Berkeley's "personal history statement"

Forum for the GRE subject test in mathematics.
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Berkeley's "personal history statement"

Post by LogiKid » Sun Dec 13, 2020 12:47 am

UC Berkeley want applicants to submit a "personal history statement":
Please describe how your personal background and experiences influenced your decision to pursue a graduate degree. In this section, you may also include any relevant information on the following:
  • How you have overcome barriers to access higher education
  • How you have come to understand the barriers faced by others
  • Your academic service to advance equitable access to higher education for women, racial minorities and individuals from other groups that have been historically underrepresented in higher education
  • Your research focusing on under served populations or related issues of inequality
  • Your leadership among such groups
Does anyone have any idea about how to tackle this? As a straight white male who has not directly done anything for minorities*, I'm at a loss for what to write.

* Of course I believe in social justice and diversity in mathematics, but I haven't done anything that could qualify as "academic service to advance equitable access..."

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Re: Berkeley's "personal history statement"

Post by fizzenfen » Sun Dec 13, 2020 4:33 am

I'm basically in the same boat. I'm planning to just respond to the first prompt, about difficulties I have personally faced in doing math, e.g. about how the "genius myth" can be harmful, or my experience feeling dumb and inadequate when I switched majors to math. Basically, about the psychological difficulties peculiar to students of mathematics.

TBH this is probably not what they really want, but it flies, or at least I'm going to go with it. At least it feels more comfortable than lying and saying I've done work to advance "equity" and diversity and whatnot.

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Re: Berkeley's "personal history statement"

Post by UniformlyDivergent » Wed Jan 20, 2021 6:59 pm

Holy f**k was this a hard essay to write. It took me nearly 4 weeks to get the final draft. I think the thing that makes it challenging is that there are so many different, barely related points that I (and probably many people) want to include that makes it hard to make it flow coherently. For mine, I had to talk about family drama, homeschool challenges, financial barriers, and all sorts of stuff while also talking about how I got into math, the community stuff that I was doing (not all math related), and a bunch more.

Here's how I approached it: I chose to frame everything around "Why did I pick math?", and then tell a narrative about my life. I tried to show how each "challenge" in my life eventually helped me find math, and prepare me for grad school. I think it worked well because it answers the primary question, while in the same breath also show all of the stuff you went through to get there. If you come from a less-than-perfect background like myself and you're playing the "opportunity" angle, I think it's a good place to start.

Haven't heard back from UCB yet, but I'll let you know if it ultimately works or not.


Edit (1/Feb):

So, I got rejected from UCB. No harm no foul, but I still stand by what I wrote above. In any case, they had 800 applicants for 30 spots, so all things being equal, there was > 4% of getting a spot. Final words: Give it your best shot, but understand that at some point a large degree of luck is involved, so calculate that into your emotional investment.

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