Writing a Personal Statement
Keep your writing straightforward and honest20 October 2019
Like it or not, you'll be writing personal statements (sometimes referred to as a "statement of purpose") pretty much throughout your adult life. I bet that some retirement communities may even require personal statements in their application process!
As a college professor for over two decades, I've advised and edited hundreds-even thousands-of personal statements for students. I take this work seriously, as I know how these statements have the capacity to make or break an application.
Based on this experience (see my new book Own Your Psychology Major! A Guide to Student Success), below are some tips for making your personal statement sing, along with some classic no-nos in the process.
Tips for Making Your Personal Statement Sing
First and foremost, realize this: A large but often-unstated purpose of this statement-of-purpose assignment is to allow folks to get a sense of your writing skills. Keep this point in mind the whole while. Here are some other tips:
1. Keep it short! Students often develop this idea that the longer their paper is, the better. As my mom would say, the opposite! All things being equal, you should use as few words as possible in trying to make your point. Think about the points you are trying to make and then make those points.
Efforts to add fluff are always pretty obvious. Further, the people reading your application may have dozens or even hundreds of applications to sift through. Do them a favor by keeping it short!
2. Avoid the big-word trap. Sometimes, students feel a need to use all kinds of fancy, multi-syllabic words in their writing. Try to avoid this trap at all costs! All things being equal, I suggest this approach: Write exactly as you speak (minus slang and, of course, any profanity!).
Sure, you may use some fancy words every now and again in your speech. But speech is all about communication-trying to get someone else to understand something. Writing is no different. Big words used for the sake of using big words are not doing anyone any favors.
3. Follow the guidelines. Whatever the details of the particular application process, know that there are going to be specific guidelines. This all may pertain to word count, specific questions that you are asked to address, etc.
Here is the simplest possible suggestion I can give you: Read those guidelines and follow them 100 percent in every single way. Doing so will make sure that you make it into the pile of applications to be even considered.
4. Proofread your work. Imagine this scenario: You are applying to a job at Southeast State University. After you have submitted the application, you reread your cover letter. Check it out:
"… I am thrilled to be considered for this position at Southeast State University. …. In conclusion, let me say that I am excited about this opportunity at Fresno Institute of Technology. …"
Given that you are applying to multiple positions and/or programs, it is very likely that you are writing statements that are "tailored" for each particular position and program. That is fine and is typical. But the second that you write the name of the incorrect institution in your letter due to a lack of detailed proofreading, you might as well be throwing your application into the recycling bin. Proofread your letter carefully before sending it.
5. Have an "expert" look things over. When I was a senior in college, I recall my advisor, the formidable Dr. Gwen Gustafson of the Psychology Department at UCONN, suggesting that I bring a draft of my personal statement for her to look over before applying to Ph.D. programs. So I did.
I was surprised by how much red ink she put on my paper. But I was also grateful. And I also learned a lot. Every suggestion that she had made sense. And, at the end of the day, I took those suggestions, worked hard, and got into a great Ph.D. program in psychology that shaped the rest of my life in positive ways.
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Your professors and mentors have sat on admissions and hiring committees for years. Use their wisdom to your advantage. And pay things forward when you are older and wiser.
Personal Statement No-No's
1. Don't overemphasize personal details. A letter that focuses on your own personal traumas and history will only go so far. Sure, it is often the case that someone has a significant personal event or history that is influential in shaping his or her interests.
But letters that over-emphasize one's own adversities lose a bit when it comes to getting members of a committee to see the applicant in a professional setting. Sure, you may have baggage. And it may well ultimately have come to shape you in a positive manner. But unless the guidelines of the letter are asking about that in particular, don't make that your headline.
2. Remember that you are not texting your friend. Be professional in your statement of purpose. Don't use emojis. Don't use acronyms. Use your most professional and respectful writing and communication skills. You can send all kinds of silly texts to the group chat about it after you've been accepted...
3. Seem like you care about them. A statement of purpose, or a personal statement, is largely about you. But the last thing you want to come across as is unempathetic and disinterested in the organization and/or program that you are applying to. If you are applying to the master's program in mental health counseling at Western State College, learn about who they are. Care about who they are. And include something in your statement which demonstrates that you both know about them and care about who they are.
Modern professional life these days includes writing personal statements/essays at various junctions. Pretty much forever. Don't be daunted by this task. You should be proud of who you are and capable of describing yourself, your interests, and your goals in a clear, engaging, and powerful manner.
Write from your heart. Follow the guidelines. And follow the common-sense suggestions here. You'll go far.
(Glenn Geher, Ph.D., is professor of psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz. He is founding director of the campus' Evolutionary Studies (EvoS) program).