I often work with application consulting clients for graduate and professional school who report that they hate writing. “It’s like pulling teeth!” they tell me. “I can’t make myself sit down and work on my personal statement, and I don’t even know why it’s so hard.” If you’re one of the many applicants to graduate and professional school who finds writing your personal statement to be perplexingly difficult, you’re in good company. Many of the world’s most brilliant thinkers have invented their own tricks to manage the strenuous process of writing. Here’s Slavoj Žižek* on his personal method:
It turns out that you can be a world-famous academic rock star, and still have trouble with writing — that baffling activity which is supposed to fall somewhere between note-taking and editing. If even Žižek doesn’t “write” (but only takes notes and revises), what’s a first-time statement-writer to do? Here are a few tips I’ve learned along the way.
1. Remember that your statement is supposed to introduce you, but does not have to be a perfectly accurate reflection of you. Sometimes students have trouble beginning their personal statements because they feel pressure to account for the entirety of their intellectual experience, and they don’t know how to fit in everything that’s important. But personal statements are not supposed to encapsulate all of your passions or interests; rather, they provide a crisp and memorable snapshot of what you’ve done and how you think. Anything else would be impossible: after all, there’s no way to tidily sum up any one person’s passions and pursuits in 500 words. Think of your statement as providing the admissions committee with a glimpse into the mind of an accomplished and fascinating person — someone they’d like to know more about. That would be you, of course.
2. Your statement gives you an opportunity to reflect on your achievements and goals, and to clarify why you’re pursuing a degree in the first place. This can be a genuinely positive exercise for you to perform before embarking on a graduate or professional program. The statement can be place to record thoughts you’ve formulated before — about what made you want to become a doctor, or why you’re passionate about pursing a Ph.D. in political science — but haven’t yet refined into polished prose. Going through this process of refinement can be useful for you, in a way that is completely independent of how the admissions committee evaluates what you’ve written. Ideally, your personal statement should be something you can return to later in order to refresh your sense of purpose and affirm your determination to meet your goals — no matter what graduate program you end up in.
3. Start with the foundations. Writing is about building an argument from the ground up. Make a list of bullet points to emphasize what you’d like the admissions committee to know about you. Think about what you want your reader to remember — not five minutes after they’ve reviewed your statement, but a week or more later. What’s the single most important aspect of your experience that you want to communicate to your audience?
4. Make an outline. I can’t overemphasize the value of this point — and yet, it’s the part of the writing process that statement-writers are most likely to skip. Without an outline, you can’t see the contours of your argument. An outline helps you grasp how much you can say in the given amount of space. It gives structure and shape to your thinking. It also supplies the surest way to avoid writer’s block. Do not begin writing without an outline.
5. Remember no one has to see your first draft. (Except, of course, your CC tutor, but she’s got your back.) Don’t be afraid to get messy when you’re just starting out. Perfectly formulated sentences usually don’t spring onto the page the first time around. Focus on generating material, not evaluating the words you’ve already written. Sometimes it helps to plan a power-writing session and set yourself a time limit: for instance, see how many words you can get on the page in half an hour. There will be time for editing later.
6. Revise, revise, revise. Prepare to write at least three, and possibly more full drafts of your statement. Make sure you leave yourself ample time in the application process to accomplish this. Seek feedback from mentors: your tutor, your advisors, your recommenders, and other successful figures in your field. Don’t be discouraged by criticism; the more you receive, the more opportunities you have to improve your writing. But don’t feel like you have to take everyone’s advice, either. Ultimately, the person best prepared to evaluate your statement during the editing process is you. Hopefully, you’ll be able to arrive at a final version of your essay that makes you feel proud and satisfied. It’s my job as a tutor to help ensure that happens.
*Excerpted from: Zizek! Dir. Astra Taylor. Perf. Slavoj Žižek. Zeitgeist Films, 2005. DVD.