When it comes to writing applications for graduate school or letters to potential employers, students are often surprised to find that much of what they’ve learned about the writing process ceases to apply. That is, personal statements, resumes, business letters, and other preliminary forms of formal communication require students to master (or at least fake) a genre of writing that is a far cry from the lengthy research papers they’ve written throughout their college career. Though this type of writing has its place, students must learn to prioritize different elements and, ultimately, to consider the demands of a different audience–busy business professionals. Sounds easy, right? Not exactly.
Experience shows that, in the case of personal statements, most students struggle with the prospect of condensing a lifetime worth of personal and professional experience into a page or two of information. Employers and school administrators further complicate this issue by asking questions that are frequently cumbersome and, considering the spatial limitations that they enforce, seem impossible to answer comprehensively. The sooner a student realizes that this is the case, the easier their work will be.
Unfortunately, owing to little experience with this genre of writing, the tendency is for students to try to condense as much information as they can into the page that they have been afforded. In trying to write about everything, it seems that we fail to write anything at all. Realizing that this type of writing presents a serious (and stressful) challenge to writers of every ilk, we’ve come up with five pointers to help with the process:
1. Feature the important stuff first – In writing class most of us were taught to save the bigger and more substantial points for later in the paper. Though this is good advice generally, as it gives us more space to elaborate larger issues, this is hardly the case when it comes to a personal statement. Put yourself in the shoes of the faculty responsible for evaluating all of the many statements that arrive at their school. In a perfect world, faculty would read over each statement carefully, scrutinizing every detail while paying particular attention to the intricacies and subtle flourishes of language that we celebrate as readers and writers. In the real world, admission committees are overburdened. Stacks of personal statements pile higher and higher. The clock begins ticking, and committee members struggle to find a way of reading through all of the papers in a reasonable amount of time. What this means is that those responsible for granting admission, spend very little time with each document. If you leave your most crucial insights to the second page of your personal statement, you can be assured that this information will receive very little (if any!) attention.
2. Keep the heroics to a minimum – Odds are, your mother thinks you are the greatest person currently walking this earth. But, you can believe that a mother’s pride doesn’t always translate very nicely in the case of personal statements. Just because you can think of seven different situations wherein you saved another person’s life or had a profound and paradigm shifting realization, doesn’t mean you should include them all. Stick with a few instances that demonstrate your greatest skills or qualities and spend your time detailing these.
3. Nobody likes a bragger – Although it is important that you show some pride in your work and that you play up your good qualities, avoid going overboard. One can be assured that in a batch of 500 medical school applicants, nearly 450 students will write about having saved a life (or two!). This type of narrative gets old real quick. Alternatively, consider detailing a less obvious and more believable event. This will give you the chance to demonstrate that you’ve thought long and hard about your reasons for entering the program and that you can reflect on this decision by talking about basic life experiences.
4. Write for your crowd – Try to include some information about the school to which you are applying. This will show the admission committee that you’ve taken the time to write a statement with their school in mind. Remember, we like to read about our own successes in as much as you like detailing yours.
5. Keep it short – In the case of personal statements, brevity is key. Nothing is worse than a statement that exceeds the suggested length. Read through early drafts carefully, eliminating unnecessarily wordy sections. Believe us, readers will thoroughly appreciate this attention to detail.
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