Practical Advice: Writing the Personal Statement

Many competitive opportunities for service learning and learning abroad require you to write a personal statement. I asked my colleague Aaron Reynolds to share his wisdom on this, since he regularly teaches this fine art to students in the Honors College. Don’t forget to check out his handy handout as well as his post here below!

—Richard Armstrong

Ahh, the personal statement.  Frequently required by admissions and hiring committees, but also a much-procrastinated-upon (if not outright-dreaded) part of any application process.  What is it about personal statements that makes writing them so difficult, maddening, and even terrifying?  You’re just writing about you – this should be simple, right?

img_1134Wrong.  As anyone who’s struggled to compose one of these essays can attest, writing about yourself – especially about yourself when it comes to why someone should hire you, or admit you to their school – is a task easier said than done.  Most people are not comfortable “selling” themselves, worry about sounding arrogant or cocky, and would rather point to their resume and transcripts again than express something personal or more revealing.  In fact, I’m willing to bet, if asked point-blank right now, “Why should we hire you or admit you to our school?” most of you would be caught off-guard.

Thankfully, though, that’s where the personal statement comes in.  Think of it as analogous to the old “elevator pitch” concept (where a young, eager person approaches a just-arrived CEO in the lobby of an office building, hoping this show of initiative will lead to being hired, and the CEO, feeling charitable says, “Tell you what, get on this elevator with me, and if you can tell me why I should hire you in the time it takes to reach my floor maybe I’ll invite you to talk further in my office…) – only now in written form.

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The time constraints are still tight (usually two pages at most) and the pressure is still on to deliver, but thankfully (provided you don’t procrastinate) you also have ample time to reflect on and compose the best “pitch” possible for yourself.   Think of it as the “pre-interview” that will hopefully get you to the interview stage, thanks to the way you present yourself as someone who is not only skilled, but also experienced, passionate, thoughtful, and able to work well with others, all in ways not evident on a resume – in short, a brief essay/statement that will make the reader feel more confident about you as a candidate, rather than raising red flags or leaving the reader still wondering what separates you from the dozens if not hundreds of other applicants.

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Again, this is no easy task.  In fact, the only thing easy about it is how easy it is to succumb to pitfalls that either (a) inadvertently make the essay sound so cliché and formulaic the reader barely gives it a glance or (b) actually erodes the good will first established by your other credentials.  But never fear!  This is why I’ve compiled an extensive list of both the “Do’s” and “Don’ts” of writing a personal statement, which you can click on here.

As with any advice on writing, much of this is subjective, and exceptions to such rules certainly exist in many ways – but still, in order successfully break rules, it’s best to do so knowing the risks and how to circumnavigate potential pitfalls.

Lastly, as the handout itself notes, DO NOT PANIC if you’ve already committed some of the “Don’ts” in previous drafts.  As you’ll see, with time and further thought, these “Don’ts” can be easily turned into opportunities to set yourself apart in positive ways:  to not only discover what to say, but how best to say it.  This of course can be a time-consuming, even frustrating process – but also quite rewarding, not only for the essay itself, but with your application/candidacy as a whole as well.

—Aaron Reynolds

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