5 Personal Statement Topics to Avoid

Mar 08, 2018

5 Personal Statement Topics to Avoid

By Deborah Vieyra

Almost as important as knowing what to include in your personal statement for your fellowship application, is knowing what to exclude. Ever been at a party where someone shares way too much personal information with you before you’ve even had a chance to take your coat off? The result is often a deluge of awkwardness, coupled with a rampant itch that will only be scratched by a quick move away in the opposite direction. Divulging too much information in your personal statement can have a similar effect. While selection committees are interested in your life, and what has influenced you to become the person you are, certain topics can either be too revelatory or expose a deficit rather than an asset.

Here are five topics that you should probably steer away from if you don’t want to be “that guy” to the fellowship selection committee.

1. The one-time community service project you did

That one day you cleaned up the litter on the beach with a group of friends may have been very fulfilling and of importance to the surrounding human beings and sea life. This does not, however, display a long-term commitment to a community service or environmental conservation. Rather than illustrating that you are a dedicated public servant, you may counterproductively paint a picture of someone who only flirts with altruism. Only include mention of community service that is long-term and impactful.

2. Too much detail about your school awards and prizes

Whether you have just left school, or are moving towards mid-career, this applies to you. By detailing your win of the Grade 3 Spelling Bee, you may come across with an inflated sense of accomplishment. You may cast doubt in the minds of the selection committee as to why you have chosen to highlight this accomplishment. They will no doubt wonder if you are trying to fill a vacuum of accomplishments in other areas. Having said that, if the award is of great significance, it may be worth mentioning it briefly, but consciously steer away from any hints of boastfulness.

3. Anything too cynical or negative

While most selection committees will be looking for superior insight, there is a marked difference between critical thinking and defeatist speech. If you think your field can benefit from a revolution of practice or philosophy, it is important to articulate this, backing up your arguments up with well-researched analysis. However, ensure that you steer your argument towards a vision for the future, rather than present a tirade of how bad things really are. Do not display an “everything is stupid” attitude. The committee wants to see hope and promise, not fatalism and early defeat.

4. What a party animal you are

Your popularity within your peer group is not going to impress any selection committee. While the escapades of your friendship circle may have been what has given you a sense of community, this is not quite what they mean by cultural exchange. Steer away from mention of any substance use or abuse, and any confessional speak about how hanging out until the early hours has impacted your work.

5. Traumatic personal experiences

If you have undergone massive trauma in your life, it has no doubt influenced you and the kind of work you want to do to some extent. It is important to remember, however, that your personal statement is a professional document and not a piece of confessional writing. You do not want to overwhelm the committee with too much detail about what you have gone through. Detailing this experience in your personal statement may cast doubt that you are emotionally ready to succeed in a fast-paced professional fellowship or intense postgraduate program. Having said that, if a particular experience has led you directly to your field, you may want to mention it briefly. For example, domestic abuse may have led you to pursue an MA in Gender Studies. If this is the case, it may be relevant to mention this briefly. If you do go this route, don’t dwell on it. Move quickly onto where it has led you, rather than dwelling on the trauma itself.

Once you have constructed your personal statement, get someone with a brutally honest eye to read it with a red pen in hand. If they come across anything that appears to be in the realm of oversharing or bravado, tell them to use that red pen liberally. Read personal statement tips on ProFellow to make sure that you are armed with all the necessary information.

Now get writing! There are committees out there waiting to read your words.

Deborah Vieyra is a Fulbright alumna from South Africa who completed her MA in Applied Theatre Arts at the University of Southern California. She now works as a writer, proofreader and performer in Vancouver, Canada.

© Victoria Johnson 2018, all rights reserved.