Throughout my ten years of teaching writing at the college level, I’ve spent many hours helping students write in that horrifyingly bizarre genre often called the “personal statement,” “statement of purpose,” and “admission statement.” It’s a wretched genre because it forces students to reflect concisely and succinctly on their own identities, which are often still being formed. It serves as a brief snapshot into the student’s personality, allowing the reader to get a sense of who this person is and what they want from life without actually having to meet and speak to him or her.
For many years I had a series of advisory suggestions for students writing such statements, whether they be for a resident assistant job at a dorm, a scholarship program, a job, a graduate program, law school, med school, business school, etc. “Write several drafts,” I always said. “One that is just bullet points of things you want to mention, another that tells a story of how you solved a problem, and a third that directs the reader to your future and how you imagine it.” All three are ways to approach the task of trying to figure out who you are in 1-2 pages, none of them really works particularly well, and it’s really only part of a whole slew of things that go in to whether you’re accepted or hired.
This year, I’m on the admissions committee for the grad program here. Reading through dozens and dozens of files, I’ve concluded that there really isn’t a perfect way to write these statements, there are a few things that make the whole package a good one.
Things that make the process great:
- recommendation letters that express specificity, comparison, and enthusiasm
- on the whole, the depth and breadth of knowledge and experience that students represent in their files
- students with a focus on social justice without coming off as extremist or naive
- use of the phrase “soul-sucking” in the first sentence of a personal statement
- a focus on interdisciplinarity without using the word “interdisciplinary” too frequently
- a sentence from a rec letter that reads: “John Doe is a quality human being.”
- a sentence from an app that reads “John Doe is an active and dependable athlete.”
- personal statements that tell a story of the candidate that’s different from what I can get from the rest of the file
- reading arguments for why students are a good fit for our program in particular and not just grad school in general
There is much more to say but the process is ongoing and I don’t want to post anything inappropriate. It’s a blast reading through them and thinking carefully about each one. It makes me excited to do what I do and it gives me hope that I’ll get to work with amazing people like these throughout my career. Not easy to choose! I’m glad it’s not just up to me alone.