by Aaron Singh, an MFA student at USF in Creative Writing and a Writing Studio consultant
Personal statements are a tricky beast; most of us haven’t been trained to write about our own lives in a compelling, thoughtful way. Instead, we are taught the Five Paragraph Essay for most of our academic career, taught that our intro needs to end with a thesis statement, and our thesis statement needs to include the three points we wish to expand upon in the body of the essay.
Just writing about it is boring.
The one aspect of personal statements that seems to give most of my clients the most trouble, however, is the “hook,” or the beginning: that pesky first paragraph that makes your personal statement stand out from the rest. Not because it’s experimental, weird, or because it reinvents the wheel—but because it shows the type of mature thought that comes from a graduate candidate. The type of student who can make sense of his or her life without an ego or without melodrama.
The first thing I tell my clients to think of: scene, scene, scene. The OWL at Purdue has a great article that includes the difference between summary and scene, and before you run away before trying it, just think: the easiest way to hook someone into any piece of writing is by getting the person to feel like they just experienced something, themselves, without being told what or how to feel.
A few tips before we get to an example:
- Start with a time and/or place. Examples: When I was four years old; Three years ago; When I saw; During a shift at the movie theater; etc.
- Think about the five senses. What was it like to be in this time and/or place? What did it smell like? Look like? Sound like? Taste like? Feel like? Many times, we can get rid of the “When I was four years old” first sentence by starting on a concrete detail that gives the reader the when or where information while also painting a picture with the senses. Example: The scent of butter floated in the air and my concessions stand line was getting long, forming a snake of hungry movie goers all the way to the entrance doors. (This gives us the time/place—a movie theater—and we know the narrator works there by the language used.)
- Don’t forget to wrap the “hook paragraph” up with a tie into the program you are applying to. Don’t be afraid if the story isn’t completely the same theme as the program you are applying to. This contrast often hooks our attention even more. Of course, this sentence should still be relevant to some of the details of the story. Example: I knew then and there—watching all the people wait in line for overpriced food before their summer movies—I wanted to study Food Science.
My go-to example comes from a sample paper featured on the Medical College of Wisconsin’s webpage. In this personal statement, the author chooses to place us in her life at seven years of age. The entire first paragraph is a scene of the young writer watching her mother give birth. It’s intense, descriptive, and engaging. It makes us want to keep reading.
So go give your personal statement another try. Think in scene. Use the five senses. And, of course, have fun with it. It’s not every day you get to write about something from your own life that interests you.