In the application process, the personal statement marks an opportunity to lend a face to the
facts, through what can be a very flat colorless medium: paper and ink. Do not, however, think
of the personal statement as a mini-autobiography, where the emphasis is on listing the facts in
chronological order. Instead, treat the noun on equal par with the adjective; just as important as
the personal content of your essay is its ability to make a statement, to perform as an argument.
Generally speaking, to write in this difficult genre--the personal statement--you need to find a
balance between the descriptive and the analytical. Find ways to generalize out from your life
so that it speaks to others, but do not let abstract arguments supplant the specific detail that
lends authenticity to your beliefs. Narration, storytelling, example, and illustration are all
important rhetorical strategies that help your readers see a face or picture a scene.
Choosing what to write about is the first hard step, but ultimately what will prove more
important is not your handling of what but your attention to how and why. In short, the
personal statement is not a statement about your person; it is a statement about how you think
about your preparation, about your anticipated field, about events or theories someone else
could interpret differently. This is where your voice comes in: the committee reading your
statement wants to hear you think out loud about your selections.
The ultimate challenge becomes this: Can you shape your life, your education, your habits of
observation into an argument? The personal statement will require a combination of
vulnerability and editorial distance, emotional risk and intellectual objectivity. What will secure
this combination is 1) time spent pre-writing, brainstorming the content of the...