How to Reframe Struggle Stories as Inspiration Stories in Your Personal Statement

Sep 09, 2021

By ProFellow Founder Dr. Vicki Johnson

I recently had hundreds of people join my free webinar on how to get into the world’s most competitive graduate schools. One of the things that I brought up in my webinar is how “struggle stories” can work against you in your personal statement if not couched appropriately. I encourage applicants to instead use stories of inspiration to open their personal statements. Since this advice goes against the common perception of how one should open a personal statement, I wanted to provide a little more context about this personal tip that I share with the graduate school and fellowship applicants I mentor

“Struggle stories” are stories about your personal experience with challenges such as poverty, physical and mental health conditions, abuse, discrimination, bullying and other forms of trauma. They are the types of stories that we may put a “trigger warning” on before we share them publicly, because of the chance that they may trigger negative feelings and emotions in others who have been impacted by the same trauma.

Often, graduate schools invite you to discuss challenges you have overcome in your personal statement. They want to know about your personal experiences and how you addressed them.

Many applicants believe that they must detail their struggle stories in their personal statements to show their resilience and their ability to overcome challenges. However, at the graduate level, struggle stories can work against you in your application when they unintentionally raise concerns about your emotional and physical readiness for a rigorous graduate program. With relatively limited information about your personal background, selection committees must decide if there is enough evidence that you will thrive as a student in a program with high academic standards and expectations. 

Master’s and doctoral programs are challenging – many graduate students do not complete their programs successfully. Unlike at the undergraduate level, there is less individualized attention and support at the graduate level for personal (and even, academic) challenges that may arise during your studies. The biggest fear of selection committees is that those they select won’t finish the degree or will struggle through the program because of personal, emotional, physical, or financial challenges. Therefore, you don’t want to unintentionally raise concerns about your emotional and physical readiness for a program in a personal statement of 500-1,000 words, because you won’t have adequate opportunity to provide context about your readiness after revealing a significant trauma or health  challenge you experienced. 

The questions that I started to receive from readers were: What if I’m asked about my struggle story? How exactly can I avoid mentioning my struggle story when it has to do with why I’m in the field that I’m in now?

Successful applicants can (and should, if asked) mention a personal struggle, but I suggest they emphasize the details of their unique talents, moments of inspiration and aspirations, rather than the details of their struggle story.

Let me give you an example of this!

Example: Struggle Story vs. Inspiration Story in a Personal Statement Opening

Pretend that you are a selection committee member about to read the next personal statement in your pile of applications. And here’s the statement. It starts like this.

I grew up in a neighborhood riddled with violence and was raised by an alcoholic parent who struggled to make ends meet. Some days, and even weeks, we had no food in our cabinets. I would forage in dumpsters for food that was thrown away. The local public school was my only refuge from this pain and neglect. This refuge is what led me to later pursue teaching.

Now you are just a few sentences into this personal statement. How does this opening story make you feel?

It might make you feel pity for this person, sadness, guilt, and possibly anger for what this person experienced as a child.

As the reader, that story might even trigger negative memories and feelings stemming from your own personal experiences with trauma. We have no idea who is reading our personal statements and what they have personally been through.

Now, here’s another personal statement written by the same exact person. It opens like this:

When Kayla looked up at me with eyes wide, I realized she was experiencing the surprise feeling of “getting it”. She solved a multiplication problem that months before was considered impossible for her to solve at her cognition level. This moment ignited my passion for teaching. I realized I had the unique ability to connect with a child like Kayla, who had experienced childhood trauma as I had, because I understood her. I was her. In that moment, I found my life’s calling in teaching.

Now, how does that opening story make you feel?

You feel respect, pride, and awe. It’s inspiring to read how this person found their life’s calling.

This opening story also demonstrates the candidate’s unique talents and skills. The reader might immediately feel a desire to help this applicant help more people like Kayla. They will realize: If I invest in this applicant, they’re going to be able to help more young people like Kayla who are struggling.

This is the difference between positive and negative energy in your application story! This difference is why inspiration stories are more powerful and effective than struggle stories in a personal statement.

So, it’s not that you need to avoid sharing your struggle story. The point is that you don’t need to express all the triggering details of the trauma that you experienced in your personal statement. The goal is to express who you are now, not the person you were when you were traumatized.  

Touch briefly on what the struggle was but use your precious word count to describe your resourcefulness and how that experience inspired you or influenced you to now help other people or to make a bigger and better impact in the world in some way. 

Use your personal statement wisely so that you can inspire investment and selection for competitive programs.  Stories of inspiration are what hook the reader and draw that desire for investment!

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Dr. Vicki Johnson Headshot

Dr. Vicki Johnson is Founder and CEO of ProFellow, the world’s leading online resource for professional and academic fellowships. She is a four-time fellow, top Ph.D. scholar, Fulbright recipient and an award-winning social entrepreneur. She is the Creator and Director of Fully Funded, an award-winning online course and mentorship program for graduate school applicants seeking to find and win full funding. 

© ProFellow, LLC / Vicki Johnson 2021, all rights reserved.