Rarely, but occasionally, while working with a student on a personal essay, I can’t help but wince. It’s a concerned, gut response to the student taking an unnecessary and unwise risk. The most ready example I recall is the day that one of my students spent an entire paragraph discussing a suicide attempt. And this student was no dummy—in fact, held a 3.9 GPA. What I’m sure happened was that the student misconstrued the context for the personal essay and interpreted it almost as a confessional opportunity. I’ve witnessed other students use the personal statement to stumble sloppily through discussions of the death of a pet, a protest rally that turned into a small riot, a bad case of lactose intolerance, a religious conversion, and ten years away from school “bumming around with a rock band.”
Writers who do this are often focusing on one small part of their application (such as a poor semester of grades) or something they view as so self-defining (such as a political cause) that they feel almost obliged to discuss the topic. But despite the writer’s personal agenda, audience and context are key here, with the astute writer only taking chances when the risk is clearly worth it. At the same time, as the following discussion makes clear, there are times when the uniqueness of your experience is indeed worth showcasing.
As reported in the book How to Write a Winning Personal Statement for Graduate and Professional School, the Stern School of Business at New York University does something a bit unusual in its application questions to applicants. As many programs do, the school uses a series of questions rather than just one, but the third question asks students to describe themselves to their classmates, allowing for some creative elbow room. The answers to this third question, says the Director of Admissions and Aid, are her favorite. Though most applicants simply write creative essays, others send in poems, games, puzzles—even cassette recordings or videotapes. Obviously, in most graduate applications, students don’t have such options when it comes to delivering the material. However, those with particularly interesting personal tales or educational paths should always look for ways to highlight them in writing.
Many schools pride themselves not only on their programs but on something flexible or specialized about the education they offer. My alma mater, Juniata College, has students build a “program of emphasis” rather than declare a major, allowing students to customize their program of study. St. John’s College engages all its students in a classics-grounded course of study “based in the great books of the Western tradition,” which includes four years of math and one year of music for all students. Mount Holyoke, an all-women’s college, has a program in speaking, writing, and arguing, and sponsors an annual intercollegiate poetry competition. Not all readers will know the details about these programs, and the personal statement provides a perfect opportunity for graduates of such programs to take advantage of interesting experiences built right into their education. Writers who flesh out such detail in their personal statements both educate their readers about their background and affiliate themselves with programs of earned reputation.
Other educational background worthy of consideration for your personal statement includes:
- Participation in a first-year or senior seminar, assuming the seminar was academic and required you to produce meaningful work and some deliverable product.
- Past academic scholarships and the criteria by which you won them, especially if they are competitive national awards.
- Any co-op or work experiences directly relevant to graduate study, especially if the work you did was integrated into senior thesis research.
- Study at more than one school or study abroad, in particular if you are fluent in multiple languages.
- Honors education classes or an honors thesis.
- The completion of an integrated bachelor’s/master’s program, with discussion of program particulars.
- Completion of a senior thesis, especially if some facet of the thesis research can be continued at graduate school.
- Educational training through the military or professional certification programs, with an emphasis on relevance to graduate study.
- A transfer of schools or a return to school after time away, emphasizing positive lessons learned from the experience and giving evidence of accomplishments and motivation.
Finally, sometimes writers have such interesting personal stories that they capture their audience just by sharing something meaningful about their lives. Interesting stories I’ve read about in personal statements include a man who grew up in four different countries while his parents worked for the Peace Corps, a blind student from South Korea who was adopted into an American family and completed an internship involving service to disabled high school students, a woman who left an international modeling career to return to school full-time, a student who completed a bachelor’s degree over an eight-year period while battling multiple sclerosis, a student whose father went to jail for the duration of the student's high school years, and a student who had placed a novel with a major publishing house at the age of 19. Such personal stories and accomplishments are too interesting, and in some cases too moving, not to share. As you compose your personal statement, mine your educational and personal experiences to be sure you’re not overlooking something of interest that will both define and uplift you in the eyes of your readers.
The following is one of two winning essays composed for the 2012 The Mary Cone Barrie Scholarship. The scholarship is one of few annual awards that recognize non-traditional students and their pursuit of lifelong learning.
My name is Moon Soe, and I am a junior student at Metropolitan State University, in Saint Paul, Minnesota, pursuing a degree in secondary mathematics education. This spring 2012, I am taking four classes at the indicated institute above while also working full-time during weekdays. I am planning to finish all my required courses in spring, 2013 and begin my student teaching in Fall 2013. Coming to Minnesota as a refugee from Thailand, I was so enthusiastic and hopeful to continue my education for a better life. I attended Century College as soon as I got my GED six months after I resettled in Minnesota. I was the first generation who finished a two year college, and I’m now working on to finish my bachelor degree. I am originally from Burma (also called Myanmar) and also an Ethnic Karen, one of the very recent immigrants in Minnesota and in many other countries all over the world. While living in a refugee camp in Thailand, I was hoping for a better life, but I didn’t have a choice or a chance. Sometimes I blamed myself because I felt envious of the world and people that had more opportunities. Living in the camp for 13 years, I thought I was never going to be able to continue my education, and I had so little hope when I thought about my future. However, I am really happy now that I could start to dream about my future in real life and not a daydream anymore. Working fulltime and going to school fulltime might be a little difficult, but in order to finance my family without giving up on my dream, I motivate myself everyday to have enough energy. I understand how it must have been hard for my family since they do not speak English and understand much about life process in the United States.
When I started college, I was very happy, but clueless. It felt amazing that I had the opportunity to continue my education, but I did not know how to make it through my first semester. However, I said to myself that I should grab this great opportunity, or it would go pass me. I looked up for supports from every resource I could get from college, and surprisingly I made it through smoothly for the last three years. I feel so grateful and honored that I am going to be the first generation in my family ancestry who is graduating from college.
Undeniably, I believe there are many people in the world that are in the same situation as me. Having gone through a hard time to survive, I would say it is fortune and hope that bring me to this life stage. At the beginning it was challenging for me to declare my major because the world I grew up is too different to where I am now. However, I always knew in my heart that I love working with teenaged children. Also as a student, I always love math and have great desire to enrich my knowledge in mathematics education. After assessing what my passions and my abilities are, I decided to become an urban secondary math teacher hoping I could help guide these wonderful children to grow intellectually and pursue what they desire to.
My interest in teaching began while I was teaching as a non-licensed teacher for almost two years at a diverse post-secondary school in the refugee camp. However, I felt bad for I was not able to provide my students with the best quality education because I was not well-trained but given the job due to community’s need. Then, since 2009 until now, having worked in an urban secondary public school in Saint Paul as an educational assistant, I really love my job as an educator. As a result, I would like to take a step further to become a good educator for the lifelong learning journey of the new generations. After I get my teaching license, I am planning to teach at an urban secondary school. I am also very proud to be part of community education and represent many Karen immigrants in Minnesota. Receiving scholarship would really help me graduate timely. This scholarship is not going to be just a financial support, but for me it is evidence to prove to my urban students as someone who was once hopeless now has accomplished something great.
My last hope is one day I would like to become a useful resource person in my Karen community as a professional in education. My fellow ethnic Karen has been fleeing war and became refugees for many decades. Many generations missed educational privilege. Many children did not have educational opportunities because of life they had to go through. I was once like these children and was not happy with my life. Therefore, I hope to be able to help make a difference in these children life so that their dream may come true as other children in the world.
To learn more about the Mary Cone Barrie Scholarship, please click here.