. Include any educational, personal, cultural, economic, or social experiences, challenges or opportunities relevant to your academic journey. In addition, please describe any aspects of your personal background, accomplishments, or achievements that will allow the department to evaluate your contributions to the University's diversity mission. Contributions to diversity and equal opportunity can take a variety of forms, such as efforts to advance equitable access to education, public service, that addresses the need of a diverse population, or research that explores inequalities. Your department may have special prompts and directions for the Personal History Statement; be sure to check the requirements.

(Note that the Personal History Statement is not the Statement of Purpose; it is a separate statement that is required in addition to the Statement of Purpose. See e.g. these application instructions. )

Honestly, as an Asian male international student, I really have nothing to say about this. I have a very happy family, so I really don't have "challenges". I honestly just want to study math because probably that's the only reason why someone would want to get a PhD in math.

I've been struggling with this for days but still have absolutely no idea how to write this. I mean, I live a happy life. My parents are divorced but I was not particularly "challenged" per se. Does that mean I cannot contribute to the diversity? I don't even know what they are looking for. Should I market myself being overcoming huge difficulties (even though I did not face huge difficulties)? Or should I pretend that I am really under-represented? :/

  • First of all, did you: "Your department may have special prompts and directions for the Personal History Statement; be sure to check the requirements"? Also, from what country are you? – dimpol Nov 23 '16 at 9:03
  • @dimpol China :( – 3x89g2 Nov 23 '16 at 15:41
  • While many institutions have woven talk about supporting diversity into their admissions and hiring processes, don't be confused - the vast, vast majority of institutions are not restricting their processes to the point that they simply will not admit/hire people at all who seem like a member of their current majority groups (none that I know of have gone so far). Note that especially at UC colleges, with 40-50% of their undergraduates being of Asian decent, colleges state they want to be "more diverse" - not stop admitting Asian people entirely. More competitive, probably - but not declined. – BrianH Nov 23 '16 at 22:18
  • "I don't mentor students, I don't volunteer neither, I am not eligible for scholarships since I'm not US citizen." As an international student, this is to be expected. Don't let that deter you. That being said, your English seems to be pretty good for a Chinese international student. Does that mean you grew up in the US for a part of your life, or that you grew up in a place like Singapore or Hong Kong? – Stephan Branczyk Nov 24 '16 at 21:57
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The previous answer was great, but since it didn't assuage your doubts, I'll try a different approach.

I will rewrite the instructions for you, removing the parts you're having trouble with.

Describe how your accomplishments led to your decision to pursue the graduate degree for which you are applying. Include any educational opportunities relevant to your academic journey. Your department may have special prompts and directions for the Personal History Statement; be sure to check the requirements.

Sample response: I always felt that my math teacher and I were on the same wavelength. I always loved going to math class, and my math assignments were always my favorite part of doing homework. I had a wonderful opportunity in 9th grade when I was invited to participate in _________. It was an honor to represent my school, and participating in the event, with scores of other math geeks, was thrilling.

You have my permission to stop there.

Now, if you decide to make a stab at addressing the diversity question, consider this: what is the demographic make-up of the state of California, and how did that come to be? (I will let you find the answer to those questions, as homework.) Has there been a historical gender imbalance in your field? Is there anything about you that would make you an effective graduate student instructor, mentor or outreach specialist, enabling you to effectively support the success of underrepresented groups in your field? Perhaps you have had experience communicating with someone with a different dialect. Perhaps you had more patience with this than some of your fellow students. Perhaps you have been lucky enough to be educated in a system where women were not underrepresented in your field, and this experience left you with a firm belief in the role of women in your field. (These are just examples to give you an idea.)

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The dreaded personal statement!

Put yourself in the shoes of the people reviewing your application. They will have a large pile (50-100+) of applications. They will be tired. They'll probably do some skimming. This is your audience. Your goal is to attract their attention.

You can attract attention in your statement with simple and clear organization, and by bolding the major points that you want to make. Think of the statement more like a sales pitch. Make the argument simple. Then bold the main points. This will help the reviewers literally "see" your application.

Also, think of the questions that a reviewer will have. They will be reading your application looking for the answers to these questions:

  1. Can this person write well?
  2. What research/scholarship skills do they have?
  3. Why does this person want to come to this university?
  4. Does this person want to work with me? Do they mention my name?

Your statement should be an argument that answers these kinds of questions.

Tips for organization: Come up with a simple story-structure for your statement. For example:

  1. Section 1: Very brief intro. Hi, I'm Misakov... Here are my general interests, let me tell you why I'm an excellent choice for your program.
  2. Section 2: Previous training/experience. In this section, write a short paragraph for each experience, highlighting the relevant skills you learned in each. Also, having some parallel structure across the paragraphs will help the readers find the info they are looking for. For example, each section could tell the same story: I worked with X person, we worked on Y conceptual issue and found Z result. I learned A, B and C skills.
  3. Section 3: Here's why your program is a good fit.
    • Why this program? I'm interested in this program because...
    • People I would like to work with: Mention some specific faculty that you would like to work with. You don't need to say more than a couple sentences about each person. (This may be unnecessary in Math, I come from a different field)

Now for some specific comments:

  • I want to point out that when they say challenges, they don't mean they want to hear about your parents divorce. They mean that time you couldn't find software to do X for you, so you wrote an app that could.

  • Do not pretend anything (I'm going to assume that comment was made out of desperation and not with any real intent to do something so unnecessary and unethical)! Your story is enough. You are an international Asian student. Mention this. It need not be dramatic, but yes that is considered an increase in diversity.

  • Other things they are looking for/other things that can relate to you increasing diversity: Do you mentor or tutor students? Do you do any volunteer work? What efforts have you made to disseminate research findings to the broader public? Have you received any scholarships or awards that demonstrate your commitment to Z? Are you in a math club of some kind and do you go to grade schools once a year to get young children excited about math?

  • Increasing diversity is not just about you. It's about the people and community you support as well.

Bottom Line: Despite its name, the personal statement is not personal. It's professional.

Hope this helps! Good luck.

  • I don't mentor students, I don't volunteer neither, I am not eligible for scholarships since I'm not US citizen. I think I probably shouldn't apply to UC schools, but thanks for your answer anyway :( – 3x89g2 Nov 23 '16 at 18:31
  • As the hackneyed saying goes, you miss all the shots you don't take. They make their prompt broad because any of those things could help you make your pitch, not because all of those things are necessary for admittance. If attending a phd program at a UC school is what you want, then you should apply! Keep in mind, professors do not expect applicants to have already had all of the relevant experiences involved in earning a higher degree. Indeed, then you would have no need to attend. Instead they want to see that you have the aptitude and a genuine interest in doing the work. – kindredChords Nov 24 '16 at 6:37
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    Note that the "Personal History Statement" is a separate document from the "Statement of Purpose". See e.g. these application instructions. A lot of what's described in this answer seems more appropriate for the "Statement of Purpose" part of the application. – ff524 Nov 24 '16 at 9:46
  • Writing exactly these myself at the moment, I can just emphasize that they have to be different, as @ff524 correctly states. I think they expect more something like: "Why did you start in your domain, did you maybe already start a child, how did it shape you, a memorable situation in the past, a deep anchored passion, anything that leads to you as you are today, with the endeavor to study X. – Michael Nov 24 '16 at 9:56
  • @ff524 and Michael, you're correct. That was an oversight on my part. In my field, cognitive neuroscience, applications typically ask for one statement which is meant to cover all of those things. In any case, I'm a newb; is it better to delete answer or leave with comments serving as a caveat? – kindredChords Nov 27 '16 at 2:48

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