Sunday, February 24, 2008

Top 10 Mistakes Found in "Personal Statements" by Chinese Applicants to
Graduate Study in Computer Science

[We're in the midst of graduate-school-application season, so this
little guide, which has been making the rounds, may be useful to some
applicants — next year.]

Anyone who has spent a year or two reading applications to
graduate school can attest that many of the "personal statements"
found in these
applications can be a little weird. The title at the top of this list
mentions the
Chinese, but these mistakes are made by applicants of every
nationality. (It should also be pointed out that many Chinese
applicants are excellent students who become academic stars in the
The only reason to single out applicants from the Middle Kingdom is that
there seems to be a best-selling "personal statement style guide"
whose influence can be seen in a high percentage of the applications
from that country. The writer of this guide should be taken out and
… retired peacefully to the countryside.

Some of the advice below sounds rather specific
to Computer Science,
but it's likely it can be adapted to other disciplines.
Anyway, without further ado, in no particular order,
here are the pitfalls one should
avoid when writing the "personal statement":

  1. Telling the story of your life, especially
    talking about how you've loved computers since high school (or the womb)
    and how much joy and satisfaction you get from CS.

  2. Bragging about getting into a top-notch university, winning
    awards, etc.

  3. Failing to talk about your research goals.

  4. Listing all the things you've done that were someone else's idea,
    without mentioning any that were your idea.

  5. Mentioning only the successes attained by projects you've
    participated in. (Most projects fail to
    accomplish some of their goals, so it sounds weird to have one triumph
    after another.)

  6. Equating research ability with persistence, diligence,
    perseverance, and similar traits.

  7. Emphasizing your abilities as a team player, especially on a team
    having nothing to do with research (e.g., student government, sports).

  8. Talking about what you're willing to do, not what you
    want to do

  9. Listing all the well known algorithms you've implemented, unless you
    discovered and fixed some significant bugs while doing it.

  10. Bragging about all the reading you've done. (Don't list the
    books; show that you've assimilated them.)

It may sound as if the list above is mainly about what not
to do, leaving the applicant puzzled about what he or she
should do. So, here's some positive advice: First, you
should have some research experience as an undergraduate, so if you're
thinking of going to graduate school find a faculty member willing to
mentor you and give you something to do at least a year
before you apply to graduate school. (Obviously, not
everybody can follow this advice; if you are applying two years after
graduating then you probably can't.) Second, think about what kind of
research you would like to do, but don't just think. Read
the literature in the area and figure out what's going on and where
the interesting issues are. Third, make up some specific research
goals. They can be modest or bold, but they should be well informed.

Now write about what you've learned, what you've done, and what
you'd like to do. Don't give in to wild-eyed speculation.
(Promising to prove P=NP
or write a program that can pass the Turing Test will make you sound
like an ignoramus.) Whatever you write
will be made obsolete by your first year's experience in graduate
school, but that's okay. You want to sound as much like a
first-year graduate student, and as little like a sophomore, as possible.

1 comment: said...

This is sound advice about personal statements... if you want to see an example of a really good one, go to