The importance of the personal statement for all applicants

From Kevin Janes and Dan Abebayehu, Graduate Admissions Committee Member, Department of Biomedical Engineering, University of Virginia

If you visit our Ph.D. application site, you will find that we have an incredibly detailed set of prompts for the personal statement:

(Required) Provide a 1–2 page personal statement or statement of purpose. Ideally, your statement will address one or more of the below prompts. We suggest addressing only one or a few of these prompts in detail rather than trying to address them all superficially.

  1. Was there a singular experience that solidified your motivation and commitment to pursuing a graduate degree?  If so, please tell us about it.  If not, explain how you arrived at your decision to pursue graduate school.
  2. Two of the Core Values at the UVA School of Engineering are “Educating Engineering Leaders” and “Excellence Through Diversity”.  If you have leadership experience promoting diversity in STEM or have the potential to add a unique perspective to our program, please share.
  3. What accomplishment are you most proud of?  What challenges did you have to overcome to achieve success in reaching that accomplishment?
  4. Is there something that you believe provides the strongest evidence for your readiness to pursue graduate studies?  If yes, please expand.  Speculate on how you think your readiness might align with a specific advising or mentorship style:  hands-on vs. hands-off, individual vs. team-based, etc.
  5. Describe the themes that summarize your general research interests and how they relate to our program.  If these themes align with prior research experience, explain why you want to continue on with them.  If the themes are different, explain your rationale for the change.
  6. In what ways do you hope or expect to grow during your time as a graduate student?  Comment on what a successful graduate outcome looks like to you if you have such an idea operationally in mind.  To what extent do you have a sense of how graduate school fits into your longer-term career plans?
  7. If there is anything additional you feel that we should know about you in evaluating your application, please include it in this statement.


All applicants are strongly encouraged to explain their rationale for applying specifically to the Biomedical Engineering Ph.D. program at the University of Virginia.

We want to hear your story.  A richly informative personal statement, which adds context to the other components and demonstrates resilience, can distinguish and elevate an application within the BME Admissions Committee.  In an age of variable grade inflation, no GREs, and ChatGPT, the personal statement remains the one place where you words have the power to tell us what distinguishes you as an applicant.  Our belief is that everyone has facets of their academic, scientific, family, or life experiences that distinguishes them—we want to hear about those facets.  Likewise, each applicant has their own individualized reasons for applying to the University of Virginia and the Department of Biomedical Engineering specifically—we want to hear about those reasons, too.  Personal statements that are generic or overly cautious may be quick to write and quick to read, but they leave no impression about the applicant in the end.

One useful litmus test for a personal statement is to go through the document, remove the subject, and then ask, “Could these statements hold true for anyone BUT me?”  If the answer is “yes”, you are writing generic platitudes that we have seen before and not a personal statement.  It is also acceptable to take risks in a personal statement:  we would rather read something that surprises us than be unable to reach any opinion because we feel as if we have read nothing at all.  Our department is built on a culture of inclusion, support, transparency, and trust—there is no better way for applicants to cultivate a sense of belonging than by showing us these qualities in their personal statement.

Daniel Abebayehu, PhD, Assistant Professor of BME

Kevin Janes, PhD, Professor of BME