I think we’ve all had our share of writers working on their Personal Statements. I’m also sure that each of us remembers (sometimes with dread) writing our own Personal Statements for graduate school. It certainly is a trying experience at best. Personal Statements seem to “break”many of the conventions of academic writing: using first person, a more casual tone, and talking about ourselves – our beliefs and our experiences. I always have advised such writers to start early and expect to edit their Personal Statement more than any other writing they may have done.
I think that the most effective Personal Statement walks a very fine line. In some ways, it is like a cover letter, or other letter of introduction. It is the writer’s chance to let their readers into their circle. It must strike a tone that reflects the writer’s personality more than any other writing, but still remain professional. It is a chance for applicants to let their own voice come through. The remaining application documents are impersonal: GPA, standardized test scores, basic data not unlike what appears on a traditional resume. The Personal Statement is a chance to connect those experiences and those numbers to a real, live human being. That can only be accomplished through reflection and allowing our personality to shine through the page (or screen).
So, I contend that an effective Personal Statement musttell a story, more than any other writing. The story of the writer’s life. I will start suggesting future writers of Personal Statements begin the process by watching the following video. I apologize if you find One Direction trite, but I think that this song strikes a perfect balance of distance and reflection.
Narrative, then, is important. But the story needs to do more than just reflect on past experiences; it must also connect each of those experiences to the writer’s future, a future that both requires and deserves admission to the particular institution. The writer needs to connect each of the experiences to faculty members, the program, and the institution. Part of the reflection needs to answer a critical question: “Why can ___________ program best achieve its objectives when they admit me as a student?” Again, it is a deeply personal reflection that will answer this question successfully. The writer must connect with the readers (who may or may not be one of the identified faculty). It should outline what the writer intends to do within the program and after they have finished. And it all needs to relate to the “Story of [the writer’s] Life” to date. It must be a seamless narrative that entertains the readers, connects with them emotionally, and convinces them that the writer will complete the program (with a pretty-specific plan in mind) in a timely manner. It must show that the writer has thought about their experiences to date and show how those experiences (including failures and successes) have shaped them as a person. It must also show how that person belongs at that school.
A Personal Statement should be deeply reflective, completely personal, and eloquently convincing. It should be a window into the writer’s heart and soul, while connecting each part of the writer’s past and future to that institution and the people who make it exceptional.
Make sure your writers allow themselves to speak through their Personal Statements and to let the essay express who they are. Press them to tell their story openly and honestly.
Although they’re selling an editing service, check out this website for more on developing a narrative personal statement:
By Philip Davis, M.A. in History