In today’s culture, there is no greater sin than to be a phony. No offense to the lawyers out there, but Holden Caulfield said it well:
“Lawyers are alright, I guess — but it doesn’t appeal to me”, I said. “I mean they’re alright if they go around saving innocent guys’ lives all the time, and like that, but you don’t do that kind of stuff if you’re a lawyer. All you do is make a lot of dough and play golf and play bridge and buy cars and drink Martinis and look like a hot-shot. And besides, even if you did go around saving guys’ lives and all, how would you know if you did it because you really wanted to save guys’ lives, or because you did it because what you really wanted to do was be a terrific lawyer, with everybody slapping you on the back and congratulating you in court when the goddam trial was over, the reporters and everybody, the way it is in the dirty movies? How would you know you weren’t being a phony? The trouble is you wouldn’t.” – Holden Caulfield, from The Catcher in the Rye
Perhaps the most difficult part of writing a personal statement is the beginning, that space in which you determine what you are going to write. I used to scoff at the idea of planning or pre-writing for personal statements. “It should be organic and authentic,” I would say to myself as I sat down in front of the blinking cursor, and I would proceed to type out anything that came to mind about career, life-goals, faith, aspirations, and ambition. It was terrible stuff and I inevitably found myself back at the blinking cursor on a blank page. For each personal statement, I must have found myself scrapping the entire thing at least six or seven times.
Certainly, good writing requires a lot of writing and re-writing; there is no shortcut to that. However, those applying to STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math) who approach writing papers with a certain trepidation may feel especially handicapped. Even those who are grammatical and stylistic specialists find these aspects of the personal statement intimidating and may find themselves caught in a similarly frustrating cycle of edits that lack a sense of redeeming value.
What I found was that in wanting to sound authentic, I actually sounded like a phony. It seemed that the more honest and personal I strove to be, the more cliched and superficial my prose became. For whatever reason, it didn’t feel good enough to simply articulate what I wanted to become and why; I felt compelled to justify myself as well. In the many, many re-writes I did, I consistently noticed that my insecurities would bleed into my writing and that, though the expression of these was genuine and deeply personal to me, they sounded immensely superficial in retrospect (and to my external reviewers, editors, and admissions deans as well). The trouble was that, like Caulfield’s lawyer, the more I was concerned with not looking like a phony, the more trouble I had distinguishing myself from one.
This process of venting insecurity is the most necessary and most troublesome part of starting a personal statement. Everything else about good writing is technical and can be corrected with time and a patient editor, but the struggle to distinguish between an internal sense of idealism & justice versus a need to be affirmed & validated is not to be underestimated. As in life as it is in writing, it can become emotionally taxing and will inevitably taint our lives (and writing!) if not dealt with meticulously from the outset. This is important because application reviewers usually do not want to hear about our internal struggles even if we think that they do. They may want to acknowledge that the conflict has occurred and that we have dealt with such demons, but they do not want to hear about the cosmic struggle itself!
What I found to be helpful was to simply deal with these issues in the pre-pre-writing stage. While I found the writing and re-writing process helped me deal emotionally with these issues, I probably could have saved myself (and my reviewers!) lots of time and angst by praying about these thoughts and informally scribbling them down on blank sheets of paper. Whether I arrived at an epiphany on my life plans or found myself further puzzled as to my next steps, it would have helped with some emotional catharsis and distance in venting insecurity and perhaps saved myself from the innumerable rounds of frustrating and ultimately unsatisfactory edits that came later.
Some exercises you might find useful in this pre-pre-writing stage would be to sketch out the main points of your statement to different audiences to start with. When prompted with a topic, such as, “why do you want to go to graduate/professional school?”, write (or talk) out a few points as if you were talking to:
- A close friend
- A family member
- A distant acquaintance you are catching up with
- God through prayer
and THEN sketch it out as if you were talking to:
- A stranger
- A faculty mentor
- A colleague
- An admissions board
I often found myself reversing this order. The application became the prompt for me to wrestle out more details of my personal life and issues, having jump-started the process because of an arbitrary date in an application cycle. I found myself struggling with questions of identity and insecurity earlier than I was emotionally prepared to and found myself using that as a way to meander back to dealing with these issues internally through conversations with friends or through prayer. Emotional lability then leached its way into my application, which I had intended as a positive reflection of process but was instead perceived (and perhaps appropriately so) as indecisiveness, instability, and perhaps even proselytizing.
Of course, you might be in the fortunate and opposite position of having already dealt with your insecurities and ambiguities. You may have the opposite problem where you have already determined how and why you want to go to graduate school and are instead looking for advice on how to share enthusiasm for your field and your faith in your personal statement. In that case, consider doing the same exercises… and wait for the next post.