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:
- Divide a page into three columns and head the three columns, from left to right, “Characteristics / Traits,” “Values,” and “Key Moments.”
- Think of someone who knows you really well. It doesn’t have to be someone who’s known you for a long time, but someone who knows your complications, who knows what you’re like to live with, what you really dream about. In the left hand column, under “Characteristics / Traits,” write out the list of adjectives they’d use to describe you. Don’t shy away from negative traits, and don’t shy away from strangely contradictory traits, i.e. “Impatient, generous, shy, bold, creative, pragmatic…”
- In the second column, under “Values,” list out what’s really important to you. Take the time to specify beyond answers like “Family” or “Love.” What is about family that’s so vital? Is it the sense that someone always has your back? Or is it the physical quality of home? What’s the strongest routine or rhythm of living you associate with family? Chances are, we’ll all list similar values in this column, but we all have slightly different definitions of these values, and so it’s up to us to work on parsing the difference. Quite possibly, what you come up with will surprise you.
- In the right hand column, take twenty-minutes to list out memories that come to you that show or exemplify what you wrote in the other two columns. They can be very small moments or big ones: how you used to catch the bus by yourself to school when you were five years old, the feeling of reading book after book lying on the family sofa….you’re recalling memories that feel very tactile to you, moments in which you felt alive.
- Try describing one or two of these moments in a paragraph or two. Don’t worry about what it means straight away. For now, you’re just focusing on having the reader experience what you did, to look at the world through your eyes. It’s important to take the time to describe carefully what it felt like to you, because it will help establish your own voice, along with implicitly setting you in story-telling mode.
- The more of these moments that you describe, the more you’ll start to sense patterns in your experience, thru-lines you could trace between who you were before, who you are now, and what you want to do later. Your confidence will increase in telling the story of your life, and in understanding how your priorities and judgment have evolved over time.
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:
- What errors or regrets have taught you something important about yourself?
- When have you been so immersed in what you were doing, that time seemed to evaporate while you were actively absorbed?
- What ideas, books, theories or movements have made a profound impact on you – be honest.
- To what extent do your current commitments reflect your most strongly-held values?
- Where or how do you seem to waste the most time?
- Under what conditions do you do your best, most creative work?
- To what extent are you a typical product of your generation and/or culture? How might you deviate from the norm?
- Your personal statement will likely go through many drafts. Don’t assume that you’re writing out what you already know; you’re writing to discover more about yourself.
- Some stories or moments we think we’re going to write about will not end up not being necessary. Don’t become too wedded to particular story in the first or second draft. Remember, you’re writing to show who you are, and there are many, many paths to showing this.
- The award committee is reading this statement of self to ascertain whether you are a good match for their organization’s aims. How are you showing their criteria in what you’ve written?
- When it comes to plans study and career aspirations, be specific. If you don’t know, don’t make it up, but the more you’ve visualized this path in detail, the more confident you will appear and the more the selection committee will feel like they’re making a good investment in the future by selecting you. They want to reward those who will follow through, and those who follow through tend to have a realistic and precise plan.
- Write out the clichés you can imagine your award committee is used to reading (e.g. I love learning, I want to make a difference, I want to help those less fortunate than me…) The tough thing about cliché is that it’s often very true. The thought shouldn’t be avoided just because it’s commonly experienced. However, the generality of that thought should be avoided. You need to show the subtle modulations of that thought in the context of your particular experience. (For instance: you decided to go into medicine because the death of your grandfather had a huge impact on you when you were a child. A lot of people have had that experience. As a result, you need to write about the death of your grandfather so precisely and thoughtfully that we see you in the telling of it, not just the truth of the cliché itself. What did you specifically learn about medicine then? Was it how the little things made the biggest differences; whether he was near the window or away from it, how the nurses made sure all the snorers were in one room, how you realized that no one medical professional was responsible, how much of his care relied upon communication between people in a complex and constantly shifting network with one another, who were bound by a common decency but were also human and exhausted? Was it how long it took for the inevitable to happen and how, paradoxically uncertain that process felt? The renewal of cliché comes from exact description and careful reflection.)
- The narrative you do end up weaving is in the service of exposing more fundamental patterns in your life. Make sure you articulate this movement from a specific moment to more over-arching statements of belief and purpose. The reader needs to see you making sense of your life.
- Allow yourself to be thoughtful, to change your mind, to admit that the simplest explanation is not the only explanation. You are showing that you’re capable of complex thinking, so allow the reader to see you digging into the nuance your claims.
- Look out for “empty” sentences or sentences that simply don’t say enough. These sentences are almost inevitable in first drafts; we think we’re being specific, but we’re not (i.e. “I look forward to the scintillating conversations I’ll have at college). Write these sentences is a necessary part of the process—the serve as placeholders for more careful reflection—and learning to spot them is an important skill to develop.
- We can become bogged down in narrative; either our frame is too big and we find ourselves writing our entire autobiography, or our frame is too small and we worry we’re being trite, or attaching too much significance to something that’s not very important at all. If your frame is too big, you might need to focus more specifically on one moment within the story you’ve written, discarding exposition that isn’t really important to the significance of what you’re describing. If the frame seems too small, you can be honest and acknowledge, as part of your statement, a reader’s possible doubts or interpretation, i.e. “It might seem to a stranger that I was….” Doing this often forces us to clarify what is important about that moment.
- We have no idea what order to put our paragraphs in. Chronological? Conceptual? The solution is to try different options, and then see what happens. Scissors and a hard copy of your draft help. Physically moving paragraphs around sometimes forces us to acknowledge we’re trying to do too much thinking work in one paragraph and not enough in another.
- We have no idea how to transition between different thoughts without sounding like a bad comedian trying to segue from one joke to another. This is mostly corrected by forcing ourselves to be really honest about how things connect. Don’t force a simplified connection. You might have to acknowledge a complication in order to make a genuine connection between different experiences.
- A draft means substantial revision. It does not mean copy-editing. You will end up rewriting nearly 98% of your sentences, or at least painstakingly considering the order of words or clauses in it.
- You need to print out hard copies in order to edit. The computer will trick your (tired) eyes into thinking that what you are reading is coherent. It isn’t.
- You need to give your brain extended “off” periods between drafts. Ideally, you need to schedule 2-3 hour blocks of writing, then a few days “away” from it before returning.
- Try reading the draft out loud to a friend. Can they understand what you’re saying (particularly the causal logic of your argument) if they don’t have your written words in front of them? In other words, do they follow it without re-reading or jumping ahead on the page? What words are unusually archaic? Where do you sound like an SAT test? How can you sound both smart and your age and yourself?
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.