The Ultimate Guide to Telling Your Story in a Personal Statement

Sep 24, 2020 • Views 803

By Jenny Han Simon

A personal statement is not simply a condensed version of your biography. Instead, it should be a concise yet detailed account of your academic or professional story. One of the trickiest aspects of writing a personal statement is answering the questions, “What do I include?” and “How do I tell my story?” Undoubtedly, many experiences in your life have shaped the person you are today, and there are many interesting parts of who you are now that make you unique; however, you can’t include everything, nor is everything you want to say necessary in your personal statement. 

Every competitive personal statement has a clear structure, which will also help streamline your writing process. By structuring your personal statement around your past, present, and future, not only will you be able to easily guide your reader through your story, but you will also ensure that you’re hitting necessary points that will make you a competitive applicant. 

Past

Many personal statements begin with an anecdote from the applicant’s past—a moment that was a turning point in their life, where they might have learned something important or realized what career path they wanted. You may have heard of this referred to as the “hook” of a personal statement, as it’s meant to “hook” the reader by catching their attention. 

However, while having a hook adds a nice story-like quality to a personal statement, it’s not absolutely necessary. When you address your past in your personal statement, you should be telling the story of what brought you to write this personal statement in the first place. Whether that story began when you were six-years-old or when you were thirty doesn’t matter; what matters is that something put you on the path that led you to where you are now. What moments or events in your life were crucial in the development of your academic or professional passion? Since that moment and up until now, how have you cultivated that passion? Some tips as you write about your past are:

  • Keep it short. Use your past as a springboard to bring your narrative into the present moment.
  • Be selective. Even though you may be able to think of several important moments in your life, choose the ones that, realistically, make you the most competitive. 
  • Prioritize clarity. Don’t go off on a tangent; it will take up valuable space on the page. Plan on using that space to further explain your experience and goals today—not just your past. Everything you include about your past should have an obvious connection to your present, especially for your reader, who doesn’t know you or your story as well as you do.
  • Be authentic. It’s often hard to articulate the moments in our life that were essential in shaping our current selves and ambitions, so be willing to set aside some time for soul searching and reflection. If you can translate your passion and emotion onto paper and move your reader, it will make you a memorable candidate. 

Present 

Talking about your current self and current circumstances should make up the bulk of your personal statement. Your past and future self are undoubtedly important, but who you are and what you’re doing right now are going to be the most significant factors that will influence the application committee. When you talk about the present, you’re describing the notable events and experiences that you’ve undertaken—within the past few years or months—in order to further your academic or professional goals. You should describe both your challenges and your victories in order to convey a sense of who you are as a person, and there should be a clear sense of momentum as you describe such things in order to demonstrate your drive and capabilities. Keep in mind the following things as you write this section: 

  • Stay focused. You’ve probably done a number of very cool and impressive things; however, are they all relevant to the position or fellowship you’re applying for? It’s not uncommon to have multiple passions in life, but if the impact of one experience doesn’t translate as being valuable for the position you’re applying for, don’t waste space talking about it.
  • Acknowledge the good and the bad. It’s okay to have faced some setbacks on your journey; in fact, honesty about challenges you’ve faced will make your personal statement more authentic and interesting. It will give you the opportunity to show your reader that you are capable of overcoming adversity. Resiliency and perseverance are qualities that are valuable for any candidate. 
  • Remember yourself. A personal statement should have a voice. Often, you don’t know who is going to read your application, and you likely will never know, but you need to leave a strong impression more than anything else. The reader’s impression of you is not formed solely off of your accomplishments—they’d just read your resume if that’s what they were after—but is also based on how your writing captures you as a person. Think about your tone, rhetoric, and flow as you write, as this is what will make your writing come to life. Never let the reader forget whose personal statement they’re reading—you’re the protagonist here!

Future

This may be the most uncertain part of your personal statement because you have yet to experience the future, but you must express your plans and ambitions with confidence. If you don’t believe in yourself, it will be significantly more challenging to make people believe in and want to invest their resources in you. It’s okay not to have all the answers so long as you have ideas and a plan to show your reader that your story will continue no matter what. Talking about your plans also means insisting upon why whatever you’re applying for is absolutely crucial to achieving your goals and how you will help the program you’re applying to achieve its goals as well. Talking about the future in a personal statement is often considered to act as the conclusion because it gives you the opportunity to tie everything together and leave the next stage of this story in the reader’s hands. As you write about the future, consider the following: 

  • Express urgency. Even if you successfully and convincingly conveyed how your past and present will lead to your future, it is less effective if you don’t insist on this opportunity happening now. Why is this moment the perfect time for you to embark on this next opportunity? 
  • Be ambitious. Humility is incredibly important, but when it comes to making your reader take an interest in you, dream big and showcase the best-case future scenario for yourself. As long as you show a realistic understanding of the hard work it will take, there is no reason why you should choose to settle—especially in a personal statement. 
  • Be detailed. Even if you’re the most appealing and qualified candidate, if you don’t provide your reader with a plan of action that demonstrates how you plan to make your story come to life, your reader may not take that leap of faith choosing you. Being detailed with your plan will make your personal statement both more believable and memorable.
  • Think ahead. What comes next? Your story doesn’t end upon the completion of this opportunity you’re applying for, so think about what this opportunity will enable you to do down the road. Think about how undertaking this opportunity will benefit your professional or academic career, your growth as a person, and the organization offering you this opportunity.

Jenny Han Simon currently lives in New York City. She was a Fulbright ETA in Mongolia (2019-2020) and a participant of the Critical Language Scholarship (2018). She graduated from the University at Buffalo in 2019 with a BA in English and Linguistics.

© Victoria Johnson 2020, all rights reserved

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