Advice: Do's and Don't for Writing Personal Statements
Nearly all scholarship applications involve writing a personal statement. Sometimes this is the only piece of original writing required of applicants, other times there are additional short statements or project proposals to write.
The staff of the National Scholarships Office will be happy to assist UMD students and alumni with the personal statement. We will discuss ideas for the statement, and read and give feedback on drafts. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Though the wording of the personal statement requirement may vary from scholarship to scholarship, here are some important things to remember.
1. Think of the personal statement as an "intellectual autobiography." The statement should convey to your readers a clear, thoughtful picture or impression of you as a person who has distinct interests, motivations, accomplishments, aims and ideas.
2. Aim to define a central idea, impression or theme you hope to convey. The most memorable personal statements are ones that have a clear theme or purpose that unifies the ideas and information presented. Sometimes you'll know what this theme should be in advance; sometimes it will emerge as you begin drafting your statement.
3. Keep it simple. It's easy to over-write a one-page personal statement. Use the words and language you would naturally use in writing a thoughtful, intelligent letter to a friend or trusted mentor.
4. Use specifics. Help your readers remember you (and your application) by using specific names, references and illustrations. For example, always say “my internship with the Sierra Club’s bald eagle project” rather than “my internship with a renowned environmental organization’s project to save an endangered species.” Note which sounds more real and natural, and which sounds impersonal and artificial. (See “don’t” number 4 below.)
5. Find the "story" in your history. Your life has been a journey, with planned and unexpected turns, with successful and frustrated goals, with hard-earned and accidental insights, with hoped-for but as-yet-unrealized achievements. Your basic challenge in writing a compelling personal statement is to tell the story that makes sense of your life as it has been, is, and could be.
6. Welcome the reader into your life and aims. Scholarships are looking for promising people, not high-powered profiles. Write to engage your reader, write in a way that invites him or her to want to meet and get to know you – even if your scholarship process does not involve an interview stage.
1. Write to impress. Scholarship selection committees have seen and heard it all. Let your credentials and awards speak for themselves. Use your personal statement to talk to your readers about the things that motivate, inspire and shape you. Help them to understand what your specific accomplishments have meant to you, or how they have shaped you. Help them to understand why you care about the things you care about.
2. Write in cliches. Ask yourself if each and every sentence in your draft reflects some thought, fact, reflection or experience of your own. Avoid sentences that could have been written by absolutely anyone. Avoid stock phrases or expressions.
3. Re-write your resume in prose. Again, selection committees are looking for the person behind the credentials. Avoid laundry lists of activities, etc., and focus on the select few experiences that have meant the most to you, or have had the greatest influence on your development and aims.
4. Be too general or abstract. Don’t distance your reader by using vague references or abstractions in your essay. You (or your roommate) may think it sounds more impressive to say “my internship with a renowned environmental organization’s project to save an endangered species,” but that doesn’t really tell the reader what organization you worked for or what species was being helped. They would rather meet the person who worked with the Sierra Club to help save bald eagles.
5. Get too frustrated! Distilling your life into a compelling, informative one thousand word or one-page personal statement is a challenging task. Think of this as an opportunity, all-too-rare in life, to reflect calmly and creatively on who you are, who you want to be, and what you hope to do with your life.
Checklist for Evaluating your Personal Statement Drafts
A. Does your opening paragraph quickly engage the reader? Does it convey a distinct picture or impression of you as a person?
B. Is your guiding theme or idea clearly expressed? Is there a thread that runs through the essay, unifying it?
C. Are your principal intellectual interests and aims clearly elaborated? Is there evidence of your intellectual engagement and of the ideas that motivate you in your work or studies?
D. Are your more important commitments to community service, campus or off-campus organizations, or leadership roles effectively addressed?
E. Is the closing paragraph effective? Does it leave the reader with a sense of completeness? Does it suggest to the reader something of the spirit with which you are going forward in life?
Personal Statements and Application Letters
The process of applying for jobs, internships, and graduate/professional programs often requires a personal statement or application letter. This type of writing asks writers to outline their strengths confidently and concisely, which can be challenging.
Though the requirements differ from application to application, the purpose of this type of writing is to represent your goals, experiences and qualifications in the best possible light, and to demonstrate your writing ability. Your personal statement or application letter introduces you to your potential employer or program director, so it is essential that you allow yourself enough time to craft a polished piece of writing.
1) PREPARE YOUR MATERIALS
Before you sit down to write, do some preparation in order to avoid frustration during the actual writing process. Obtain copies of documents such as transcripts, resumes and the application form itself; keeping them in front of you will make your job of writing much easier. Make a list of important information, in particular names and exact titles of former employers and supervisors, titles of jobs you have held, companies you have worked for, dates of appropriate work or volunteer experiences, the duties involved etc. In this way, you will be able to refer to these materials while writing in order to include as much specific detail as possible.
2) WRITE A FIRST DRAFT
After you have collected and reviewed these materials, it is time to start writing. The following is a list of concerns that writers should keep in mind when writing a personal statement/application letter.
Answer the Question: A major problem for all writers can be the issue of actually answering the question being asked. For example, an application might want you to discuss the reason you are applying to a particular program or company. If you spend your entire essay or letter detailing your qualifications with no mention of what attracted you to the company or department, your statement will probably not be successful. To avoid this problem, read the question or assignment carefully both as you prepare and again just prior to writing. Keep the question in front of you as you write, and refer to it often.
Consider The "I" Problem: This is a personal statement; using the first person pronoun "I" is acceptable. Writers often feel rather self-conscious about using first person excessively, either because they are modest or because they have learned to avoid first and second person ("you") in any type of formal writing. Yet in this type of writing using first person is essential because it makes your prose more lively. Using third person can result in a vague and overly wordy essay. While starting every sentence with "I" is not advisable, remember that you and your experiences are the subject of the essay.
Avoid Unnecessary Duplication: Sometimes a writer has a tendency to repeat information in his or her personal statement that is already included in other parts of the application packet (resume, transcript, application form, etc.). For example, it is not necessary to mention your exact GPA or specific grades and course titles in your personal statement or application letter. It is more efficient and more effective to simply mention academic progress briefly ("I was on the Dean's List"; or "I have taken numerous courses in the field of nutrition") and then move on to discuss appropriate work or volunteer experiences in more detail.
Make Your Statement Distinctive: Many writers want to make their personal statements unique or distinctive in some way as a means of distinguishing their application from the many others received by the company or program. One way to do this is to include at least one detailed example or anecdote that is specific to your own experience—perhaps a description of an important family member or personal moment that influenced your decision to pursue a particular career or degree. This strategy makes your statement distinctive and memorable.
Keep It Brief: Usually, personal statements are limited to 250–500 words or one typed page, so write concisely while still being detailed. Making sure that each paragraph is tightly focused on a single idea (one paragraph on the strengths of the program, one on your research experience, one on your extracurricular activities, etc.) helps keep the essay from becoming too long. Also, spending a little time working on word choice by utilizing a dictionary and a thesaurus and by including adjectives should result in less repetition and more precise writing.
Personal Statement Format
As mentioned before, the requirements for personal statements differ, but generally a personal statement includes certain information and can follow this format (see following model).
Many personal statements begin with a catchy opening, often the distinctive personal example mentioned earlier, as a way of gaining the reader’s attention. From there you can connect the example to the actual program/position for which you are applying. Mention the specific name of the program or company, as well as the title of the position or degree you are seeking, in the first paragraph.
- Detailed Supporting Paragraphs
Subsequent paragraphs should address any specific questions from the application, which might deal with the strengths of the program/position, your own qualifications, your compatibility with the program/position, your long-term goals or some combination thereof. Each paragraph should be focused and should have a topic sentence that informs the reader of the paragraph’s emphasis. You need to remember, however, that the examples from your experience must be relevant and should support your argument about your qualifications.
Tie together the various issues that you have raised in the essay, and reiterate your interest in this specific program or position. You might also mention how this job or degree is a step towards a long-term goal in a closing paragraph. An application letter contains many of the same elements as a personal statement, but it is presented in a business letter format and can sometimes be even shorter and more specific than a personal statement. An application letter may not contain the catchy opening of the personal statement but instead includes detailed information about the program or position and how you found out about it. Your application letter usually refers to your resume at some point. Another difference between a personal statement and an application letter is in the conclusion, which in an application letter asks for an interview.
3) REVISING THE PERSONAL STATEMENT/APPLICATION LETTER
Because this piece of writing is designed to either get you an interview or a place in a graduate school program, it is vital that you allow yourself enough time to revise your piece of writing thoroughly. This revision needs to occur on both the content level (did you address the question? is there enough detail?) and the sentence level (is the writing clear? are the mechanics and punctuation correct?). While tools such as spell-checks and grammar-checks are helpful during revision, they should not be used exclusively; you should read over your draft yourself and/or have others do so.
Produced by Writing Tutorial Services, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN