Rarely, but occasionally, while working with a student on a personal essay, I can’t help but wince. It’s a concerned, gut response to the student taking an unnecessary and unwise risk. The most ready example I recall is the day that one of my students spent an entire paragraph discussing a suicide attempt. And this student was no dummy—in fact, held a 3.9 GPA. What I’m sure happened was that the student misconstrued the context for the personal essay and interpreted it almost as a confessional opportunity. I’ve witnessed other students use the personal statement to stumble sloppily through discussions of the death of a pet, a protest rally that turned into a small riot, a bad case of lactose intolerance, a religious conversion, and ten years away from school “bumming around with a rock band.”
Writers who do this are often focusing on one small part of their application (such as a poor semester of grades) or something they view as so self-defining (such as a political cause) that they feel almost obliged to discuss the topic. But despite the writer’s personal agenda, audience and context are key here, with the astute writer only taking chances when the risk is clearly worth it. At the same time, as the following discussion makes clear, there are times when the uniqueness of your experience is indeed worth showcasing.
As reported in the book How to Write a Winning Personal Statement for Graduate and Professional School, the Stern School of Business at New York University does something a bit unusual in its application questions to applicants. As many programs do, the school uses a series of questions rather than just one, but the third question asks students to describe themselves to their classmates, allowing for some creative elbow room. The answers to this third question, says the Director of Admissions and Aid, are her favorite. Though most applicants simply write creative essays, others send in poems, games, puzzles—even cassette recordings or videotapes. Obviously, in most graduate applications, students don’t have such options when it comes to delivering the material. However, those with particularly interesting personal tales or educational paths should always look for ways to highlight them in writing.
Many schools pride themselves not only on their programs but on something flexible or specialized about the education they offer. My alma mater, Juniata College, has students build a “program of emphasis” rather than declare a major, allowing students to customize their program of study. St. John’s College engages all its students in a classics-grounded course of study “based in the great books of the Western tradition,” which includes four years of math and one year of music for all students. Mount Holyoke, an all-women’s college, has a program in speaking, writing, and arguing, and sponsors an annual intercollegiate poetry competition. Not all readers will know the details about these programs, and the personal statement provides a perfect opportunity for graduates of such programs to take advantage of interesting experiences built right into their education. Writers who flesh out such detail in their personal statements both educate their readers about their background and affiliate themselves with programs of earned reputation.
Other educational background worthy of consideration for your personal statement includes:
- Participation in a first-year or senior seminar, assuming the seminar was academic and required you to produce meaningful work and some deliverable product.
- Past academic scholarships and the criteria by which you won them, especially if they are competitive national awards.
- Any co-op or work experiences directly relevant to graduate study, especially if the work you did was integrated into senior thesis research.
- Study at more than one school or study abroad, in particular if you are fluent in multiple languages.
- Honors education classes or an honors thesis.
- The completion of an integrated bachelor’s/master’s program, with discussion of program particulars.
- Completion of a senior thesis, especially if some facet of the thesis research can be continued at graduate school.
- Educational training through the military or professional certification programs, with an emphasis on relevance to graduate study.
- A transfer of schools or a return to school after time away, emphasizing positive lessons learned from the experience and giving evidence of accomplishments and motivation.
Finally, sometimes writers have such interesting personal stories that they capture their audience just by sharing something meaningful about their lives. Interesting stories I’ve read about in personal statements include a man who grew up in four different countries while his parents worked for the Peace Corps, a blind student from South Korea who was adopted into an American family and completed an internship involving service to disabled high school students, a woman who left an international modeling career to return to school full-time, a student who completed a bachelor’s degree over an eight-year period while battling multiple sclerosis, a student whose father went to jail for the duration of the student's high school years, and a student who had placed a novel with a major publishing house at the age of 19. Such personal stories and accomplishments are too interesting, and in some cases too moving, not to share. As you compose your personal statement, mine your educational and personal experiences to be sure you’re not overlooking something of interest that will both define and uplift you in the eyes of your readers.
These two websites devote substantial space to helping you tease out information from your background to make your personal statement more interesting: