How to Write an Autobiography for Grad School

The dreaded personal statement. Academics aren’t accustomed to writing about themselves, but every single one of them had to make an exception when they applied to grad school. Sure, research is important to the scholarly community. But graduate admissions committees will want to know if you’re the kind of person they want to run into on campus for the next four to five years. Introduce yourself to admissions committees with a compelling essay so that they can get a sense of who'll be haunting their department hallways.

Use the First Person

This might seem like a no-brainer, but academic research papers are so full of phrases like “This paper will demonstrate,” and “one could argue,” that it’s easy to forget that your perspective counts. Claim it as your own with confidence. Talk as yourself, not as a disembodied, impersonal observer. The third person can be an effective rhetorical tool when you’re trying to cultivate the impression of being an impartial researcher, but remember: even if you’re submitting an autobiography to a scholarly institution, you’re still submitting an autobiography, not a report.

Don’t Be Shy

Now’s not the time to shy away from the spotlight. The committee wants to get to know you, so don’t wax poetic about the virtues of your chosen field of study -- talk about why you have been drawn to it. Think back to a personal experience that you feel is indicative of your abilities, values, and interests, and put it in writing. Alternatively, consider an experience that taught you something profound, and describe how it changed you. This will help the committee picture you as an interesting person, rather than just a transcript of grades.

Don’t Brag

There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance -- tread it carefully. Admissions committees aren’t interested in reading a three-page long homage to your awesomeness. Don’t make yourself the star of your story. Your goal isn’t to convince the committee that you’re a hero or a wunderkind -- your goal is to help the committee get to know you without ever having met you in person. They probably won’t want to get to know you any further if you come across as arrogant.

Relate Your Life To the Program

The committee isn’t interested in knowing about your life as an end in itself. Committee members want to know how your life trajectory has led you to the place where you’re applying to their program. Write your autobiographical statement with this in mind. Make sure that every anecdote you tell relates to the program -- if you’re applying for a Ph.D. in biology, and two of your earliest memories include holding a frog and eating an ice cream cone, then tell the story about the frog and leave out the story about ice cream.

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