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Writing Personal Statements

When planning and writing the personal statement, ALWAYS REMEMBER THAT YOU ARE AN INDIVIDUAL. You want your writing to reflect your individual personality. To accomplish this goal, consider three important factors as you write and revise your personal statement:

  1. Understanding your audience and purpose(s)
  2. Conveying your personal voice
  3. Writing cohesively (a local concern) and coherently (a global concern)

All three factors are interrelated. For example, you can't convey your personal voice if your writing is incoherent to your audience. You won't be there to say, "But what I really meant to say was . . . ." All your audience will know is that you didn't take the time (or didn't have the ability) to truly express your exact message.

AUDIENCE and PURPOSE (Who reads these things and what do they want/need? The following statements should give you a clue. Please comment on any of these as we read them):

  • Anywhere from 2-25 people will read your personal statement.
  • Some readers are admissions officers, experts in your field or readers outside of your field.
  • All readers are looking for honesty.
  • All readers expect to read essays that are grammatically and mechanically correct.
  • Most readers want you to use the space or meet word limit that the application specifies; leaving blank space or exceeding word limit by too much is a mistake.
  • All readers expect you to respond to the personal statement prompt or question.
  • Avoid overly egocentric statements such as "I'm an excellent candidate for medical school," or "I have great compassion." It's better to "show" these qualities.
  • Avoid overly flowery or poetic language.
  • Statements that use anecdotes or some other eye-catching creative device may stand out; however, make sure the device makes or relates to a point about you.
  • The personal statement should augment the college transcript.
  • If your statement must explain a gap in education, do so straightforwardly, not apologetically.
  • Statements should convey commitment to your area of study.
  • Some readers use personal statements to lower your ranking; some use it to raise it.
  • A reader may read 40 statements in one sitting.
  • Ninety percent of the personal statements will sound similar.
  • Most statements will include motivation, the duration of that motivation, extracurricular activities, and work experiences.

CONVEYING YOUR PERSONAL VOICE

Of course you will use "I." You have to; it's a personal statement. But beginning every sentence with "I" becomes monotonous, and doing so can lead to a very impersonal tone.
Examine the following response to the question, "Why do you want to study law?"

It has long been a tenet of my value system that as a capable individual I have a social and moral duty to contribute to the improvement of the society in which I live. It seems that the way to make a valuable contribution is by choosing the means that will best allow me to utilize my abilities and facilitate my interests.

Even with the "I," there's nothing personal in that statement. Isn't "It has long been a tenet of my value system . . . ." really "I believe?" And who uses the word "tenet" besides philosophers anyway?

  • Don't avoid using long or pretentious-sounding words; avoid using them to sound pretentious.

Are there too many unnecessary words in the sentence? You bet. For starters, circle all the prepositions (to, of, by, in) and you'll see. Every unnecessary word creates work for your reader. Remember how many of these statements the reviewers will be reading?

  • Eliminate unnecessary words.

What actions is the author really trying to convey? In the first sentence, it's "believing." In the second it could be "choosing." Perhaps words like "contribution" and "improvement" could be turned into actions such as "contribute" or "contributing" or "improve" or "improving."

  • Put main actions into verbs and avoid nominalizations (the turning of verbs into nouns; e.g., "His accusation was untrue," could be "He wrongly accused me.")

WRITING COHERENTLY AND COHESIVELY

Coherence refers to maintaining a clear focus within paragraphs, making connections between those paragraphs, and organizing paragraphs in a logical manner for the reader.

Cohesion means the connections between sentences. You can accomplish cohesion in three ways:

  • by using pronouns that have clear antecedents in previous sentences,
  • by using words or phrases that connect a sentence to what has gone before (e.g., moreover, furthermore, afterwards, nevertheless, in conclusion, therefore, indeed), and
  • by using known information to introduce new information (e.g., "The results of Reef Check 1997, the first comprehensive survey of the earth's coral reefs, will be released today. The survey . . . .").

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