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Personal history (Berkeley)


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Is anyone else applying to Berkeley? This is just a diversity statement in a very thin disguise, right? I found this example here: http://ls.berkeley.edu/soc/diversity/apply/personalstatement1.html from the amount of times the critic notes how wonderful the author's mention of her "ethnic origins" and "cultural identity" are... like it's a diversity statement. If it is, I just wish they'd call a spade a spade and say, "Hey white boy, save your time and only write something here if you feel like it." I'm in favor of affirmative action, but the comments on the essay above seem like an honest-to-God parody that cheapens the applicant. If it's only about race and/or indigent childhood, shouldn't they say that?

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If you read the prompt, it says to write about how you have had to overcome hardships based on discrimination/etc., how you have come to understand the difficulties others face, and how you are going to change it.

As a middle class white American, I wrote about my momentary disability, my visits to third world countries, my volunteer work, and how my studies in cross-cultural art are going to help the less fortunate.

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Welcome to the UC applications, they all (most anyway) have this required Personal History statement.

Yeah I already wrote my Santa Barbara one using their bogus term "bicultural communities" (either the school or the religion department provided a really useful list of eight possible kinds of diversity that you could check off...I scored two and a half!) about how I've had legal residency in several countries. I was just wondering if I should send in that exact same essay and be done with it, or if it was worth taking time and redoing the whole thing.

Cross reference to a similar question in the sociology thread:

Edited by jacib
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Is anyone else applying to Berkeley? This is just a diversity statement in a very thin disguise, right? I found this example here: http://ls.berkeley.edu/soc/diversity/apply/personalstatement1.html from the amount of times the critic notes how wonderful the author's mention of her "ethnic origins" and "cultural identity" are... like it's a diversity statement. If it is, I just wish they'd call a spade a spade and say, "Hey white boy, save your time and only write something here if you feel like it." I'm in favor of affirmative action, but the comments on the essay above seem like an honest-to-God parody that cheapens the applicant. If it's only about race and/or indigent childhood, shouldn't they say that?

I tried to walk away from this one but it was just too inflammatory for me...

Just because you are white does not mean that you do not have an ethnic or cultural identity. This is one of the major issues in the race debate. The "I am white and therefore I am the default and therefore I have no ethnic identity and everyone else (who is not white) does" is false in so many ways. Also, being white doesn't exclude you from hardships (as an example, please see a large percentage of the Appalachian people.) Don't use the I'm a white boy scapegoat.

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I tried to walk away from this one but it was just too inflammatory for me...

Just because you are white does not mean that you do not have an ethnic or cultural identity. This is one of the major issues in the race debate. The "I am white and therefore I am the default and therefore I have no ethnic identity and everyone else (who is not white) does" is false in so many ways. Also, being white doesn't exclude you from hardships (as an example, please see a large percentage of the Appalachian people.) Don't use the I'm a white boy scapegoat.

Man, my grandmother is from Appalachia. She remembers when the TVA first brought electricity to her town. She didn't touch a telephone until she was 19 and moved to California. My other three grandparents were all born abroad, and were escaping very particular things in their home countries (in two cases, certain death). They could all write really, really good personal histories. All lily white. And they would deserve to be considered diverse. I, on the other hand, don't deserve it, and it feels cheap for me to say "Yeah my grandparents totally faced all this hardship, man." I'm saying that my upbringing was touched and it seems silly to have to pretend it wasn't.

I'm also saying that the person who wrote comments on that Berkeley essay is a total moron. If you don't think those comments seem patronizing, then I can debate that, but this is the exact opposite of a "I'm white and we're unfairly persecuted by affirmative action". The consensus seems to be that yes, this is a diversity essay, as opposed to a "why did you become interested in this subject" essay, which was my question. It seems silly to make a diversity essay mandatory, because then it cheapens the actual differences. If everyone is a unique little snow flake and we're all diverse people who've faced hardships, what's the point? To turn it into a suffering pissing contest?

but yeah... rereading my original post, I don't think I make it clear that I do think diversity has a place in the application process, it does. But I wish it was just clearer what these were actually used for.

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Man, my grandmother is from Appalachia. She remembers when the TVA first brought electricity to her town. She didn't touch a telephone until she was 19 and moved to California. My other three grandparents were all born abroad, and were escaping very particular things in their home countries (in two cases, certain death). They could all write really, really good personal histories. All lily white. And they would deserve to be considered diverse. I, on the other hand, don't deserve it, and it feels cheap for me to say "Yeah my grandparents totally faced all this hardship, man." I'm saying that my upbringing was touched and it seems silly to have to pretend it wasn't.

I'm also saying that the person who wrote comments on that Berkeley essay is a total moron. If you don't think those comments seem patronizing, then I can debate that, but this is the exact opposite of a "I'm white and we're unfairly persecuted by affirmative action". The consensus seems to be that yes, this is a diversity essay, as opposed to a "why did you become interested in this subject" essay, which was my question. It seems silly to make a diversity essay mandatory, because then it cheapens the actual differences. If everyone is a unique little snow flake and we're all diverse people who've faced hardships, what's the point? To turn it into a suffering pissing contest?

but yeah... rereading my original post, I don't think I make it clear that I do think diversity has a place in the application process, it does. But I wish it was just clearer what these were actually used for.

I can agree that I'm not a fan of all the comments made on that essay. I wonder if maybe you're looking at it wrong though, the diversity essay doesn't necessarily have to be about how you suffered. In fact, you might be better off writing something that doesn't talk about how you suffered as I am sure a lot of people are going to give sob stories about their upbringing, or dramatic cross-cultural encounters... which can certainly be good, but after you've read as many as those adcoms get...

Here's the prompt:

Please include any educational, cultural, economic, or social experiences, challenges, or opportunities relevant to your academic journey; how you might contribute to social or cultural diversity within your chosen field; and/or how you might serve educationally underrepresented segments of society with your degree.

You've never had any unique educational experience? economic? social experience? no challenge or opportunity posed to you? It doesn't have to be a mind blowing experience, some of the most subtle experiences can be the most profound. If you really think that you're just mr. smith from normalville, usa after thinking through that and "If everyone is a unique little snow flake and we're all diverse people who've faced hardships, what's the point?" , then perhaps look at the essay differently... about how your feelings of normalcy/blending in with the crowd/lack of diversity have affected your life or your approach to things. You might be able to turn that into something unique that the adcom would find interesting/different from other essays they are receiving.

The point of diversity essays in my view is not to discount "whites" or say that they don't have their own story to tell (or put them at a disadvantage as I've heard some people say), but rather to say that everyone does, and everyone should have an opportunity to tell it. Unique snowflake? Dramatic background story of adversity that will bring the adcom to tears? No... but unique series of events and experiences that have developed you? sure.

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I can agree that I'm not a fan of all the comments made on that essay. I wonder if maybe you're looking at it wrong though, the diversity essay doesn't necessarily have to be about how you suffered. In fact, you might be better off writing something that doesn't talk about how you suffered as I am sure a lot of people are going to give sob stories about their upbringing, or dramatic cross-cultural encounters... which can certainly be good, but after you've read as many as those adcoms get...

Here's the prompt:

Please include any educational, cultural, economic, or social experiences, challenges, or opportunities relevant to your academic journey; how you might contribute to social or cultural diversity within your chosen field; and/or how you might serve educationally underrepresented segments of society with your degree.

You've never had any unique educational experience? economic? social experience? no challenge or opportunity posed to you? It doesn't have to be a mind blowing experience, some of the most subtle experiences can be the most profound. If you really think that you're just mr. smith from normalville, usa after thinking through that and "If everyone is a unique little snow flake and we're all diverse people who've faced hardships, what's the point?" , then perhaps look at the essay differently... about how your feelings of normalcy/blending in with the crowd/lack of diversity have affected your life or your approach to things. You might be able to turn that into something unique that the adcom would find interesting/different from other essays they are receiving.

The point of diversity essays in my view is not to discount "whites" or say that they don't have their own story to tell (or put them at a disadvantage as I've heard some people say), but rather to say that everyone does, and everyone should have an opportunity to tell it. Unique snowflake? Dramatic background story of adversity that will bring the adcom to tears? No... but unique series of events and experiences that have developed you? sure.

Yeah this is the argument I totally didn't mean to start... I think we agree more than we disagree. I have lived a really great life, full of wonderful, rare experiences (hell I'm living in Istanbul right now...). But I mean, as I understood it originally, these essays are more about funding than other things, and it's mainly to offer a chance to those who in some way have suffered educational disadvantages... which I think is what it should do. That's what I meant in my original "diversity essay" comments up top. A kid who graduated who went to East Bungsville Regional High School and then Flyover State University -- Flagship while working full time probably deserves to have the fact that the same numbers probably mean more than it does from someone who went from Choate to Yale while never lifting a finger. I have plenty of things I could write about. Everyone does. I think I am actually pretty different, though not relating to the condition of my birth. I was wondering what role exactly these played beyond giving extra financial aid. No one knows, apparently. Like, is it considered strongly like it was in undergrad or will it be mostly just pushed aside during the admission process and used maybe as a tie-breaker? I'm not saying that white people aren't diverse. I'm saying that, based on socio-economic factors, I do not qualify for what they mean by diversity. Nor do I plan on working particularly close with under-served communities, though I would like to volunteer teaching SATs after teaching them for a year here, that's not worth more than a sentence or two. Most of my intellectual development has come from books, which is not what the prompt seems to want. In terms of intellectual interest, my experiences come in a distant second. I was wondering if it should be about what actually made me want to study this (which would be a reading list supplemented by memorable comments by important professors I've had) or if it should be about my "diversity", because for me they're different topics.

It seems to be that this is not about what actually influenced me on my "journey". Which is the answer to the question I was looking for. Also, in my field we're specifically trained to avoid the "language of uniqueness". Sorry pet peeve, I know that must sound bitchy, but it's a really really big problem when you're studying religion!

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I tried to walk away from this one but it was just too inflammatory for me...

Just because you are white does not mean that you do not have an ethnic or cultural identity. This is one of the major issues in the race debate. The "I am white and therefore I am the default and therefore I have no ethnic identity and everyone else (who is not white) does" is false in so many ways. Also, being white doesn't exclude you from hardships (as an example, please see a large percentage of the Appalachian people.) Don't use the I'm a white boy scapegoat.

Thank you.

Few things get my goat like this line of reasoning.

In the end, if you do not think you are at all unique or cannot offer diversity of thought or experiences to the graduate cohort I am going to say that you should reconsider why you are applying.

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Here's the prompt:

Please include any educational, cultural, economic, or social experiences, challenges, or opportunities relevant to your academic journey; how you might contribute to social or cultural diversity within your chosen field; and/or how you might serve educationally underrepresented segments of society with your degree.

That's not actually the prompt in the Berkeley application. Most (if not all) departments still have the old text on their web pages, but the current Personal History Statement prompt taken from the online application is as follows:

"Please describe how your personal background informs your decision to pursue a graduate degree. Please include information on how you have overcome barriers to access higher education, evidence of how you have come to understand the barriers faced by others, evidence of your academic service to advance equitable access to higher education for women, racial minorities, and individuals from other groups that have been historically underrepresented in higher education, and evidence of your research focusing on underserved populations or related issues of inequality or evidence of your leadership among such groups."

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As you've explained yourself, it doesn't sound nearly as harsh as your original statement. I should also admit that it wasn't just this post that had gotten to me, as I had seen several people that had statements similar to "I'm white! I'm normal! I'm middleclass!!" and this post was more just the straw that broke the camel's back so to speak. I get what you're saying - you haven't been through that struggle, and you aren't intending to be involved in serving underrepresented groups, so you don't feel like you deserve anything relative to that. I get that. (I'm not trying to argue really, although I suppose I did get up on my soapbox a little.)

If the essay is mandatory though, and I admittedly don't know how much it's going to affect your admission, I just think there are ways to still have something interesting to say. I think diversity statements are as you alluded to, a way for people to explain hard work that would not necessarily come through elsewhere. I also understand that there are a group of people in between there, not underrepresented but also without the aid of mom and dad's bank account, that struggle with items like this in the application process. I just think that if a person is applying to grad school, then they're probably pretty intelligent, and they can think outside the box to still write something worthwhile. I just see the I'm white/I'm normal as a cop out for having to think a little longer/harder on something.

As far as the prompt - I'm not applying to Berkeley, I just read the link that was provided and the prompt there. If it's wrong I apologize, although even with the new prompt the vast majority of the points I was making, I feel still apply.

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As you've explained yourself, it doesn't sound nearly as harsh as your original statement. I should also admit that it wasn't just this post that had gotten to me, as I had seen several people that had statements similar to "I'm white! I'm normal! I'm middleclass!!" and this post was more just the straw that broke the camel's back so to speak. I get what you're saying - you haven't been through that struggle, and you aren't intending to be involved in serving underrepresented groups, so you don't feel like you deserve anything relative to that. I get that. (I'm not trying to argue really, although I suppose I did get up on my soapbox a little.)

If the essay is mandatory though, and I admittedly don't know how much it's going to affect your admission, I just think there are ways to still have something interesting to say. I think diversity statements are as you alluded to, a way for people to explain hard work that would not necessarily come through elsewhere. I also understand that there are a group of people in between there, not underrepresented but also without the aid of mom and dad's bank account, that struggle with items like this in the application process. I just think that if a person is applying to grad school, then they're probably pretty intelligent, and they can think outside the box to still write something worthwhile. I just see the I'm white/I'm normal as a cop out for having to think a little longer/harder on something.

As far as the prompt - I'm not applying to Berkeley, I just read the link that was provided and the prompt there. If it's wrong I apologize, although even with the new prompt the vast majority of the points I was making, I feel still apply.

Dude, first of all, I love the phrase "normal as a cop". Is it original to you? Living in Chicago, we used to refer to vast tracks of working class white, semi-suburban land within the city limits as "cop neighborhoods" (especially the Irish neighborhoods on the South Side like Beverly etc). Yeah I was just frustrated with the whole diversity project after reading "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education", and it seemed like anything that focused so much on experiences that related to your project wouldn't necessarily capture blah blah blah. Most of my interesting experiences shaped my mind, but not my project so much.

As for the Berkeley prompt, you both might be right: a department and the school might have different ones. I know in sociology that's the case.

Edited by jacib
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Ah, yes. I remember this. Wacko, right?

For what it's worth, I was accepted at Berkeley, so my approach was probably not totally off-base (not a deal-breaker, anyway). Here's what I did.

I gained the most clarity about the genre by defining the OTHER essay required (Academic statement of purpose or something? I forget what it's called): this one was a pretty straight construction of the problems I'd like to tackle with my PhD work and my past research, along with fit, etc. So pretty "just professional," if that makes sense.

For the personal essay, think of it as YOUR LIFE = GOTTA GO TO GRAD SCHOOL FOR X. That is, what will make you tick as a grad student? What about you and your history compels you to do X? In short, why are you going to grad school? What do you think needs to be addressed in the academy, and why?

As a gentle chiding: maybe you haven't been discriminated against as a white, middle-class, hetero, able-bodied male, but you inhabit that position somehow, right? Diversity (or "lack thereof") doesn't have to be experienced as despair or as guilt. And I don't think that this particular essay is a "diversity" essay per se-- more a life experience one.

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Ah, yes. I remember this. Wacko, right?

For what it's worth, I was accepted at Berkeley, so my approach was probably not totally off-base (not a deal-breaker, anyway). Here's what I did.

I gained the most clarity about the genre by defining the OTHER essay required (Academic statement of purpose or something? I forget what it's called): this one was a pretty straight construction of the problems I'd like to tackle with my PhD work and my past research, along with fit, etc. So pretty "just professional," if that makes sense.

For the personal essay, think of it as YOUR LIFE = GOTTA GO TO GRAD SCHOOL FOR X. That is, what will make you tick as a grad student? What about you and your history compels you to do X? In short, why are you going to grad school? What do you think needs to be addressed in the academy, and why?

As a gentle chiding: maybe you haven't been discriminated against as a white, middle-class, hetero, able-bodied male, but you inhabit that position somehow, right? Diversity (or "lack thereof") doesn't have to be experienced as despair or as guilt. And I don't think that this particular essay is a "diversity" essay per se-- more a life experience one.

Yeah sorry writing an essay wasn't problematic. I wrote about having legal residency in five different countries, and how I'm sick of theories that apply to only one region or religion, and how every good theory needs to work outside of the American experience and for bonus points I used the term "Global South" and how I have unique perspective because of all those experiences which relates directly to my SoP wherein I mention that most of the existent theory covering my field of interest is horrible Eurocentric (so true). Which is pretty much the same essay I wrote for Santa Barbara not too long ago. Which was also much more specific in it's prompt categories (check however many of the following apply and explain them in an essay). However, I still don''t know what this essay was being used for . That's why I was asking the question.

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For anyone else still writing, this email I just received from the Sociology department might allay some of your anxiety:

-----------

Write about what feels appropriate in your situation. You can use either as a "prompt" [the sociology dept's prompt was slightly different than the one on the application]. It is rather fluid essay, so don't get too worried about which one you are answering. Use whatever parts of the questions maybe be useful in helping you think about your own situation or story.

You can put your "gaps" explanation in whichever essay you feel that it fits most appropriately. Again, there are not fixed rules for these things.

-----------

Back to work!

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  • 1 year later...

For the personal essay, think of it as YOUR LIFE = GOTTA GO TO GRAD SCHOOL FOR X. That is, what will make you tick as a grad student? What about you and your history compels you to do X? In short, why are you going to grad school? What do you think needs to be addressed in the academy, and why?

Sorry to resurrect an old thread.

I really like the comment from margaretlouise that I quoted. I'm applying to the Berkeley computer science PhD, and I'm currently working on my Personal History Statement.

Here's where I'm stuck: I did overcome a number of challenges in my personal background. I also have many reasons for being passionate about my current and future research. Does discussing my life before I got started with computer science research detract from the overall quality of the statement?

Here's a synopsis of the pre-college part of my personal background:

I came from a small town in the midwestern United States. It was challenging to find educational opportunities there, but I did the best I could by taking several classes at the local community college during junior high (age 13-14). I later gained acceptance into a public statewide magnet high school, where tuition is free, all students live on campus, and students apply by writing essays and taking the SAT. The acceptance rate for this school is ~15%. While attending high school, I got involved with a physics research project at a nearby National Laboratory, and I was the first author on a published academic paper.

A very abridged selection of my research motivations:

In my undergraduate studies, classes in parallel programming and cyber-physical systems increased my awareness of the breadth of unsolved problems in distributed computing. During a class on theoretical computer science, I discovered the joy of working on formal mathematical proofs. The design of real-time distributed systems requires formal proofs on the timing behavior of tasks. Thus, real-time distributed systems research lies at the intersection of my interests of mathematical proofs and distributed computing. My research on the theoretical analysis of real-time systems has enabled increased safety and predictability in automotive control systems. Further, this research has shed light on how to utilize distributed sensor networks more effectively. In my proposed doctoral research, I hope to reduce the power consumption and increase the reliability of future distributed surveillance systems through research on timing analysis, scheduling, and routing protocols.

Berkeley is home to several leading faculty in real-time systems and is therefore the ideal environment for me to develop as a researcher and to advance the state of the art. (A lot of universities have no faculty who study real-time systems. Berkeley has at least 5 faculty who have each published 30+ real-time systems papers.)

Edited by zep
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