Here’s an example of a common prompt: ”A personal statement of 1,000 words or less from the nominee describing his or her background, interests, plans for graduate study and career aspirations. The statement should include a discussion of some experiences and ideas that have shaped those interests, plans and aspirations.”
As Mary Tolar has noted, “If you are applying for nationally competitive scholarships, for graduate school, or for a number of post-graduate service or employment opportunities, you have seen the vaguely phrased request; in one form or another, it comes down to “tell us something about yourself… You are asked to share your “academic and other interests. A clearer charge might be: compose an essay that reveals who you are, what you care about, and what you intend to do in this life. Tell this story in a compelling manner, and do so in less than a thousand words. What’s so hard about that? Simply make sense of your life. (right.) But what does that mean?”
The personal statement is more like a genre than a rubric; there are set of constraints, but no formulas. This means that we need to triangulate our understanding of what it will be with more than one piece of advice rather than a single definition.
For that reason, I recommend you begin by printing out Mary Tolar’s advice. Highlight the phrases that strike you as helpful. Chances are, these are the phrases that surprise you or confirm what was a hunch. Noticing what stands out will help reveal assumptions you may not have even known you had. (This is a stage in the process that should not be overlooked in your rush to master the personal statement. The more you notice what you are learning, the easier the process will become.)
I like Tolar’s advice to keep a diary, and to engage in mindless, repetitive activity—my favorite is walking. Here are some other exercises:
This exercise is hard work, but it can be really rewarding. I’d recommend taking thirty minutes to complete it; it requires careful thought.
We all have individuals who have influenced us. Draw a family tree of the influences in your life. You could use this template of a family tree.
This sounds simple, but it’s not. There’s a difference between who’s been your spiritual or intellectual mother and your father, a difference between whom you’d put as a cousin or a grandparent (maternal or paternal).
This exercise helps to clarify how diverse our intellectual inheritance is. It forces us to be particular, and to make subtle value judgments. For instance, if I put the English novelist Angela Carter as a my intellectual mother, and the Chilean missionary and farmer Lucas Bridges as my intellectual father, I’m then compelled to acknowledge why; what it is about Carter’s novels that have nourished me, what it is about Bridges’s Uttermost Part of the Earth has extended me. It also exposes my own gender or familial essentialism; how I think my own real mother and father have influenced me. In other words, naming these people forces me to articulate my priorities and how I have learned to be in the world. And a personal statement that begins “You might think Kobe Bryant and Geoffrey Sachs to be unlikely associates, but I would argue otherwise…” is immediately much more interesting than, “I’ve always been interested in sports and academics…”
Often, it just helps to be much more specific about what it is we want to do. Please see my instructions for your Proposed Plan of Study. Answering those questions might help you see what you also need to describe in your personal statement.
As brainstorming cues, I also highly recommend answering Tolar’s questions, which I’ve excerpted here:
In an academic context, we are often used to writing in a specific voice—namely, in an “objective,” professional-sounding voice, which we don’t necessarily think of as ours so much as a shared tone that all academic texts seem to have. In academia, we often write to blend in. Jargon helps inasmuch as it offers shortcuts to our readers’ understanding. We are used to writing for an audience is already knowledgeable about the material we’re discussing. We may not be practiced using “I,” nor do we think our more personal experiences are valid “evidence” through which we could develop more intellectual, abstract ideas that have the same weight as the material we read for class. This means that when we come to write a personal statement, it’s very hard to get the tone right. We’re not used to writing in a tone that is both intellectually rigorous and personal; we’re not used to reflecting on our lives as closely as we might a written text or subject in an academic paper. It takes practice and time to feel comfortable writing in this kind of voice: professional, yet intimate, self-reflective and engaging. Don’t feel bad if you write, and re-write, and re-write, if you second guess yourself and despair. You are learning here, and that involves moving beyond what you had before. You are acquiring knowledge rather than just proving it.