Personal Statement Tips (psst, they're not autobiographies) by ArianaTuriansky

posted Sep 27, 2017, 5:29 PM by Writing Center
Being a college student offers lots of opportunities to apply for graduate school, jobs, scholarships, and internships. Most of these opportunities will require an application of sorts and a cover letter or personal statement. 

Personal statements are tricky little things. You often won’t have enough allotted space (or words) to write your autobiography. You will often be submitting a resume or CV that also provides information about you. So what goes into a personal statement? How do you present your best self and get the position or opportunity you’re applying for?

Depending on what you are applying for, you may be asked to describe your achievements, interests, experience, reasons for choosing the job/program/etc., and more. From here you might ask, “how do I choose which achievements, which interests, which reasons,” and that is where The Writing Center comes in. 

Often, I consult with writers who have fallen into the trap of writing their autobiography in their personal statement. After all, there are so many things that made you the person you are and led you to this application! But think about the manager or committee (or consultant!) reading your statement. Do they need to know everything to get a sense of your background and personality, or do they just need to hear about certain jobs, certain experiences, and a few skills? Probably the latter. If you think of the personal statement as a movie trailer, it becomes easy to see that you, as the audience, only get snippets of the movie -- the ones that will make you want to go see it. Your writing works the same way! Show the qualities that will make your reader (audience) call you in for an interview (go see the movie).

You can also think of first impressions. We can usually gather a good bit of information from a brief interaction with a stranger. Your statement is this brief interaction, so write about your most outstanding or impressive moments, personality traits, or experiences and leave the rest for your real autobiography.

Another challenge that I see writers encounter is the overuse of pathos in their statements. The personal statement is, at the end of it all, a professional document, and it should reflect this. Think of the statement as a balance of emotional and professional skills or reasons for pursuing the position that you are interested in. While readers want to see that you are human, they also want to see concrete evidence of your commitment to the program or position. This might require a reduction in the emotional description of how you coped with your dog’s death, for example, and increased information about the skills that make you the best candidate for the veterinary medicine program. You want to talk-up your positive accomplishments and provide a bit more information about them than your resume provides.

Stylistically, don’t try to show off your vocabulary or sound overly intellectual. Often, this isn’t how you would naturally write or speak, and readers will recognize this. The same advice goes for being overly casual. Don’t address your reader as you would a friend; it will undermine your professionalism. Stand out; be yourself! This includes avoiding common or cliché phrases that your reader might see in all of the personal statements, and thus become bored. Everybody has passion for X, Y, or Z subject. Everybody will be dedicated to their work. Don’t be everybody!

Set up a consultation at The Writing Center for more information on drafting effective cover letters. Remember, we also consult on all kinds of professional documents including resumes, grant work, proposals, etc. I hope to see you soon!

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