As a graduate student, you may find that many jobs, internships, scholarships, and graduate/ professional programs ask for a written personal statement. If you're feeling overwhelmed, then rest assured this blog post will explain the purpose of this type of writing and offer helpful tips to get you started on your writing journey.
The first step to writing your personal statement is to understand the purpose. Although requirements vary by program, the general purpose of a personal statement is to highlight your strengths, goals, qualifications, and ability to write clearly and concisely. This is your opportunity to leave an impression on your reader and give them a feel for who you truly are.
The next step is to consider the audience. I usually picture a tired, overworked reader, surrounded by essays and empty coffee cups, who longs to read something interesting.
So now that you've established your purpose and audience, what's next? Working through your personal writing process, of course!
The pre-writing stage is your time to identify and shape the information you want to include in your essay. During this stage, many writers find brainstorming techniques such as listing, clustering, and freewriting a great way to generate ideas. Here are a few questions to ask yourself as you begin gathering ideas.
Once you've come up with ideas, it's time to sort through them and plan a structure. Many students find writing an outline a helpful tool for structuring their paper. The pre-writing stage is extremely important because good writing is focused and clear, so I highly recommend deciding on the message you want to send your reader before beginning the next stage of the writing process, drafting.
The drafting stage consists of putting words on paper. Your goal during this stage is to convey your message in a way that makes your message clear and memorable for the reader. However, give yourself permission to write a terrible first draft because you can always go back and revise.
One genre that fits perfectly with personal statement writing is the narrative. Narrative writing focuses on sending a message through an entertaining story, so you'll want to find an experience from your life that perfectly illustrates your message. For example, if I told you that I was an honest person, you might believe me yet remain unimpressed. However, if I told you about a time when I'd found a purse with a thousand dollars inside and I returned it to its owner, you might think, oh wow! She's really honest. Letting a story convey your message will make your point more memorable for your reader than just stating it.
The best way to tell a story is to think of an experience that illustrates your point and then create a movie version of that experience. You can use some narrative writing tips to help your reader feel like they are right there with you during the experience. For example, using dialogue and descriptive words are great ways to immerse your reader in your experience.
Once you've told your story, you're almost done. You just need that final paragraph to conclude your writing and really cement your message. This conclusion paragraph is your place to summarize your message into one sentence that explicitly states the ideas you've implied through your story. We call this sentence the delayed thesis because it carefully articulates your main point. Often this main point is revealed through a realization that occurred during the experience you described. In the personal statement, it's important that the realization connect to the personal trait, goal, or qualification that makes you a perfect fit for the program or school in which you are applying. You can also use this space to connect your past experience with your future, showing your reader that your skills will transfer to their program and help you to accomplish your goals and be a valuable asset to their program.
I know there is a lot to try to accomplish in one short essay, but keep in mind that readers will learn a lot about you without you having to tell them. That is why the next stage of the writing process, revision, is so important.
The revision stage, is a re-visioning, or re-seeing of ideas. This is a great time to really consider your audience and how they might respond to your words. Also, as you continue to read and reread your writing, you can look for ways to manipulate your story to show those characteristics that you want your reader to see in you. For example, if you want to show that you have a great sense of humor, even though that isn't the main message, you can sprinkle bits of humor throughout without it overtaking the story. During this stage of the writing process, many writers adopt the A.R.R.R. strategy: add, rearrange, remove, replace. Also, remember that you have more than one try at this.You can write first, second, and third drafts and show them to friends, or better yet, bring them into the Writing Center where we are happy to work with any student at any stage of the writing process.
This brings us to the last stage of the writing process, editing. This stage focuses on increasing clarity by going through your writing, line-by-line, keeping in mind the importance of avoiding repetition, using concise language, and eliminating grammar mistakes. Some techniques to help you in this stage are reading your writing aloud and reading from the bottom of the page to the top. Big pictures are made up of minor strokes, so carefully check the small details in your writing to leave a strong overall impression. The writing process isn't always a linear one and allowing yourself to move freely through the different stages can help reduce writing anxiety during the drafting stage.
Good luck with your writing, and I hope to see you in the Writing Center soon!
Jamie Poole, MA
Jamie has both a B.A. and an M.A. in English. She’s taught writing for over 15 years to a diverse body of students from at-risk youth to the CEOs of high profile companies. She believes that writing helps students become more critical thinkers, better communicators, and more persuasive pundits. When not working as a Writing Consultant, she is working on her own writing.