How to Write a Personal Statement for a Biological PhD

Written by gail cohen
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Biology students seeking advanced degrees rarely fret over complex equations and formulas, but when asked to write a personal statement in support of their PhD program admission, they may end up staring hopelessly at their computer screen. However, there are guidelines that can help you compose a statement that will impress the admissions committee and increase your odds of gaining admission into the biology program of your choice.

Skill level:


  1. 1

    Call the biology departments at the universities where you want to apply and request guidelines for personal statement writing or ask for tips. Analyse each school's requirements to determine whether you can use your own format for drafting the essay or whether you must respond to specific questions posed by the PhD committee. Understanding what the graduate school’s biology department wants in a personal statement is key to writing one that's on target.

  2. 2

    Ask friends and family to help you make a list of the reasons you would make a great PhD candidate in biology. They will likely recall unique experiences and honours that you might be too modest to include. Think about and make notes about biologists who have influenced and mentored you because they saw in you something unique.

  3. 3

    Outline your statement. Tailor each statement to the individual biology departments based on what you learnt in Step 1.

  4. 4

    Expand your statement by describing extra-curricular activities you’ve volunteered to undertake in pursuit of your future career. For example, volunteering at a day camp to teach youngsters about indigenous frogs or helping inner-city kids tackle rudimentary biology projects they might never have been exposed to at their schools shows the committee you’re dedicated to the field and take seriously your responsibility for being a role model.

  5. 5

    Describe experiences that will show the PhD committee what kind of person you have become during your undergraduate years. Losing a year of college to help care for a dying grandparent or taking on a low-paying job with the local parks and recreation department to help pay some of your tuition shows you’re serious about being an active participant in your education and distinguishes you as an ethical, caring person who possesses strength of character. Such explanations can help turn what could be seen as a negative situation (dropping out of school for a year) into a positive one.

  6. 6

    Find ways to pair your biological interests and experiences with facilities, faculties, specialities and unique geographic regions of the schools to which you’re applying. For example, if marine biology is your passion, explain why a Florida or California institution has exactly the type of academic environment you require to get the best training for your future aspirations. Use the name of the school frequently in the essay. The more you align your goals with each school, the more convincing your personal statement will be.

  7. 7

    Make sure your opening and closing paragraphs are strong and powerful and eliminate any fluff so it doesn’t appear that you’re using filler in place of meaningful history.

  8. 8

    Double-check spelling and punctuation, then ask a friend or relative with good proofing skills to read it. Errors will certainly take away from the quality of your essay.

Tips and warnings

  • Remember that you are competing for a limited number of openings, and drafting one personal statement and sending it to every school on your list is not the most effective method, especially when you come up against candidates who have taken the time to craft personal statements specifically for that university.
  • Beware of putting so much biological nomenclature into your personal statement that you come across looking like a know-it-all.
  • Avoid gimmicks and clichés and adhere to word limits.

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