It's that time of year again - when the weather is bi-polar, New Year's resolutions are still in effect, bank accounts are rebounding from Christmas shopping sprees, and Personal Statements are written. Many of you are graduating this semester and have started applying to Graduate Schools or perhaps you are wistfully applying for jobs in anticipation of graduation. Either way, the Statement of Purpose is something that you may find yourself writing in both situations.
What exactly is a Statement of Purpose? Is it different than a cover letter? According to the Purdue Owl, the Personal Statement is, "...your opportunity to sell yourself in the application process". A Personal Statement can be thought of a Cover Letter beefed up on steroids. They are generally two-three pages long, and they sing your praises.
Well, ok. This sounds doable and easy enough, right? You've been writing ten to twelve page papers lately. Two-three pages will be cake right? Also, this is your chance to tell future employers or universities how smart and great you are and how you would be a fantastic fit to their community. Simple, stuff...yeah? Surprisingly, no. The Personal Statement can be one of the hardest pieces of writing that you may ever produce. Why is that? Why is writing about yourself in a positive light so hard?
Well, for starters more than likely you have been writing about everything ASIDE from yourself for a very long time. Perhaps you wrote about yourself in a personal narrative in your first-year writing class or maybe used a life story as an anecdote to add emotion to a paper (I drop that bomb quite often), but actually writing about your strengths, education, and life history with depth is probably something you haven't done in a super long time and may not feel comfortable doing. After all, it seems that most of us aren't out there in the world wearing sandwich boards touting our awesomeness. Should we be? Sometimes...and most definitely in the Personal Statement.
So, then how in the world do we write a Personal Statement that "sells you" but is humble at the same time? Well, for starters don't go flying into it blind. Don't try to rough draft this thing and see what happens. More than likely you will end up with a piece of text that you feel is inadequate and awkward. Instead of rushing in and writing first spend some time asking yourself some questions about ... yourself. On a piece of paper take the time to answer the following questions that the Purdue Owl suggests are helpful:
• What is special and impressive about your life story?
• When did you become interested in this field?
• What are your career goals?
• Have you had to overcome any unusual obstacles or hardships?
• What skills do you possess?
• What personal characteristics do you possess that make you a perfect fit?
• Why might you be a stronger candidate for grad school than other applicants?
Once you have answers to these questions, you may feel a bit more comfortable writing about yourself and may also have a good starting point. The first question--"What is special and impressive about your life story?"--could produce a funny or moving anecdote that would make for a fantastic introduction to your Personal Statement. After all, the first paragraph is the most important part of your Statement. In that very first paragraph, you will either snag your readers' attention or sadly lose it. The first paragraph sets the tone for the entire Personal Statement. So, really spend some time on your opener and make it something that your reader will understand and remember.
What do you do after a bad-ass opener? Easy. You simply tell them what you know! Which should be simple for you because your awesome, right? Isn't that what your sandwich board said? This is the place where you can get into the nitty-gritty of what you have learned about your area of expertise. Take some time to list classes that you have taken, conferences that you have presented at, work that you have done with other people in your field, or internships that you have been a part of at a school or organization. Just make sure that you are specific ... don't say something like, "I went to a conference in Florida, learned a lot and met a lot of people." Ugh. That's a bummer to read; plus it doesn't really tell me anything about you or the conference. How about instead saying something like, "I had the opportunity to present my research at the National I'm Awesome Conference in Florida in the spring of last year. During this time I met many people in the field and discovered that they too, are awesome." Although it may seem to you that you are padding your sentences or loading them up more than you need to do, don't think of it that way. Instead think of this as being extra specific in order to ensure that your reader knows and understands that you really know what you are talking about.
Some things NOT to do in your Personal Statement may seem obvious, but if I don't mention them I will worry all night long about it, and then I won't sleep--and I need my sleep. So, in order to ensure my future rest, please remember the following:
Not all subjects are Personal Statement appropriate. You should probably stay away from "hot button" or controversial topics. After all, you really don't know who might be reading your Personal Statement, and you don't want to offend them and then run the risk of your application being tossed to the side. Also, bringing up things that you accomplished in high school might not be appropriate for your personal statement. I know you're proud of being voted "Most Popular," but more than likely a college or future employer won't care about that.
Don't send off your Rough Draft. The Personal Statement needs to be as close to perfect as you can make it. Take the time to reread your draft, make changes, use spell check, and look closely for grammatical errors. Also, have a peer/parent/sibling/dog read over your Personal Statement for you and don't be afraid to make the changes that they suggest. Peer review is a powerful tool! If you don't have anyone close by that can help you, pop into your schools Writing Center. In the EIU Writing Center, we frequently assist people working on Personal Statements, and these clients recognize that sometimes writing needs a fresh set of eyes. And what better way to find out if you got the point of how awesome you are across by having someone who doesn't know you read your work?
Don't avoid researching your organization. Don't be afraid of research! Wait, what? Research for a Personal Statement? I know, it does seem silly because you should know all about you...right? However, it might help you to take the time to think about what sets your school of choice aside from other schools, or what is unique about your future place of employment. Do these unique factors relate to you? How? Write about it! This simple task may endear you to the reader of your Personal Statement because they will notice that you took some time to dig a little deeper about them, and that's love ... no?
Once in a while grad school or business applications ask specific questions for you to respond to in your Personal Statement. If this is the case, make sure that you know the format that the answers are required in. Sometimes the school or employer will simply want these answers woven into your statement, but once in a while these questions are considered supplemental to your Personal Statement and can be considered separate essays. It is always ok to call someone at the organization to clarify, and this ensures you will not make a silly mistake.
I know...this seems like a TON of writing....well, it is...but don't be discouraged! Slow down, think about the questions asked of you, and answer them as specifically as you can.
In short, what should you do while writing the Personal Statement? Talk to yourself, ask yourself questions, write responses ... several times if you have to so that you can get over that "I'm totally bragging about me!" feeling. Write an opening paragraph that the reader will remember you by; anecdotes or interesting stories about you are fantastic openers. Finally, remember to revise if needed! Find a peer and have them read your work, and take their suggestions.
Most importantly remember this, IT IS OK TO TALK ABOUT HOW AWESOME YOU ARE! The Personal Statement is your chance to brag about yourself and not have everyone think your an egotistical jerk! Get over the feeling of being a blow-hard bragger. The world won't know how great you are unless you tell them. Right?