Like the resume, the personal statement has evolved to the point where there are both built-in and commonly used stylistic devices as well as room for individuality and creativity. And as with the resume, there are appropriate ways to word certain material and there are certain risks not worth taking. The very language you use and the rhetorical approach you take can be guided by the informed practices of others.
Avoiding Formalities and Generic Phrases
Many writers feel the need to use excessive formalities and niceties within personal statements, partly because they’ve seen others do so and partly because they worry that the weight of the occasion calls for refined or austere language. Thus, we find statements such as the following in personal essays, often in the opening or closing:
It is with great pride and deep respect that I hereby do apply for the honor of the Rhodes Scholarship. Herewith you will find my complete application materials.
I sincerely hope that the graduate committee of Mythic University deems my application worthy of full consideration so that I may contribute to a program already deserving of its national reputation.
The problem with these examples should be painfully obvious. In the first case, the committee already knows what applicants are seeking, so the generic sentences become useless; in the second case—an elliptical construct—the writer unintentionally insults readers, as though they might not give every application equal consideration or as if they are unaware of their program’s own reputation.
Avoid such mannerly drivel. Instead, assume a respectful, individual tone throughout your writing, and trust that you will be treated both respectfully and individually. When tempted towards formalities, take a cue from some of the writers showcased in Chapter 5 of this handbook, whose formal comments on their fit for their respective scholarships are both meaningful and self-reflective, as follows:
I look forward to the challenges that this project presents as well as the opportunities for further maturation as a practicing scientist.
Ensconcing myself in British culture, intellectual environment, and vigorous research at Oxford is the chance of a lifetime. I hope to be able to seize it.
Effective Jargon and Informality
In general, jargon is underrated. Jargon—the specialized language of a discipline—is so often overused or used poorly that it gets a bad rap. However, to use jargon economically and effectively is to show that you are an “insider,” comfortable with the vocabulary and discourse of your field of study. To create written context where jargon is the natural choice also promotes an efficiency of understanding and a direct connection with the reader. For instance, in the extensive sample essay from biological science in Chapter 4, the specialized but simple term “invasives” is used instead of “pest species that invade an area.” In an essay from a military pilot in the same chapter, terms such as “biplanes” are used comfortably, as are acronyms such as NGA and GIS, suggesting that the writer is having an informed, relaxed conversation within a specialized community—thus there is no need to define simple specialized terms that the audience can readily understand. These writers use jargon to save their readers time and to communicate directly and professionally.
At the same time, there are other good reasons to converse informally in a personal statement, as follows:
- to facilitate clear narrative;
- to involve yourself as a character in the action;
- to provide contrast to the denser surrounding material.
In the essay written by a military pilot cited above, the writer refers to “challenges [he] faced as an undergrad,” notes that he “can do little to affect Congressional funding,” and wryly comments, “I don’t expect the military to begin training squadrons of GIS wizards.” Here, the writer shows the courage to be plain speaking and informal, sending the message that he can comfortably shoot from the hip.
Of course, both jargon and informalities can be overused and can be inappropriate for your target audience, and if readers feel that jargon is used only to impress or that informalities turn too colloquial, they will only be annoyed by your style. But when you manage both jargon and informalities sparingly and with purpose your audience will barely notice—they’ll be too busy reading comfortably.
Using Narrative and Anecdotes
Compact stories and nifty narratives, especially in the opening of a personal statement, can communicate efficiently and creatively with your readers, while potentially providing welcome relief during the reading of hundreds of application essays that strongly resemble each other. Some stories put us right in the moment alongside the writer:
“When I received my first microscope set at the age of eight, I couldn’t wait to swab the inside of my cheek and smear my cells on a slide.”
Others invite us directly into the writer’s mind:
“I remember thinking about the long, cold nights that Edwin Hubble spent staring into the telescope at the Mt. Wilson Observatory.”
Still others surprise us and create a bit of suspense:
“Some protestors around me carried large flashlights; I clutched a bullhorn.”
These examples, all imbedded within personal essays written by students, represent how writers used narrative snippets to engage and inform the reader. Note how these examples do more than just narrate—they also underscore the writer’s passion for a field of study or a commitment to a cause. When you use small tales to capture our attention, be sure they are both relevant and revealing, so that we’re impressed not just with your ability to tell a quick story, but also your desire to tell a meaningful one.
Avoiding Cuteness and Gimmicks
Especially when using narrative or setting your sights on originality, it can be easy to lapse into a voice that is merely trite and cute. In Mark Allen Stewart’s book, How to Write the Perfect Personal Statement, such a lapse is critiqued by the Dean of Admissions at the UCLA School of Law as follows:
Humor is fine; it’s a welcome break, as long as it is actually humorous. I hate seeing essays that begin with something like: “In the matter before the court of UCLA, regarding the admission of . . .” Everyone who uses this approach thinks it’s unique, but it’s not.
Other misguided gimmicks that a surprising number of writers attempt when writing personal essays:
- Listing the impressive icons—probably long since dead—who have graduated from your school, blatantly placing yourself amongst their ranks. This may be good PR for your institution, but it’s bad PR for you.
- Sprinkling your essay with 50-cent vocabulary, obviously aided by a thesaurus. Choose the best word for the circumstances, not the fanciest.
- Bleeding your heart all over the page, as though your compassion or sensibilities or literary muscles have simply overtaken the writing process. I’ve seen students write about “dripping in agony” over an exam, or “languishing with deep-infested guilt” while watching a hungry child eat a meal. Such writing is obviously overwrought, and readers will worry that its writer is as well.
- Referring to yourself throughout the essay in the third person and telling some tragic or heroic tale, then revealing at the end that the essay’s humble protagonist is (surprise) indeed you. Such a tactic is not only gimmicky and self-indulgent, but transparent.
There are also gimmicks of form, as discussed in the Mark Allen Stewart book cited above: medical school applicants submitting essays in the form of a diagnosis; applicants who submit essays in leather binding, on parchment scrolls, or written in calligraphy; business school applicants with essays structured like a corporate prospectus.
Such gimmicks are meant to be cute, obviously, but it is doubtful that a selection committee would find them to be anything but odd. In fact, readers would likely question your suitability for graduate study if you stoop to such gimmickry. To put it bluntly but truthfully: children and puppies are cute; grad students are not. Remember that.
To help you tinker with your work and enhance your stylistic flair, consult these sites: