Tuesday, September 06, 2005
The Personal Statement
Okay, this week's feature is actually an extension of the mailbag.
Carrie of Oakland, CA promises to "buy six copies of the book" if I answer her questions about personal statements. In particular: What are schools looking for? She also has a friend who insists that applying early will help her chances significantly. She'd like to know if this is true. And, Kelly of Arlington, VA says she is an avid reader of the blog and she also asks about the personal statement, in particular: how much does the statement count within the entire application?
Okay, first of all the personal statement is the second most important item in your application. After the writing sample of course. Though, the writing sample counts about 90% of your selection. If the committee doesn't like your prose or poems, they won't even read your personal statement.
That said, if they do like your writing, then the personal statement can make significant difference. The committee is not only selecting the best writers (by whatever standards they choose), they are also selecting individuals who will work well within the workshop, who will be an asset to the program, and on a very basic level: they want people who play well with others.
I've got an exercise in the book for writing the personal statement, plus advice from current students and faculty, but the short version is: Be formal and friendly. State why you want to attend this particular program and what you hope to accomplish while you're there. Lean toward "learning and practicing the craft" rather than "getting a big book contract." Be specific. Talk about your writing experience in one paragraph, and do come across as disciplined and serious. Don't spend time explaining your writing. They've already read your writing. They know what it's like.
Come across as a real, three-dimensional person. This is the only chance you have to communicate who you are. If you've done interesting things in your life (worked with the Red Cross, taught white water rafting, raised your younger brothers, backpacked in Africa, bartended, worked as an exotic dancer, anything), then I'd encourage you to mention those things in your letter. Talk about what your interests are, even if that's simply reading, playing Ultimate frisbee, and hanging out with your sisters. You can mention your favorite writers if you want, but mention at least four or five if you do. Maybe the committee thinks your favorite writer is an idiot. Give them a few favorites to choose from.
Talk about why you think you'll benefit from the academic environment. Show that you value the process of workshops and other classes. Show that you value feedback and are willing to learn.
Be formal and friendly. I can't emphasize that enough. If you don't know what that means, then you've got problems. Your personal statement is not a text-message or quick email, and it's not a treatise to the royal family either.
Your statement should be no more than two pages, and a page to a page and a half is best.
In answer to the question: What are schools looking for? That's easy: serious writers who play well with other writers. People who take their work seriously and who don't take themselves too seriously.
And Carrie, I don't think that applying early will help you in most cases. I have recently seen - particularly at Arkansas - a sort of "rolling" admission, where you send in your writing sample alone, and if the committee likes it then they'll ask for additional material. These cases are rare, though I think they'll be expanding in coming years, as it seems to be more convenient for both the prospective student and the committee. So, do read the policy of each of your schools. If there is just one deadline for all material, then sending your work in early won't be an advantage. Though, remember that turning it in late will definitely disqualify you. So if you're done a few weeks ahead of time, go ahead and send it in.
Okay Carrie, we'll put you down for a half-dozen books. Anyone else who'd like to buy in bulk, just let us know. Thanks for the questions, and good luck to each of you through this application process.
P.S. I left out what I consider the obvious but here it is anyway: if a school has specific questions for you, definitely answer those in the statement or wherever the application indicates. And, there's a good site for general graduate school statements. It's from the Purdue Online Writing Lab, and it can be found at http://owl.english.purdue.edu/handouts/pw/p_perstate.html