For those of you who took the June test and for those of you taking October with plans to apply in the fall, you’re probably hard at work already on your personal statement, or will be soon. Here are the five most important things to keep in mind when it comes to writing a fantastic personal statement, if you ask me.
1. Don’t skip brainstorming. The reason groups brainstorm, and the reason you should before you start writing your personal statement, is that it is the best way to get every idea “out there” instead of just going with the first thing that comes to mind. Why? Because believe it or not, the first thing that comes to mind is not necessarily your best idea. Before you pick up a laptop or pen and begin drafting, spend 15 minutes filling two to three pages with possible topics. Do not cross anything out. Don’t erase or delete anything. The point of this exercise is to come up with as many ideas as possible—however wacky, silly or strange it seems.When you finish, you will probably be surprised at how freeing the exercise felt. Now, you have a whole list of potential directions for your essay and are not locked into to any one or two.
2. It should be about you. Your personal statement is meant to be about you, not about your best friend, or your sister, or even how you think the world works. Of course you will include some discussion of the world around you and the people in your life to make your story clear and meaningful, but you should be writing much more about yourself than about anything else. Good questions to keep in mind are: how did you feel when X happened? How did it change you? What did you learn from it?
3. Talk about something that you learned. Stories about how you came to be who you are today are interesting. Stories about how you always were who you are today because you have not changed over the years are less interesting. “I have wanted to be a lawyer since I was three” may be true, but this kind of statement is not effective in a personal statement. Here is why. First, people like to hear about change, about discovery. They do not like to read about a lack of it. And second, generally, stories about how you came to realize your career choice do not take place in elementary school, or even middle school. You are just a kid then, and you think like a kid then. The only “kid” stories that should be featured in your essay are ones that help tell the story of how you became who you are today–and, for the vast majority of us, that’s going to include a heavy chunk of adulthood (or teenage-hood).
4. Look for connections that are not obvious. Have you had parallel experiences in your life that led you to a particular discovery, even though the experiences themselves seem unrelated on the surface? Or perhaps you expected Point A to lead to Point B, and it did. But then it turned out that Point B was not what you had anticipated. Rather than telling the first story that comes to mind because it feels like it has a nicely shaped beginning, middle and end, tell it the way it really did happen, and you could end up with something more honest, interesting and original. You will be shaping it in later drafts, anyway.
5. Don’t send it in without having someone else read it. Even if you are convinced it’s perfect, you should still have someone go over your essay with fresh eyes, because I would bet that it includes at least one typo you are missing. Once, in college, I pulled an all-nighter writing a paper. I submitted it at 9 a.m. the next morning then promptly crashed. I woke up a few hours later and walked to my desk, where the file was still open on my computer. I skimmed the first sentence. It had no verb. Are you thinking that means it was not a sentence? Yes. That is exactly what that means. My first sentence of my final paper was not actually a sentence. This is why you should have someone else review your work.
Check out the Telling Your Story column on jdMission’s blog for more.