Personal statements are the worst, but incredibly important! They are often the hurdle that stands between you and admission into your choice university, graduate school, or winning that prestigious fellowship. If you haven’t had to write one, odds are you will. They are almost always an important component in university admissions, scholarships and awards, and even job applications.
I have been struggling to write a new personal statement for my Fulbright application for weeks! It is probably the hardest thing to write because it has to be a combination of genuine personal reflection, non-conceited bragging, and a clear sense of what you want to achieve and how you will achieve it. You have to be able to answer really important questions about who you are, what you believe, and what you want… and that is never easy!
A good personal statement provides an important first impression to grant and/or admission committees. It tells your personal and intellectual biography to demonstrate why you are qualified for a fellowship/grant, school, job, etc.
Generally, personal statements are written in narrative form that moves from your past, to your present, and finally, to your future. This narrative form allows you to convey why you are interested/invested in what you are applying for (past), how you are qualified and/or equipped to achieve what you want to do (present), and how you will use this award/experience (or how it will aid you) in your goals (future).
The Introduction – This paragraph is the most important and should hook the reader to your story. You want to begin with something unique and interesting about yourself or your personal experiences that helps the reader understand why you are interested in what you are applying for. As you write this, try to answer, or at least think about, the following:
- Who are you?
- What do you hope to gain?
- What do you hope to give back?
- Why are you applying? How will this grant (or admission, or job) aid you in achieving your goals? (Remember what you are applying for is a vehicle to your goal(s), not your goal!)
The Body – The body of your statement should elaborate on your introduction and provide specific examples of your past experiences and skills that you introduced in your first paragraph.
The Conclusion – After providing specific examples of why you are interested in studying a subject or topic and how you are equipped to excel at researching, attending a specific university, or performing on the job, reflect on these statements. Analyze how you will relate your personal experiences to how you will use that grant, fit in at that university, or excel at that job. Equally important, connect the specific grant/application/job you are applying for with your future plans. Emphasize how this is a crucial stepping stone to achieving your larger goals.
Say No To Cheese – You want to avoid over-blown and unrealistic statements about changing the world and making a difference. Words like inspire, passion, and dream should be avoided, since they are often over-used and come off as empty cliches. Also just avoid the following phrases:
- From a young age…
- Since I was a child…
- I have always been fascinated by…
- I have a thirst for knowledge…
- The world we live in today…
Why? These statements are empty and reveal nothing specific about you. To avoid writing a cheesy and impersonal statement, focus on giving real and personal examples of your points. You want to make sure you are telling rather than showing. For example, you could wax poetically about your love of knowledge, or you could show them by discussing a specific example of when learning something new changed your persecutive on something.
In my personal statement I was trying to convey why I believed study abroad was important and how it changed lives – see already sounding cheesy. To fix this, I focussed and reflected on my personal experiences abroad and transformed that sentiment into the following: “I traveled to Italy for the first time in the summer of 2004, just one year after the U.S. invaded Iraq. Prior to my study abroad experience, I viewed this conflict as a simple “us versus them,” “right versus wrong” situation. When I arrived in Rome I was shocked by the sight of policemen patrolling the streets with machine guns, while at the same time peace flags hung from apartment windows. As I discussed the invasion and subsequent war with locals, I realized this conflict had global ramifications. Furthermore, most of the people I spoke to viewed the war through a different lens than my own. This was the beginning of my new international perspective, which would enable me to grasp issues from multiple cultural perspectives on a global level. Studying in a city in which two thousand years of history lay at your feet, combined with the geo-political circumstances I found my self confronted by, sparked an interest in the study in history. I came to understand that history could shed light on the complexity of human interactions both in the past and in the present.” (…Or something like that)
Don’t Be Conceited – There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance. There is no getting around talking about yourself and your accomplishments (because you should be) but you should do it in a way that appeals to the reader. Diffusing an egotistical tone is as simple as reflecting. How have your opportunities and achievements changed you?
Final Quick Tips:
- Cut irrelevant personal facts
- Humor rarely translates in formal essays like this… so just don’t
- Avoid degrading and negative comments about yourself and others
- Don’t lie!
- Avoid simply listing all the places you have been, books you have read, or jobs you have held
- Don’t quote others, this is your statement, not someone else’s
- Always avoid the word “always”