CONFESSION: Personally, I don’t love writing. You might think that could pose a problem for me as a writing consultant. However, I *love* talking to people, and I *love* stories. That is probably why I like my job so much, and, more specifically, why I enjoy helping students develop their personal statements.
It wasn’t always this way. When I first started at the Writing Studio (we called it the Writing Center back in those days) in the winter of 2013, personal statements were probably my least favorite type of consultation. You know why. They are too often formulaic, boring, and/or generic—reading like a not-so-funny mad lib instead of revealing the personality and uniqueness of the applicant. This is not the students’ fault. Most of them have never written a personal statement before, and you know they are practically given directions that look something like this:
PERSONAL STATEMENT MAD LIB
Instructions: Please fill in the (blanks)with your information to create a unique personal essay that demonstrates your qualifications and interest in being considered as a candidate to our program.
Para 1: I’ve known ever since I was a little (boy/girl) that I wanted to be a (nurse/doctor/dentist/etc). (School or program here) is awesome. Please pick me for your program in (name a field of study or professional discipline).
Para 2: I am qualified for your program because: I took (list 3 classes in your field of study), participated in (extracurricular activity) and (service or professional student organization), and I shadowed (name of a doctor or professional you know) at ( organization/hospital/institution/etc).
Indeed, I dreaded these mad libs and felt pretty useless in my ability to help students improve their essays until one day last summer when everything changed. I met Andy.*
Andy was a student from Cuba who was working on his application to dental school. He brought in a complete draft of his personal statement, which looked unremarkably like the mad lib above. He wasn’t really looking for help with his content, he told me; he was more worried about grammar because English was not his first language. When we read his statement together, he mentioned that he had nearly completed dental school in Cuba before moving to the U.S. to pursue his education, but he didn’t say why he left. Out of curiosity, I asked what prompted his move.
It was then that I learned about the politics of medicine in Cuba. I also learned that when Andy moved here, he had to start all over in every way. He had to begin a U.S. undergraduate degree before even applying to dental school, he had to learn English from scratch, and he had to completely support himself financially throughout this process. After listening to his story I was both shocked and touched by the sacrifices he’d made to pursue his dream. I felt like I knew Andy personally, and I wanted him to be a dentist. Moreover, I knew that this was the story he needed to tell; this was the person that the admissions committee needed to see to ensure his shot at an interview.
Andy was hesitant at first, but agreed to take a second stab at the statement. After several more drafts, he wrote a truly amazing essay. When I say amazing, I don’t mean that the writing was spectacular or even unflawed. His statement was amazing because he was actually in it. His story and personality transcended the text of the page, created the presence of a unique person.
I am convinced that all of our students have a story. I am convinced that they are each unique and passionate about something. I know there is a reason that they feel motivated to pursue the career/scholarship/internship to which they are applying. My job is simply to get them to tell me about that. I do this by asking questions and listening. I do this by reflecting back to them what I hear them say. I do this by trying to see them as a person, not just another applicant. If at the end of a meeting with a student, I have a sense of who they are, if I can get a taste of their passion and personality, I know I will be able to help them convey those qualities in their personal statement.
I love talking to students and helping them find their stories. It is the best part of this job because it is enjoyable and because it really helps them with their writing.
By the way, Andy received interview invitations from ALL of his top schools, and, after interviewing with the top choice, he was admitted into their program. I know all of this because he came back and told me, thanked me. He believes his personal statement was a key component of his success. What he probably doesn’t realize is that his personal statement was a key component in my success at becoming a better writing consultant.