The important thing to remember when writing your SOP is that schools do not care about your personal life. The SOP should be about your research experience and why you are ready for grad school. If you have something special to say (you built a school in Iraq (people actually do this kind of stuff), you are a minority, etc.) mention it in your last paragraph.
Looking back on my personal statement, I followed a nice formula. My first paragraph was full of strong words, "I am a good fit for [name program] because I am this, this, and this." I then listed all of my research experiences briefly. My next paragraphs were outlines of the research I did, with more attention paid to the projects in which I played a bigger role. Here, it is important not to list the skills you learned, rather what you gained as a scientist. Anyone can pipette or run a PCR. Top grad schools (any grad schools) want to see that you know how to think like a scientist. They want evidence that you can ask important questions and test those questions. After discussing my research, I wrote one, three sentence paragraph specific to that school. I wrote what I like about the program, I mentioned a couple of specific faculty, then I said something like, "I am certain I will succeed in this environment." I topped it of with a nice paragraph with some sort of deep insight. I mentioned that every grad school committee member will look for something specific in an application and that I just hope anyone who reads my SOP will see that I am this, this, and this. I finally sprinkled in some special stuff about my childhood or whatever here.
I spent a long time perfecting this SOP for my top choice school. Then, when applying to other schools, I changed the beginning paragraph to say the specific school name, and I changed the one specific paragraph. Everything else stayed the same.
If you use this method, you will save a lot of time by not having to write eight individual SOPs. Use that time to read each SOP several times to avoid accidentally saying the wrong school name. Also, this method only works if your first SOP is really good. I made my SOP to the standard of my top choice school, then I assumed it would have to be good enough for everywhere else.
Finally, never write more than two pages, and do not ignore specific instructions in the application. I used this method for most of the schools to which I applied, but one school specifically asked for other things in the SOP, so I had to write a completely different one.
Good luck! PM me if you want feedback on your SOP.
I'll let the more experienced posters weigh in on your chances, but regarding school choice, you know Dec 1st is the deadline for a lot of programs right? Just a reminder because you're going to have to hustle to get all your LoRs/GRE/transcripts in.
Hey, 2017 cycle peeps!
I thought that I would make a general post here to just lay out some of my thoughts on applying to grad programs (to be clear PhD programs - not masters). I spent a lot of time comparing myself to other people on this website, and in retrospect, it didn't really do much good. However, here are some points that I picked up along the way that I think are worth sharing:
GRE: try to get both the verbal and the quant section ~80th percentile for any school. Some highly competitive programs look for better, but I think this is a good rule of thumb. I had to take the test twice to get those scores. If you are below the 70th in either of these areas, I would seriously consider retaking the test. If you can't get that score don't be discouraged. People have been accepted to great programs with lower general GRE scores. To be clear, I think that this test is total bullshit - it is truly a measure of your test taking abilities and not really how 'smart' you are. But it is a major weed out point. Scores are an easy metric to toss applications in the first round of reviews. Don't get yourself tossed. On the flip side, a good/great general GRE score is not going to ensure your admission to any top program. Unless you are trying to be competitive at the ridiculously selective programs (MIT, UCSF, Harvard, Stanford, Yale, etc...), there is no reason to take the subject test. If you do want to get into those schools, a good subject GRE score will certainly boost your application. Be aware, the biochem subject test is the most ridiculous thing I have ever laid eyes on. Focus on getting a good general GRE score.
Grades: This isn't medical school - you don't need a 3.95 to be competitive at top programs. My cumulative GPA was 3.45. However, my last 3 years were a 3.82 (you can do the math on my freshman year ). The point is that professors on the admission committee want to see that you can achieve in upper division classes, where the advanced material is. In general, any GPA over a 3.4 is competitive. If you are over a 3.6 you are golden. Less than a 3.3 can really start to hurt your application, especially if your grades are on a downward trend. If you have to explain bad grades in your SOP spin it in a positive way and don't dwell on it. Acknowledge it and move on. The SOP is your time to shine.
Statement of Purpose (SOP): You may want to use up the entire two-page limit that you are given - don't. PI's are busy people and don't want to read your fluffy soliloquy. Make each SOP tailored to the specific school. Most of its content you will not need to change, but let them know you have done your research and your application is not just a shot in the dark! Furthermore, start it NOW. Have your PI edit it. Have other PI's edit it. Have your parents, friends, edit it. Read it to your dog. You should be so sick of reading and editing that page and a half before you send it off. I was told by multiple PI's that they were impressed by my (ahem, all the people I had edit) writing skills. Here is a great general way to structure it:
P1: How has your college academic and research experience led you to choose to apply to graduate school? Why that specific program? What broad area are you interested in. Show that you are flexible and open to learning new things.
P2: Describe your research experience in general terms, explain its significance, what you gained from it, and how that will benefit you as a graduate student in their program.
P3: Talk about presenting at a conference, or communicating your work somehow, and what insight you gained from that process
P4: Name 3 PI's that you are interested in working for and an area of their work that most interests you.
P5: Concluding paragraph, aspirations, future jobs, etc...
Notice that I didn't talk about my grandmother having cancer and wanting to attend a graduate program to cure it.... or wanting to be a scientist since I was 4 years old and collecting bugs in my back yard. Or anything about high school. You are applying to go to school for a doctoral degree - PI's don't care about these things. Your job is to convince them that you would be a great independent scientist. Keep it to what you have done in your time at college. Unless you published a paper in high school. If that is the case you can go away.
Contacting professors: Out of all the schools that I corresponded with potential PI's from, I got interviews and acceptances (except Yale, meh). If you want to contact them, do it early. Don't make it look like a desperate afterthought. I think the best time is before applications are due, but not so early that they forget about you. October/November are good months to consider this. Write them a short email with (1) who you are and who's lab you work in at what university. (2) a brief bit about your research experience. (3) what you are interested in about THEIR WORK SPECIFICALLY. Generic emails are obvious and not tolerated. Spend some time researching!!! (4) let them know that you are applying to their program and are wondering if they are taking students for rotations or mentoring. This can be incredibly helpful. One professor even offered to have a skype chat with me. It was a great experience. Networking is important - even in science.
I know that this post was long, but I feel like I owe it to you guys. If you disagree with anything that I said, I am probably wrong and feel free to ignore me. I also want to just say that I don't have the magic recipe for getting into grad programs. It really is about how well you fit into their vision. For example, I can't explain why I got into UW and U Michigan and not even an interview at Colorado or Northwestern. Most single things will not make or break an application. You don't need a first author publication - or any publications for that matter. But it looks good to go above and beyond (conferences, posters, talks, honors theses, etc...). Applying to grad school was one of the most terrifying, exciting, and rewarding experiences of my academic career. Interviews were SO much fun. If you have any questions for me please feel free to shoot me a message. I would love to help!
Hi, thanks for the helpful email. Don't you think October/November is late for this? Will you please say if we need to ask for empty positions in the email or not? I mean what the content and the subject of the email should be to persuade a professor to open and read it?