Writing Personal Statements Online

Chapter 2: Generating Detail for Personal Statements

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I am writing for myself and strangers.
This is the only way that I can do it.
—Gertrude Stein

I remember writing my first resume. It was a few years before the days of the personal computer, and my typewriter had just one unattractive font but also had a fancy function key that allowed for italic type. So I decided my resume would stand out if I did it in all italic type. Then I reasoned that a particular section would stand out even more if I typed everything in all capital letters and all italic type (thankfully, my typewriter didn’t have boldface). In composing my “Experience” section, I’d had so many part-time menial jobs in high school and college that I couldn’t figure out how to format the section without losing detail, so I naively came up with the self-styled strategy of just making my “Experience” section one long narrative sentence in one bulky paragraph (in all italics, of course), with each job description separated by ellipsis dots.

Obviously, it was pretty pathetic. Here’s a mercifully short excerpt from “Experience,” just as I originally wrote it and in its original form:

worked for a concrete block company moving concrete blocks . . . painted inside/outside of house . . . worked for YMCA at unskilled labor positions . . . worked weekends for the All American Cleaning Company . . . did evening restaurant work. . . various cleaning jobs for private home owners . . .

In writing my resume, I had unwittingly made up my own rules of form and content, ignoring all the tried and true models available, and I told myself that I was just being creative and unique. Thus, I ignored my own ability to be selective and sidestepped practical conventions. For my poor reader, I’m sure that reading my resume involved both abundant confusion and significant eye strain.

Ignoring the practical details of writing—particularly when composing a personal statement or application essay, where the conventions are well-established and the needs of the readers are well-known—just doesn’t make sense. Further, the consequences of not studying and following the practical conventions for writing personal statements are substantial, potentially changing the course of your life.

So use this chapter to answer the common questions many students have about writing personal essays, and realize that such an essay is a professional and public document to be viewed critically by the eyes of strangers, not a private and personal exercise in creative self-indulgence.

Self-Study

These two websites offer excellent overviews to help you get started on writing your personal statement:

“Writing the Personal Statement” article from Purdue’s Online Writing Lab (OWL)

"What Makes a Good Personal Statement?" - a youtube video from the University of Birmingham