Last year (November 2019) I was preparing to apply to PhD programs in Computer Science & Machine Learning departments. I applied to the University of Michigan, Stanford, MIT, University of Illinois, University of Washington, University of Pennsylvania, University of Toronto, Cornell, Carnegie Mellon University, University College London (Gatsby Unit), Yale University, & Radboud University (the Netherlands). It was a really stressful process! I did not have a lot of examples of statements of purpose or personal statements to go off of, so I wanted to share mine in case they are helpful to anyone (links to the PDFs are at the end of this post). Particularly the personal statement was really challenging for me to write. It's super awkward to feel like you have to put a positive spin on every thing that has happened to you. Most of the personal statements I read were very positive stories, and were not about explaining gaps in a transcript or negative events. I suppose maybe people don't like to share deeply personal things with strangers on the internet. Sharing these materials, and pretty personal details about my life, is a part of me owning my story. My path has not been straight and I have overcome a lot of difficult things in my 28 years of life. Instead of comparing myself to other candidates, wondering why I didn't get into MIT, yada yada, I am choosing to share these materials because maybe they will help some one else get into their dream program. And maybe sharing my story will give you permission to share yours too.
A little bit of background on me...I have a Bachelor's of Science in Biomedical Physics from Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. My overall GPA was 3.54 and I had 5 years of research experience (2.5 years full time post-undergrad), 1 first author publication, and 8 middle author publications at the time of applying. I was 27 when I applied, and 28 when I started grad school. I am now a PhD student in the Predictive Clinical Neuroscience lab working with Andre Marquand in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. This was not where I predicted I would end up, but hey humans are pretty bad at predicting the future (I'm working on it). All I can say is that I am incredibly happy and I know that I made the best decision for me. It was such a relief to let go of the fear of not attending an ivy league or top ten school and make my decision based off of my gut feeling of how I got along with my advisor. The truth is we all shape our own paths. The school you are at does not determine your success. Your research determines your professional success (among other things) and the most important thing for producing good research is having a mentor that you work well with. If you haven't thought about what type of mentor is a match for you...well you probably are not yet ready to apply to grad school. Anyways...remember to not take this too seriously. After all life is short, and we are all just walking each other home.
p.s. you can get a fee waiver at every school (if you need it). All I had to do was show proof that I had taken out student loans during undergrad.