A personal statement is the best (and sometimes only) chance you have to make your application jump off the page. Even if you have outstanding test scores, those scores alone do not guarantee you admission. Which brings us to the personal statement, your chance to show your readers how engaging you are, how you are a future leader in your field, and how you’re an inspired applicant to invest in. This is where you can politely scream, “Look at me, I am uniquely qualified and my narrative is exactly what you want precisely because it doesn’t look like everyone else’s!”
Now put yourself in the admissions officer’s shoes for a second. It’s 2:00 PM and you have read 10 applications so far today, and you have another 8 to go before you can leave for the day...and repeat it all again tomorrow. You’ve already read, “My journey started when…” and “The most important lesson I ever learned was…” Every traditional opening line has crossed your desk multiple times each cycle, and no matter how riveting the next paragraph is, attention and interest is already being lost.
See what you’re up against?
So this brings me to the first lesson…
Lesson 1: Make your first line something that only you could write.
The biggest mistake I see is people writing a statement that could have been written by someone else. From the first sentence, you want to show your reader that you are different from everyone else. You are neither boring nor outlandish, but you are shiny and unique in all the right ways. More than anything, you are willing to get personal (this is, after all, a personal statement). Kick off your personal statement with something only you could write, something that can then grow into the message and story about yourself that you want to tell. Here are a few examples:
Example 1: “If hell is a place without garlic, my home was heaven.”
Example 2: “You can learn a lot from the faces my mom draws on our hard-boiled eggs.”
Lesson 2: Show, don’t tell.
Every word in a personal statement is precious. A common trap is trying to tell your reader what makes you stand out or what inspires you. Instead, try to show them. A picture is worth a thousand words, and from the very beginning you want your reader to have an actual image of you. Here are a couple of examples from recent statements I’ve worked on:
Example 1: On my first day of work at the municipal health department in Jinja, Uganda, I strolled into the office in a shirt and tie expecting to redesign immunization campaigns. By the end of the day, I was covered in dirt and sweat, running around in my undershirt with a filed-down broomstick frantically trying to spear an enormous rat.
Example 2: New to the hospital wards, I knocked on the wall across from Jim’s bed. He took one look at me and yelled, “Get the hell out of my room!”
Writing an outstanding personal statement is extremely challenging, and we all need help to make it stand out and encapsulate our singular narrative. No matter what you are applying for or what you have done in your life leading up to an application, I promise you that you have a truly unique story that can make you jump off the page right from the beginning. We are not the sum of our grades or test scores; we are all a little eccentric and peculiar, and it is your creativity and idiosyncrasies that will bring your application to life.
Cambridge Coaching was founded by doctoral candidates in English, and instruction in reading and writing is one of our particular strengths. Our tutors are published authors, as well as Ph.D candidates from the top English graduate programs in America, with most hailing from Harvard or the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop--or both.
We have a long history of helping high school, college, and graduate students become more astute critical readers and writers capable of producing their own polished essays. Are you interested in getting set up with a writing coach like Michael?