Being someone who claims to love writing more than most other activities in life, I was shocked to find myself incapable of composing a simple personal statement for my graduate school application. It wasn’t just a challenge. No, my friends, it was my worst fear realized: I had encountered my very first writer’s block.
Anyone who’s ever tried to write a personal statement is well-acquainted with the Fear. The Fear that you’ll miss the opportunity to impress; the Fear that you’ve failed to highlight your best qualities and attributes effectively; the Fear that the hook unfortunately did not hook at all and perhaps even did the opposite (aka the turnoff); the Fear that instead of sounding sincere, you just sounded corny and grandiose and unintentionally egotistical; the Fear that it was too long, too short, or too long to be effectively short; the Fear of a sentence completely missing its intended point; the Fear of making spelling mistakes, like writing “asses” when it was actually supposed to be “assess”…you get the idea.
Since the lessons I’ve learned from my personal statement writing experience are still fresh in my head, I’ve decided to take this opportunity to share them with you (don’t mention it). Although, straight off the bat, I must say that I don’t really have any professional qualification where editing is concerned; I am something better – a student, just like you! Therefore, I’m sure that even if this post doesn’t end up helping you to write something impressive, it will at least make you realize that you are not alone in this battle.
1. Be courageous
Before you sit down to write, you must realize that as powerful as words can be, they are also flexible. You can exchange one for another, cut out a sentence or even a paragraph, move the beginning paragraph to the end and vice versa, and words will still be just words. The secret to writing is that almost nobody gets it right the first time, so don’t be afraid to express yourself.
To fight a blank page, jot down whatever comes to mind. It can be single words, phrases, or sentences that may or may not make sense. Remember that brainstorming stage of essay writing we were all taught back in high school? It’s probably not necessary to draw bubbles to connect ideas, but scribbling does help to stimulate your thinking. Trust your abilities and expect positive outcomes: mentally picture your admission committee members picking up your personal statement, and after a quick glance, becoming deeply absorbed in your words. A positive attitude is very important in writing, because it opens up your creative outlet. Worrying about or fearing negative outcomes will give you additional stress, and it can paralyze you so that no “right word” ends up coming to mind.
2. Examine yourself
What defines you as a unique person? Make a list of your strengths, weaknesses, abilities, visions, experiences and anything else that you feel is a part of you. It doesn’t have to be immediately relevant to the program you are applying to, although later on you can certainly mold it into one using strategic wording. The key is for you to be proud of yourself, to feel how much you’ve accomplished thus far in life, so much so that you will want to tell others about it in a coherent manner. Imagine you’ve suddenly been given a ton of money to write an autobiography – jot down anything you’d want to put in there so others can know about it.
3. Read, read, read!
Throughout my strategic writing course (INI300Y1, if anyone is interested), I’ve become increasingly aware of the different ways that I learn to become a better writer. One of my biggest discoveries was that I am not receptive to textbook tips and suggestions. Whenever I read those, I always feel the pressure to remember them so that when I do write, I immediately recall a specific suggestion and try to apply it on the spot – this has never actually happened to me. Instead, I get into “the zone” by reading tons of similar styles of writing for a similar purpose. You might not think that it would have any drastic effect on your writing, but trust me, when you read, relevant phrases and words do tend to linger somewhere in your short-term memory so that when you finally sit down to write, you might be surprised at how often these amazing words just seem to “pop out of nowhere.”
A more solid approach to writing a targeted composition is to first mentally underline certain words mentioned on the program’s website. What makes the program unique? And how does it advertise this to potential applicants? For example, on Rotman’s webpage describing its 2-year MBA program, note the following:
“Modern leadership demands the flexibility and creativity,” “key advantage,” “innovative approach,” “Integrative Thinking,” “enhance your capacity to shape,” “bold new model for business education,” “transformational learning experience that empowers you to think through the complexities of modern business and drive action in a quickly-changing world”
These are all phrases that match the program’s “branding,” for lack of a better word. These phrases create a specific tone that fits the program’s overall objective and demonstrates a sense of dynamic energy, ambition and audacity. Last, but not least, if you’ve read carefully between the lines, you’ll notice that the entire program description is a strong sales pitch: it contains the very typical “you attitude” commonly used in business communication and the professions.
As an applicant, you can most definitely use this knowledge to your advantage. Use similar terminology, state similar objectives and make an equally impressive sales pitch using your personal statement. After all, while the majority of applicants will have impressive profiles, what differentiates one candidate from another is how well theirs “fits” with the program, in terms of personality, professional and personal development goals and so on. Demonstrating your fit by using a suitable tone in your personal statement can be very convincing.
In addition, read not just program information, but also samples of personal statements. The benefit from the latter, I hope, is immediately obvious.
4. The good hook sets the scene
Imagery is a very powerful technique to grab the attention of the audience. Your hook should whip the readers out of their reality and throw them into a very specific scene you’ve set up. It could convey a specific passion you have that is necessary for success in your intended field of study. Think of powerful metaphors and how they affect you emotionally–your hook should have the same effect.
5. Sell yourself strategically
OK, I won’t say, “Don’t be modest,” because a lack of humbleness can be a real turnoff. Be…strategic, but at the same time realize that you are held fully accountable for your words.
Now is the time to combine the qualities you’ve listed with tangible evidence: don’t just say you are passionate about medicine or law or research – what have you done that can prove this? This part is very time consuming, so make sure you start thinking about it early. The U of T Academic Success Centre can help you with good essay composition and so can your college’s Writing Centre. When writing, keep in mind to vary your sentence lengths, use ten-dollar words, double-check grammar and spelling by printing out a copy and reading it out loud…you know, the works.
One last thing: Be clear about your purpose. Don’t think, “Why do I want to get into the program?” but imagine yourself already in the program and answering the question, “What am I doing here?”
To keep this post short (and effective), I think I will stop here. (Also, I must run off to my Statistics tutorial in five minutes.) I hope you found it helpful, or encouraging, at least! Take care, and best of luck, O you ambitious souls!
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