Personalizing your Personal Statement

Today was my last day as a tutor at the Writing Studio, and as I sign out and lock up, it occurs to me that my time as a tutor has been bookended by appointments dealing with application essays. I’m a writer, so of course the delicious symmetry appeals to me, and I like the idea that as I say goodbye to the Writing Studio to continue my studies in the English graduate school here at Duke, I have hopefully helped (a little, a tiny bit, I hope) at least two people with pursuing their career goals.

When people come in with personal statements and application essays I always end up shaking the same sentences into life, ditching the same cliches, telling the writer to stop entering “flexibility” or “creative problem-solving” into the thesaurus and stop to think why, I mean really why, they want to do this thing they want to do. The people behind the desks, mired in a swamp of 500 word personal statements, know there is a demanding work ethic that you are eager to become immersed in. They know your longstanding admiration and commitment to their firm. I’d bet they can probably guess that you enjoy the collaborative atmosphere of a top-tier firm.  They know, hopefully, that you are interested. What they don’t know, necessarily, is if you are interesting.

Of course, you have a lot to cram in those 500 words. I’m certainly not suggesting that you refuse to talk about oceanography to the Marine Biology Department at Harvard and instead talk about your love of the films of Wes Anderson.  But I think that what is most often left out of the personal statement is the honest personal statement, a sentence or so about what makes you you. You are not only the things you have done. You are not only the list of words that you can get by typing “hard-working” “enthusiastic” and “creative” into an online thesaurus. When I applied to my MA program in English Literature at Oxford, I said yes I have a BA. Yes, I am interested in American Literature, more specifically contemporary science fiction and it’s impact on national identity. I said that Oxford was perfect for me because of this professor, and that specialist library collection, and that reputation. I was class president! But I also lapsed for a minute, and told them that Oxford had been part of my imagination since I was a child, the dust in the books and the snow on the benches and the curve of the Radcliffe Camera library. The cobblestones where you break an ankle if you aren’t paying attention, and the sidewalks where you will get mowed down by an irate cyclist if you don’t keep an ear out. Oxford is not a safe place to walk around with earphones in. I put down getting accepted (miraculous!) to the personal statement.

So, I guess I believe that injecting (a little) honesty, a little personal statement into the personal statement, is a vital trick that will make one application stand out from another.  The people who come into the Writing Studio to talk about their applications are so busy keeping their word count down to 500 (important), listing all their achievements since fifth grade (important-ish) and asserting their deep love for the firm/college of their choice (important ish ish), that they forget to include a line in there that helps out that poor exhausted man drowning behind his desk in the applications swamp. Throw him a little light relief! After all, no one wants to be the apple-head bowler-hat man, do they?


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