Putting your best foot forward: A reflection on writing personal statements

By Will Jonsson

Nearing my graduation, I find myself back in the territory of writing personal statements: something I thought I was done with after getting admitted into my degree program here at UWB. With every personal statement I have written, I have contemplated how non-specific the prompts can be. Tactfully telling someone why they should want you to be a part of their program as much as you want to join it is an art.

I tend to write my personal statements in phases. In the first phase I try to think of the answers to six basic questions that help me create my own, more detailed, prompt: Why do I want to join this program? What significant events in my life have brought me to this goal? What do I plan to do after I’m finished with the program? What qualities are the reviewing board looking for in successful applicants? How do I see myself fulfilling those qualities? Where do I see myself falling short of being a perfect applicant?

After I’ve written down my answers to those questions, I look for ways to turn them into a coherent story. The story doesn’t necessarily have to be in chronological order—in fact, it rarely is—but it should smoothly progress from one thought to the next. I try to think of think of examples from my life that define who I am, reflect my personality, and address more than one of my initial questions. This is helpful because it gives me the chance to more fully explain a significant event in my life, and it keeps the personal statement from turning into a list of facts.

In the third phase, I write out my rough draft. This is more like a guided free-write where the basic ideas have been outlined, but I’m just telling the story as naturally as I possibly can. This step almost always results in repetitive language, fragmented thoughts, and tons of run-on sentences.

After the first rough draft, I switch to a cycle of revision, self-review and rewriting where I basically tear apart my own writing and reassemble the essay from the tatters. After I’ve finished my second or third rewrite I turn the personal statement over to someone else for peer review. I find it’s important to pick a reviewer who can be objective, and can provide a professional perspective.

Then I make some very selective revisions based on my reviewer’s notes and comments. While I will rarely use all of the suggestions, I try to make sure I take notes as to why I’ve chosen not to use them. This is helpful for the second round of peer review, which I try to do with the same person, where we discuss the changes I’ve made and we try to make a final draft.

This is, by far, a more complicated writing process than I use for most of my collegiate writing, but personal statements can be far more important than most other forms of writing.
They can be powerful tools for promoting an average application to the top of the interview pool.
We all eventually find the method that works best for ourselves. I just hope sharing my process helps you define your own.

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