How to Write a Personal Statement

The personal statement is an opportunity to present yourself in a straightforward and authentic way. It’s like sitting down one-on-one with a faculty reader for 5-10 precious minutes.

The personal statement features your voice, background, interests, facility with language, and creative heart and pursuits. It may sound generic but this is your chance to illuminate your true and absolute uniqueness. Your focused reading of surrealist Japanese short stories, or your childhood in Nigeria or Ohio, or your current novel or group of stories about working in New York City or Tampa can help set you apart from all the other applicants. It’s not always possible to know with whom your statement will resonate, but it can and does happen.

Here is how you start:

  1. Schedule time. Like everything else that’s important in your life, make appointments with yourself to write. If you schedule time for work, exercise, dates, grocery shopping or a Thanksgiving meal, then open your calendar and schedule time to write.
  2. Free write. Writers and clients often ask how to begin writing and whether there are any good tips to dig out the very best information. Begin like this: sit down and write without putting any pressure on yourself to generate amazing material. Doodle around, make mistakes, write blah sentences that aren’t shimmering. It’s okay, you’re generating raw material. Let’s say you need to present a virtuosic piece of sculpture to a panel of judges– at this stage of the process, you’re not molding or fine-tuning a torso or facial feature: you’re making clay. So relax and create material. Tell yourself it’s play rather than work; there’s a real cognitive shift that happens when you do this. Turn the school prompts into a series of questions and answer them in a playful writing session. What do you read? How does that relate to your work? What are you working on? What is your novel or the last few stories you wrote about? And so on. Writing leads to more writing and frees up the creative space in your brain.
  3. Organize the writing. Once you have a couple pages of raw material– bullet lists, series of thoughts or even shabby paragraphs, make an outline. Put all of the relevant material together and create some order. Then see if anything needs to be moved around for better logical progression.

When you’ve created a rough draft, you’re really on your way to the finish line. Read it out loud to yourself, make some notes, revise and repeat until it’s ready for a final proofreading. Here are a few more tips for writing your statement:

  • Be positive. Don’t present yourself in a negative light, don’t apologize and don’t blame. Take ownership of your actions and decisions as well as the outcomes. Perhaps you’ve been out of school for two decades, or don’t have any teaching experience. Or maybe you grew up in a chaotic and poor family, or had to take care of your parents in some capacity, or realized your doctoral program wasn’t the right path for you and therefore did poorly at some point in school. I’ve worked with writers who have had all of these experiences listed above. Real life happens. If you lack experience or have been out of school for a long time, you’ve certainly gained experience in other areas. And if you’ve been through a rough patch and it shows on your manuscript, be simple, honest and professional. But don’t put yourself down– not on paper, not in person, and not in your inner monologue!
  • Be specific. Glossing over your interests, background and pursuits is a big mistake. Without anything concrete to latch onto, the reader loses interest and will begin to scan instead of read carefully. “I grew up in Taiwan and California” is lesser than “I grew up in both the busy metropolis and rural mountainside of Taiwan and the suburbs outside of Los Angeles.” Highlight areas of your draft where you can go into more specific detail and begin to create some texture.

Let’s Work Together

I’m currently working with writers this season on their statements. There are a few remaining spaces available before my schedule closes for the year. The fee is $140 for a holistic statement review that assesses your draft and offers concrete steps toward revision and completion. You’ll get notes about how to better organize material, where to expand material or edit down, and how to tailor the writing for various word counts and programs. If you’d like to work together, email me at robin.r.tung@gmail.com and include: 1) your statement (1,500 words max) with a school prompt, 2) a short bio (200 words max), 3) your list of schools 4) and your CV. I’ll respond with payment instructions and a review timeline. The deadline for submission is December 1.

Happy Thanksgiving week, all!

(Art by Yayoi Kusama)

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