3 Tips for Creating a Standout Personal Statement

Sep 26, 2019

By Guest Author Aaron Lloyd White

Even when you have a strong resume or a great list of references, you will need an effective personal statement to stand out among applicants. From fellowships to graduate school applications, the personal statement helps a selection committee better understand who you are. Many articles about personal statements often focus on treating the individual as a brand to “sell yourself.” The idea of selling oneself is helpful in displaying your skills, but what it lacks is, well, more of you.  In the process of perfecting your personal statement, there are three simple things you can do to be more authentic while still demonstrating your ability.

1. Find the right story

Everyone’s life has some unique experiences. They might include your family’s culture, overcoming adversity, or an anecdotal view of a specific period in your life. Because there are so many different experiences, choosing the right story for your personal statement can be difficult.

Narrowing down which experiences to draw from is directly correlated to the program for which you are applying. Sharing your volunteer experience at an animal shelter may give insight on you as a person, but may not be appropriate in applying for an MBA – unless your business acumen and insight as a volunteer helped the shelter increase adoptions and were instrumental to your applying for the MBA!

In order to overcome the potential writers’ block of trying to find a single story, try several. Write out three or more different experiences and determine which one you think sounds best or may fit best in the personal statement by swapping them out.

If writing several possible stories is helpful but still leaves you scratching your head as to which one is most appropriate, don’t despair. Call a friend, mentor or, a family member. Have them read your different versions and see which one resonates the most.

2. Don’t do it alone

Regardless of where you are in the process of writing your personal statement, you want other people by your side.

Depending on your writing style, sitting and talking with friends may be a good place to start even before you’ve written anything. Those you know can help you with identifying experiences to share. Alternatively, they may be good as a second set of eyes to review your personal statement, and perhaps, if asked nicely enough, they might even help edit it.

Additionally, identifying the key people who have inspired you or worked with you during your chosen experience can offer a dual benefit. First, these mentors or influencers can help you expand on your personal statement. Second, they can also become references. This will reinforce your personal statement and accentuate it, further separating you from the crowd. After you’ve narrowed down which experience to use, have another person take a look at your personal statement for structure, grammar and effectiveness.

3. Get advice from people who are where you want to be

As William Butler Yeats once said, “There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven’t met yet.” Before submitting your personal statement, it’s okay to move beyond your friend group and reach out to those involved in the work you want to do. When I applied for graduate school, I reached out to current students. I also called and emailed potential professors to discuss my ideas and their research.

Those involved directly in the program you’re applying for can be helpful. Professors or former instructors who lead a program can help give further ideas on improving your personal statement. Some might even offer to take a look at it as well.

By reaching out to those involved, you can also find out about their experiences. Some current or past participants may still have their personal statement and can share it with you. Others might give you an idea of what they wrote. This can also give further clarity on your personal statement. Just be wary not to lose your own voice in the process of reviewing someone else’s.

The more eyes on your personal statement and the more you talk with those in the programs you are interested in, the more chances you have for improvement.

There is no one way to approach writing a personal statement. However, these three steps can be helpful in narrowing down a topic, finding your voice, and getting your ideas to paper. Remember that outside of the basics of checking for grammar and editing for conciseness, the more of you that comes through, the better.

Aaron Lloyd White is a graduate from Tel Aviv University’s Porter School of Environmental Studies. He currently works in Development and Policy Analysis. His work has been published in The Sacramento Bee, The Orange County Register, and the Oakland Tribune, among other publications. 

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