By Brittany Mihalec-Adkins
There are countless ways to write a personal statement, and of course, no one way is the “right” or “best” way, but there are certainly some ways that are better than others. You only get so many words to impress your readers, and it can be hard to fit in all your accomplishments without just copying and pasting your resume.
If you are struggling to stay within the word limit of your personal statement – or if you want to make the most of every document that will be used to evaluate you as a candidate – you might consider “delegating” things you would include in your personal statement to the writers of your recommendation letters. In other words, make a list of things you want readers to know about you but that you can’t fit into your personal statement, and ask your recommenders to touch on those points in their letters.
What should you delegate? Here are my suggestions:
1. Those random volunteer experiences that don’t fit well into the narrative of your personal statement
Reviewers want to see that you have gone above and beyond to get hands-on experience and that you’re not afraid to roll up your sleeves up to help others. However, they also don’t want to read through someone listing off chronologically their many volunteer experiences. Pick one or two of your most meaningful volunteer experiences to discuss in your personal statement. Then ask one of your letter writers mention that you’ve also volunteered with x, y, and z organizations over the past few years. This way, reviewers will get to “hear” about all your volunteer experiences without reading a laundry list in your personal statement.
2. That summer internship with a law firm when you thought you wanted to go to law school but now you’re getting a PhD in Organic Chemistry
It’s tricky to address the various jobs, internships, and major-changes on your record. You want to seem well-rounded but not all-over-the-place. If you want reviewers to know about your experience writing briefs for lawyers and preparing legal documents but can’t find a way to work it into your statement, try delegating it. Ask one of your recommenders to mention your long-standing interest in public policy, “as evidenced by [his/her] experience interning for a lawyer and gaining skills in…”
3. That less-than-optimal Verbal GRE score
This one may be trickiest of all, which potentially makes it the best item to delegate. It’s good practice to address any glaring blemishes on your application – things happen, people are human, and reviewers understand that. But it can be hard to work this kind of explanation into an essay with a thesis of “I’m the best, pick me!” Asking one of your mentors to address your “meh” GRE score in their letter eliminates the need for you to do it, but also gives room for someone who knows you (and whose professional opinion of you is part of the application) to explain why they don’t think it’s a reflection of your abilities.
4. The mentoring you’ve done
Mentoring experience is really important – especially for those of us in the academic realm. But it’s challenging to speak humbly about your strengths as a mentor without feeling like you are speaking on behalf of your mentees. Ask one of your recommenders (ideally one who has observed you in a mentoring role) to touch on this in their letter. Her saying “he has gone out of his way to teach undergraduate students this technique” carries a lot of weight.
5. All of the “behind the scenes” work you’ve done
This is something that all leaders, whether faculty members or executives, can appreciate: a graduate student or employee who is willing to do the less-than-glamorous work or the work that doesn’t always get recognized right away (or maybe ever). Ask your recommender to mention your day-to-day contributions to office operations, such as volunteering to help staff after-hours events or giving tours and advice to new students and employees.
A quick warning: this strategy requires more time than your average application preparation plan might typically include. You need to spend time thinking carefully about which things you don’t need for the overall narrative and flow of your personal statement, and once you have that list, you’ll need to spend time thinking about which recommender would be best to include which things on your list. Then, of course, you’ll need to talk with each of them about your strategy and about the things you hope they will be able to touch on in their letters. While this might seem like an awkward thing to ask, I have found that most recommenders are grateful that you have given them specific things to write about.
Brittany Mihalec-Adkins is a first-year National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow and second-year Ph.D. student in Human Development and Family Studies at Purdue University.
© Victoria Johnson 2017, all rights reserved.