The personal statement is, easily, the most difficult piece to write for graduate admissions. Anyone that has ever applied can attest to this. Having to sit down at a computer and think about a way to differentiate yourself from the MASSES (and in some cases, you really are up against the masses) is almost impossible. You have to be informative but witty. You should tell a story but don’t overwhelm your reader with narrative. You need to find a way to talk about how (in my case) literature relates to who you are as a person. You need to tell how literature created you.
Getting this message across was something that I struggled with for weeks. I wrote about ten drafts, sent them out to my AMAZING friend who did quite a bit of editing for me. I finally reached a final product after receiving some constructive criticism from a former professor. I’m not going to sit here and preach that I know how to write a personal statement. Because I only learned how to write my personal statement. Each and every person is going to have to take a different approach; we are all different people and different things will work for each of us. But I will share a few things that I learned. Hopefully a grad applicant somewhere will eventually find these things useful.
- Don’t be afraid to let people read what you’ve written. I got some of the best comments from my friend and former professor. They were constructive in their criticism and taught me how to approach a writing genre I had absolutely no experience with. Each person, more than likely, writing a personal statement has never had to write one before. It’s okay to feel like you don’t know what you’re doing! Ask for help from people who have been there and (more importantly) from people that know you. Though you might not always like what they have to say, taking the time to listen can only benefit you.
- Take risks… within reason.
My friend started her personal statement off with a discussion from a sexual education class that she taught. And while this might seem like a risky endeavor (“Who talks about sex in their personal statement?!”) it worked for her! She is someone who is very focused on sexual education, rights, etc. and having the chance to talk about her classroom experience in her personal statement was probably part of the reason she landed a spot in her PhD program. I decided to take other risks. See #4.
- Be honest.
I didn’t have a problem with this one in my statement but I feel like it’s something that needs to be said. Write from your own life. Write about things you are actually interested in. Remember, you are showing them who you are. They need to make sure that you are going to be a good fit for their university, their faculty, and their resources. If you decide to misrepresent yourself, you could end up making one of the biggest mistakes of your life.
When I first sent my draft over to my professor, he noted that it seemed like I was practically worshiping the people that I wanted to work with. He encouraged me to treat these people like colleagues as opposed to gods. So this was where I decided to take my risk. I read a piece by each of the faculty members I wanted to work with and I found a way to discuss (and sometimes challenge) what they had written. This might not be a good piece of advice for everyone, but I found that it was a way to put my thoughts in conversation with work that was already out there and establish my place in literary criticism. We’ll see if that ends up working out.
This is, obviously, not meant to be a comprehensive list of things that you should/should not do in your personal statement. Like I said, everyone is different and everyone will have different experiences. I hope that someone finds this useful and if you find yourself reading this as you apply to graduate school: GOOD LUCK!!!!