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Tips for applying to grad school: Writing the personal essay

As the director of the MA in Conservation Biology program I read ever single application that comes in. This means that most of my January break is spent carefully going over each of anywhere from between 85 and 120 applications. I thought I might do everyone a favor and lay out what I like to see from one of the most difficult parts of the application – the personal statement.

I can remember putting together my own application to the MA in Conservation Biology at Columbia (yes, I’m not only the director, I’m an alumni). I put on David Attenborough videos about marine biodiversity and waited for inspiration to crash over me. I remember putting something down and having it go through multiple iterations where my friends and family helped me transform my initially inchoate work into something not wholly embarrassing. I don’t remember what I wrote, I only know that it wasn’t bad enough to keep me out*

As a marine biologist I get a lot of essays from people wanting to work in my lab who are very passionate about the ocean and cetaceans. Seriously, marine mammal biologists, I feel for you because it’s got to be hard to say you work with dolphins and not be categorized as a “Dolphin Hugger” (ok, side note DO NOT search for that without safe search on. Lesson learned). What I thought I’d do here was first outline what I like to see in an essay and then illustrate how one could turn around a dolphin hugger essay into something that would help you get you a positive recommendation from the selection committee.

So what do I want to see:

1) Your passion. You shouldn’t be going to graduate school by default. It should be a step to get you where you want to go. I want to know why this is an important step and where you have traveled so far on this journey. But please limit this to no more than one mention of swimming with dolphins as a small child

2) How you’ve translated that passion into a scholarly line of inquiry. This is the big one. This is how we separate those who are interested in science or the environment at a cursory level from those who are really interested in pursuing it as a vocation. Take your passion from #1 and show how you’ve built your undergraduate career around that passion. Work in any research of volunteer work you’ve done, but do NOT give me the annotated CV. I can read your resume and see that you worked in a dolphin rescue. Show me how doing that has helped you gain experience in marine mammal physiology. This is not the time tell me you check the IFLS Tumblr daily. It is the time to tell me that you have taken the relevant coursework and done the extra curricular activities to help position yourself to succeed.

3) Position your interest in the broader academic question you are interested in. This will obviously vary from field to field, but in my case tell me what is the broader conservation topic your work addresses. Use this as a chance to show me you’ve been reading the literature, that you have a good understanding of where the field is moving and how your work might help advance that field. Are there major controversies in the field? Is there a new technique that allows us to answer questions that will allow us answer questions that we couldn’t previously? Talk about these things. I don’t expect you to have your thesis fully fleshed out, but I do need to know you have an idea of what you’d like to do at Columbia. This is where talking to a potential advisor ahead of time will really pay off. You don’t want to propose activities that we don’t do at this school! You don’t want to propose activities that are logistically not feasible during the duration of a two year MA program. And please don’t just drop buzzwords in your statement (update, Jonathan Eisen has graciously shared his entire #Badomics list here).

4) Tell us where you’re going. Continuing with the journey theme, we want to know where you’re going to go. What are your goals, and why does getting your MA help you get to them. I know that we can’ predict the future (or baseball) but I’d like to know if you’re interested in working in an NGO, a government agency, going on to get your Ph.D. or any of the many other paths that lie before us. This need not be more than a sentence or two.

5) What you bring to make the program special. Although not necessary, and I don’t think it should be an obligatory last statement, many of us are interested in adding diversity into our programs. If you are comfortable showing how you coming to our program might help with that the personal statement might be a good way to introduce that. Also, don’t be afraid to bring your own personality in. If you have a sense of humor, it’s ok to let that show. If you’re a scifi fan, you can make that Star Trek reference. Let us know a little bit about who you are.

I’m now going to put together a rough sketch of how these would look all strung together. This isn’t the best essay ever, but it’s a good idea of how one might want to start off. Also, although I shouldn’t have to say it, if you’re a student don’t copy and paste this essay for your own use….


As a girl growing up in the Midwest most of my early experiences with marine biology were more theoretical than applied. Yes, we visited the Shedd aquarium in Chicago and to an 8-year-old girl, Lake Michigan sure looked like the ocean, but it wasn’t until a family trip to Cabo San Lucas during my high school that I got to see the real ocean. One of the most memorable parts of that trip was when my family and I were snorkeling and we were visited by a pod of dolphins. They were absolutely beautiful, and while I had seen them before, the chance to experience them with my senses of touch and hearing was incredible. I had known conceptually that they used sonar to communicate, but what the Blue Planet videos failed to convey was just how it felt to have their vibrations bounce off my body. I realized that there were whole methods of communicating that were literally invisible to me and my interest in animal communication was born.

My interest matured during my undergraduate career. Choosing to major in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology was a way to learn more about the mechanisms that were behind my interest, and that gave me a vocabulary to think about my past experiences and to help me frame my questions. While my classes in animal behavior and marine biology were helpful to gain baseline information, my real interests required me to understand not only the why but the how. Therefore I decided to also minor in physics so that I could better understand the methods by which cetaceans are able to propagate and utilize the aquatic environment to form cohesive social events.

I also supplemented this academic learning with hands on experiences. My fist two years I had to work during the summer to help pay for tuition. I worked as an intern at a local music store, and while I can probably tell you more about Taylor Swift than you care to know, I also was able to use this experience to learn about the technology that is used in acoustic research. The last two summers in my undergraduate career, I interned at Mote Marine Lab in Sarasota Florida where I learned how to track wild dolphin populations using acoustic signals. I was able to present the findings at my undergraduate research symposium. These experiences brought the lessons from class into a more applied framework and I could start to see that this was not just an interest but also a real passion, and hopefully a vocation.

I am now applying to the MA in conservation biology because I think my background in acoustic ecology can lend insight into one of the largest dangers facing global marine biodiversity – climate change. For thousands of years the Arctic Ocean froze, such that it was a solid barrier, however due to the disproportionately large amount of warming in boreal ecosystems brought about by global climate change the Artic Ocean has now had several ice free summers. This means that species from both the northern Pacific and the northern Atlantic are now able to navigate across oceans, potentially bringing with them a suite of ecosystem disruptions. One of these species, Humans, has already started to take advantage of these ice-free waters and shipping through the “Northwest Passage”. For cetacean populations this means an new source of noise, one which they have never experienced in these areas. The boreal summer is important for whale populations as they use the prodigious productivity to fatten up and prepare for long distance migrations. I am interested in seeing if the introduction of ship noises is driving alternations in whale communication. While I do not have the specifics of a project completely ironed out, given my background in physics and the technology of acoustic communication I am interested in mathematical simulations of the introduction of ship noise on the standard suite of communication sounds made by the Bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus). This work will let us understand how anthropogenic noise is influencing an endangered species and could potentially give us insight into best management and conservation practices.

Ultimately, I would like to take a position with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric and Administration working in marine mammal conservation. Columbia University’s program, with its combination of academic excellence and real-world conservation experience provides the perfect environment for me to not only learn the science I need to know, but also to learn how to apply that science to today’s pressing conservation issues.

See, that wasn’t so bad. Now work with your advisors, work with your friends and put together something which will really let you shine. I’m leaving comments on on this because I’d love to hear from other people on graduate admission committees about what they’re looking for!!

Thank you to the folks on twitter who helped this blog with a lively and interesting conversation. Social Media FTW

*Taking about how one evaluates an application is a blog post for another time

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