For most writers, one of the first struggles in personal essays is selecting detail, then the second struggle is figuring out what material to de-select. Obviously, especially if you have just 500 words, only one or two meaty examples per paragraph will be possible. To generate and select relevant detail, the following guidelines will almost always apply.
Read the Question or Prompt Carefully to Extract Definitive Criteria
Always begin by discerning the criteria of the question itself. Sometimes you’ll just be given a broad sweeping statement such as “Discuss those personal qualities you think will aid the committee in making its decision.” Such a statement is highly open to interpretation, yet there is definitely a wrong way to go about answering it as well—for instance, discussing your charm, financial hardship, or ability as a magician would be completely off target. More often, you’ll be given a more concrete, clear prompt with criteria imbedded. For the sake of context, here’s a typical sort of prompt:
In no more than 800 words, discuss your personal motivations, academic interests, relevant research or experience, long-term objectives, and your specific interest in attending Mythic University.
In this case, a typical response would be to follow with one paragraph devoted to each of the discussion points, with a savvy writer using the diction of each criterion within topic sentences for focus and context. Some writers would opt to be more creative in their approach, but even so a reader should not feel that any part of the question has been dodged.
Articulate a Personal or Professional Inspiration
Some writers open their statement with an inspiring quote or a narrative (discussed further in Chapter 3), while others make a comment about their academic discipline. What matters is that readers have clear context through your opening, and that we understand immediately that you are talking about something of motivational meaning to you. Briefly sketch out a positive influence: a memorable self-defining experience, a high school or college project that ignited deeper interest, an inspiring teacher or role model, a relative who followed a career path that you emulate—even a core theme that will carry through the rest of your essay. Always remember the typical fundamental goal of the opening: to provide a quick, meaningful snapshot of who you are as a person.
Discuss your Academic Background or Research as a Set of Learned Skills
Again, some writers might desire to be creative throughout their personal statement, but a more traditional route is to open the second or third paragraph with a discussion of academic background or research in relation to skills you have acquired. Certainly, work experience could be relevant as well, especially if you were a teaching assistant for a class and you plan on holding an assistantship in graduate school, but you must be careful not to rehearse resume-like details about any jobs you’ve held. Readers will be most interested in specific, skills-oriented detail: lab techniques acquired; analytical tools used; participation in team decision-making; journal research and publication experience; oral presentation skills. Think in relation to those skills most valued in your discipline, and describe your background in a way that highlights those attributes.
Many writers approach a discussion of their background by forecasting ahead to what they wish to study in graduate school, employing their past experiences to project future aptitude. For example, in Chapter 4 of this handbook, one writer uses these sentences to describe his thesis research:
My project involves the taphonomy, stratigraphy, and identification of a middle-Ordovician coral bioherm as well as its bryozoan constituents. The research is now well underway, involving many aspects of a sound paleontological study: sampling, analysis, identification, and finalization into a report.
Clearly, the writer’s intention here is to wed his present and the future—to project ahead to graduate research within his field of paleontology. By focusing on the techniques and skills relevant to his academic field while describing his thesis project, he lays the foundation for his intended future area of research.
In many cases, especially if you apply for a national scholarship or to a sciences program, you may be expected to discuss your research interests and background thoroughly as the heart of your personal essay. Specific details that might be included in these cases are the hypothesis of your undergraduate research, the exact nature of a research question you would like to focus on in graduate school, and even the name of a professor you would like to work with in graduate school and a rationale for how you made that choice.
Establish Some Long-Term Objectives
Some students hesitate greatly over this criterion, feeling as though they’re committing to an unbreakable covenant, while others reach too high or actually get too specific—“I intend to win a Nobel Peace Prize,” they claim, or “I plan to write four textbooks.” Keep in mind the needs of your readers here: They simply wish to confirm that you have a seriousness of purpose, and that you have the ability to envision some concrete plans (else why would you be applying for graduate study?). Your long-term objectives can usually be rendered briefly rather than expansively, perhaps woven into the beginning or end of your final paragraph. Good options here include articulating a plan to continue work in a particular research area, a desire to earn a PhD or teach at the university level, or future plans to work as an independent or corporate consultant. Also, depending on the context you’ve created in the essay, personal goals may be just as relevant as professional ones: to serve the public through grass-roots activism; to be the first member of a large family to earn a graduate degree; to write and publish.
Close with Specifics About the Target Program or Scholarship
Learning all you can about the target program or scholarship, which usually begins with a visit to the school or award website, will give you concrete closing material for your essay. Some students go a step further, e-mailing professors at their target program or past winners of their target scholarship, reading publications of the target program’s faculty, or making it a point to meet grad students and faculty connected with the target program at a conference. Such material, of course, could be integrated to give natural closure to your personal essay, thus affiliating you with the program of choice. Your goal is to create a personal and professional link between yourself and the graduate school. Go beyond simply inserting the school name into the final paragraph; prove that you have done your homework.
Finally, as a practical matter, many students visit their target programs on their own, sometimes even before they apply. Not only does this give them the opportunity to get a feel for the area and meet other grad students or faculty, it also helps them generate relevant material to include in their personal statement.
For more ideas on how to populate personal statements with relevant detail, visit these sites: