Tuesday, August 28, 2007

"Overcoming Challenges" in the Personal Statement

brittany wrote:

I have read, and have been told, that one strategy for writing a personal statement is to write about something you have had to overcome because it shows you are human and have the capacity to grow as a person (much as you are expected to as a writer in an MFA program). That being said, I am in the middle of writing my personal statement and I chose to discuss my battle with bulimia for my opening paragraph and how, though it was a struggle, I learned determination and discovered myself and my true passions, the strongest being writing.

I graduated undergrad in May and admittedly, I haven't worked for literary magazines or been an editor or even worked in the English dept. of a university. Does anyone know, or think, that the aforementioned experience plus my reasoning as to why I want to go to X program and how I think I could benefit, is enough and I won't look too inexperienced or interested enough in my field?

Lizzy replied...

to write a strong personal statement you have to believe that you can write a strong personal statement.

what's a strong personal statement? one that shows an admissions committee just how hellbent you are on working on this writing thing.

of course, that's just my opinion. take it with a grain of salt. in your shoes, though, i'd make sure that even though i'm saying 'bulimia' my readers are seeing 'writing.'

it'll be all about you and your writing and how serious you are about it. serious does not necessarily imply experience, though it does commitment. try to show that.

best of luck.

Further comments?


Anna said...


I think it's OK to talk about the eating disorder in your opening paragraph if you can link the overcoming of it to the discovery of your true passion, writing (which is what you told us in your post). Although, as lizzy said, you want your personal statement to demonstrate your committment as a writer (and don't worry too much about not having an English/lit background... people in MFA programs come from a variety of walks of life) knowing about personal events that had an impact on your writing is what will make you a unique candidate. Congratulations and best of luck.

Victorya said...

I was told to be wary about talking about personal 'disorders' or anything that makes you seem unstable. There are still a lot of stigma's out there and am not sure if the school would worry about relapse, if you could finish the program, etc.

It's wonderful what you've done, but just remember the stigma out there. Oh yeah, and the writing sample matters most!

Lizzy said...

It's my sense that what victorya says has some validity. It's just an impression, and I think there's room for skilled maneuvering. Steve Almond, writing in PW.org's "MFA Toolkit" section, however, thinks otherwise. He holds that one should use one's uniqueness to stand out from the crowd.

To some degree, I'm tempted to agree that his approach should be true for anyone. I certainly didn't shy away from being very honest about selected past troubles. I do think, though, that above all else you have to make a strong case for yourself as writer who's (perhaps) overcome difficulties and whose focus has sharpened because of it. The statement shouldn't be about you as an ex-bulimic/alcoholic/etc. but about you as a writer. If there's room in there for explaining how your unique personal travails have made you the writer you are today, great. Just be very clear on how you're presenting information about yourself that could potentially be misinterpreted.

Again, these are just the opinions of one person who hopes to be helpful. Please take all of what I say with that proverbial grain o' salt. Ultimately, the decision for how to compose that SOP has to be yours.

jaywalke said...

Urg. Not to minimize your struggles, but they seem to be more the norm than an exception nowadays. I don't know if it's truly an epidemic in psychological difficulties or an inflation of problems that have always affected young people, but I can tell you that professors hear an unending tide of woe from students, and they are very tired of it. My wife is a young, upcoming faculty member while I am the the interface between four prestigious faculty and their students. Our social crowd is pretty much only other faculty members, spread across two large state schools, and all of us are very, very tired of hearing about psychology and anti-depressants. If you believe the reports that come across my desk, every bad grade is due to medical mismanagement and each minor difficulty of youth must be examined for its possible emotional disabling capability and balanced by some act of leniency on the part of the faculty.

You can set yourself apart from the pack by, no matter what life throws at you, showing stability, maturity and the willingness to accept the consequences of your own actions. I assure you that those things are in very short supply, and you will find faculty both shocked and happy to help you.

The flip side of that, of course, is that mentioning psychological difficulties will elicit some eye-rolling that you may never see.

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