Monday, April 24, 2006

Personal Statements: Too Personal?

ArginBeaner Wanna Pencil is our codenamer of the week. Why? I don’t know. I don’t really understand it, but I like the sound of it. She also has one of the more intriguing questions of the week:

When it comes to personal statements your book suggests that we include experience of interest and I wondered where you stand on things that might be a bit controversial. Do we leave out, for example, club scene drug use and stripping by night while refusing to give up high school district job and leave in high tech marketing career w/ literacy mentorship in low income schoools?

I have no idea what the second half of that last sentence means, so I’ll have to skip that. ABWP is a mysterious person.

If I was on the committee, I definitely wouldn’t want to read about anyone’s drug use. I certainly don’t mind that in a story, but I don’t want to see it on the personal statement. While the personal statement can be friendly, that’s way too friendly. I’d personally cross that person off immediately. Why? It shows bad judgment (including it on the personal statement). And I wouldn’t want a person with a substance abuse problem as a potential teacher of my school’s undergraduates.

As for stripping etc. I think it’s fine to include that. It’s interesting, that’s for sure. Keep all these type-things as complements to what you’re really saying in your personal statement: I’m serious as a writer, I work hard, I work well with others, and you won’t regret giving me an opportunity. Those are the main things, and the life experience is secondary, not the other way around.

Rock on, ABWP. I have a feeling we’ll have some interesting reader comments on this one. Anyone have their own personal statement story or an opinion on this one? Bring it on.


Anonymous said...

I say, if it feels questionable, leave it out. A personal statement is a strange thing--it's about you, but you want it to be the things you think the reader/committee will unequivocally agree are "good" things. This may feel sanitized (I know my statement did), but I think you can be exciting and truthful without potentially challenging the readers' comfort zones. Of course, you don't want to apply to some place where you'll be uncomfortable being yourself, but the idea is for you to be able to make the decision, not the committee. The personal statement is a propaganda tool for you, as well as a way to directly communicate who you are. Maybe I'm too calculating, but it worked for me.

Anonymous said...

I guess it all really feels questionable, right? I mean who's to say what's interesting, what's ego-mania and what's just lame-ia? At the end of the day, your statement should be about how you're a super good worker and the details you include are just about not having lived in a vaccuum.

Anonymous said...

Poster 1: I agree completely.
Poster 2: It's not true that anything goes and anything can be questionable. As you say, one should convey that one works hard. And hinting that one enjoys, say, drugs, too much doesn't really convey that idea. I know, there are exceptions (Sartre comes to mind, popping pills and writing like mad -- and there are American examples, too!) but they are that: exceptions. I think what most people would think, if you include refereces to drugs, is that you won't be working hard. And that you may be a loose cannon. So, back to Poster 1: sanitize your statement.

Anonymous said...

Good golly! Maybe before I apply to programs I should work on writing more clearly. The drug use thing was an example. It lasted all of my first semester in college and I'm 32 now. 'nuff said.

That said, many thanks to all three posters. The message is clear: think like business, it's a cover letter.

Anonymous said...

I guess I completely disagree. I think that most of the interesting writers lived interesting lives. the problem with writing programs today is that there are writing programs and manypeople are trying to become technicians, rather than writers. writng programs want a credit totheir program, no question. That is the goal. So if you were a raging herion addict, and that's in the past, great. Check out who is in columbia's mfa program. He struggled with addiction and made this clear to the school. It even helped him get single housing.

Anonymous said...

My two cents added to Tom's comments and the other posters'.
Showing good judgment and professionalism is important for any selection process. As an ex-headhunter I can tell you that if you thought to be "interesting" by revealing unsavoury stuff, you would be red flagged immediately as someone not worthy of consideration.
But, yes, go ahead and use this material in your stories!

Anonymous said...

It's all so confusing!

Steve Almond, in a Poets & Writers article, praised an 'interesting' personal statement that mentioned being a runaway, drug use and work as stripper. (Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like Mary Gaitskill). He advises you include as much 'grit' as you can.

On the other hand, the few personal statements I've seen online are banal and clinical. It's almost like they were trying to be boring: "School X will give me time to write. My novel-in-progress is very deep and likens the homosexual/immigrant/female experience to factory work/bondage/trial law. The narrative is dull and underwhelming, but you see I went to Harvard/Brown/Yale, so you know I'm more worthy than the others writing the same schlock." etc.

Who to believe?

Anonymous said...

I was anonymous poster #1 in this thread, but as I used "it worked for me" in my first post here as well as in another thread, my penance for redundancy will be to have it serve as my moniker and catch phrase henceforth.

I don't think I was advocating "sanitization," but some moderation and forethought. While you want to make yourself interesting and exciting, these are writing programs we're talking about, and it's the writing in your personal statement that will help get you accepted--not what drugs you took or where you took your clothes off. In my statement, I left out my own youthful indiscretions (plenty of them could be inferred from my writing sample anyway) but did include everything I had done with my life that has direct bearing on why I write and why I want to pursue an MFA. Recreational drugs were out, years spent playing rock n roll were in--along with my work and travel experience and future aspirations. Also, I agonized and rewrote my statements over and over for every school. Each one was somewhat different based on the brief instructions and I tried to make each one shine as if it was the most enjoyable essay I'd ever written when, in fact, it was the most painful. I don't know if the essay was the deciding factor at either of the two places I was accepted, but it was worth it.

Ray said...

Coming at this late and not sure if anybody reads this far back but it's been on my mind. (I just started reading the blog from the beginning a few days ago.)

I'm an older person considering applying for an MFA program in a few years, and I've got a lot of life experience under my belt to put into the personal statement (including climbing up on the Berlin Wall with my own sledgehammer and chisel in the first months after it opened). But I have also lived through and overcome addiction to drugs and alcohol, and I find that my memoir and fiction writing which draws on this experience is the stuff which is most powerful, which gets the highest praise from my more experienced writer friends.

So would an honest description of overcoming addiction be a worthy topic to address in the personal statement? It's a little weightier than "whoa, I sure got fucked up in college" and it doesn't portray me as a current abuser. It's just an honest description of who I am and where some of my inspiration comes from.

And it puts me in good company with contemporary writers like Ann Lamott, Augusten Burroughs, etc.

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Abner Carl said...

Good points...However, a letter that sounds authentic and enthusiastic painful information. An effective letter is very difficult when few personal statements I've seen online are banal.
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