Lessons Taught and Lessons Learned: Personal Statement Tips I’ve Gathered

Happy Thursday, readers! Most of you probably know that before I graduated college and became a full-time lab tech, I worked at BYU as a writing tutor.

Squad
Spot me among the best coworkers BYU had to offer. 🙂

I worked at the Research and Writing Center for about a year and a half, and a lot of the time I was helping freshmen learn how to do rhetorical analysis. Sometimes though, I helped seniors with grad school personal statements. Blind leading the blind, right? The good news is, we had some great resources in the writing lab, and I learned even more from making a few personal statement writing attempts for myself. This week I wanted to share some of the tips I’ve gathered along the way, in hopes another GC hopeful (or hopeful of any kind) finds them useful!

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Tip 1: Don’t Start with Childhood (or birth, please!)

Please don’t lead with:

” Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been interested in [this field].”

“I’ve always known I wanted [blank] and [blank] as part of my career”

“I was born on [date] in [city]”. (Yes I really saw this a few times)

These phrases, just ugh haha. Starting at the beginning (way at the beginning) is one of the most overused introductions. What you did from birth to high school isn’t a selling point for graduate school, even if the prompt seems to lead you to start there by asking how you developed your interest in the field.

You have limited space to talk about what you’re doing right now that shows you’re qualified for this next step. When talking about the development of your interests, you don’t have to start way back at the beginning. What was a recent key moment when you knew you were on the right career track? What experiences do you have that solidified your desire to pursue the field? When did you know you had something special to offer the field? These are better interpretations of that prompt. Which leads me to…..

Tip 2: Tell a Story that Highlights the Best of You

I always knew to start with a story, but it wasn’t until after my first cycle of applications that I learned that not just any story will do. Last cycle I used two different stories to create two versions of my personal statement. Both were meant to highlight my summer at Myriad Genetics. However, only one of them helped me get any interviews. It began:

“Six days before I was set to run my first marathon, I managed to injure myself in my sleep”.

It then continued on to tell the story of me pulling a muscle in my shoulder on the week of my marathon and being put on strong muscle relaxants, but still managing to run the marathon plus interview for and be hired at Myriad. This story gave me the chance to show how I overcame a challenge and also demonstrate the traits of commitment and flexibility. Then I looped back around to genetic counseling. I imagine that this essay gave the admissions committee great imagery to chew on like…

Image may contain: Laura Cooper-Hastings, standing and text
Me flailing my body in the air after 26.2 miles of pain. 😂

The other essay I considered my safer choice, but like I said, it ended up yielding no interviews. I talked about how my time at Myriad broadened my understanding of genetic counseling, starting by talking about the discussions me and my carmates had in my carpool to and from work. The problem here is I talked about things instead of telling them a story full of images and words to remember me by. I didn’t present myself as strong and unique, just as another candidate who knows some things about genetic counseling. So I say, tell a story! Tell the strangest story! Give your admissions committee (for whatever grad school you’re interested in) something to remember, something that highlights your unique interests and strengths even if they are beyond what is apparently relatable to your field. Your resume, test scores, and grades show qualification. Your essay is a chance to be memorable.

Tip 3: Maintain a Three-to-One Ratio of Challenge to Success

Tales of overcoming challenges can make for interesting essays because they lend themselves to story-telling and showing growth. However, they also can lead personal statement writers into the trap of self-deprecation. For example, one of my school’s prompts this year asked me to talk about the phases of my life that led me to this point. In my case, I had this phase where I spent most of my time spending my dining dollars and redecorating my dorm rather than studying for chemistry exams (freshman year….). And to be honest, I’m still pretty frustrated with myself for that.

Other prompts may even lend further to talking about a time in your life that you struggled; they may outright ask for it! This cycle I struggled to talk about my challenges without airing out my frustration towards myself, which is not the purpose of the statement. An adviser at preprofessional advisement offered this tip: three times as much writing “overcoming” compared to writing about “challenge”. So if I had to write about how unfocused I was as a freshman, and that takes 4 sentences, I have to spend 12 sentences sharing how I got more focused. Not only did that rule help me structure my writing, it made me pare down how much I really wanted to talk about the bad times. With limited space, sometimes half a sentence is enough to establish that you had a challenge, leaving much more space to highlight your redemption arc.

Tip 4: Pick Something From Your Resume and Tell the Story the Resume Doesn’t

So, I’m a Spike Captain at Crisis Text Line. If you’re not familiar with Crisis Text Line, that short sentence means a lot of nothing! And that’s a shame because being spike captain is one of the most stand-out and influential parts of my app. What ever can I do?!

Write about it!!

If you’re applying to grad school, look over your CV. What do you look at and think “I hope they don’t miss this” or “I’m not sure they’ll understand how important this is”. Write about that! Focus there! Statement writers can sometimes try to zoom in on too many activities in the statement, so that it becomes a longer version of the resume. Or worse, they don’t focus on any activity, rather speaking too generally about their strengths and interests. The admissions committee will see your resume! The statement is the chance to highlight one or maybe two things you feel have been most influential on your interests and that have best developed your skills. Covering one activity well works far better than covering many activities in brief.

Tip 5: Show It to Someone in Your Field

One of the most common tips you’ll see on pre-GC blogs and articles is “have a genetic counselor read your statement”. That terrified me. But guess what… genetic counselors are what the admission’s committee is full of! Luckily my academic advisor hooked me up with a GC that was willing to read my statement, because I was terrified to ask! Not surprisingly, feedback from that counselor and from current students was much more helpful than any other feedback. So take a chance and ask someone in your field! Those opinions are going to be much closer to those of your admission’s committee than anyone else’s!

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And that’s it! Those are some of the best lessons I both taught as a tutor and learned as an applicant! I know you all out there have unique and memorable stories to tell, that show you’re passionate about whatever you’re passionate about. (Bonus Tip: Don’t use the word passion in your essay!! Show don’t tell.) If you’ve got any statement tips, feel free to add them in the comments.

As of yesterday I now have 2 letters of rec in to my schools! I have 4 recommenders, but I only need one more recommender to submit for me to have some officially completed applications!! 🎉

‘Til next week!

-Laura Cooper-Hastings

 

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