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!

*****

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!

*****

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

 

Advertisements

Staying Sane: Mental Health as an Applicant

Sometimes I think about just how much effort it took to be rejected from GC school. Between applications, interview travel, the GRE, and sending transcripts / scores, my first cycle cost about $3000. It also took about 9 months. But more than anything it was extremely taxing on my mental health. As a crisis counselor, I know just how much people in counseling and healthcare fields experience challenges with their own mental well-being. The other GC applicants and I are certainly no exception.

That mental exhaustion has started to rear it’s head again as I’ve been wrapping up my applications this week. It reminded me that I need to get ready to be kind to myself and maintain self-esteem through this grueling process. So I wanted to write about the parts of the process that are most stressful, and some ways to self-care.

Things that are stressful about the process:

  • Every school charging you like $70 to look over your app
  • Wanting the personal statement to be perfect
  • Having to pester busy recommenders several times (!!!!)
  • Still keeping up with work / school / whatever your daily grind is
  • INTERVIEW OFFER (+ rejection) SEASON
  • Mentally calculating your odds of matching, by several different complex algorithms
  • Traveling to interviews (see below)

I took this selfie onboard the first leg of my flight to my Rutgers interview– my flight from SLC to Detroit. It landed at like 10 pm, and hour behind schedule, and by all accounts I should have missed my flight to Newark. Life Pro Tip, btw: If you are connecting between two flights on the same airline, they will almost always hold the second plane until all of the connectors make it on. It’s cheaper than rebooking you.

Continuing the list:

  • People asking if you’ve gotten accepted yet but it’s February
  • Interviewing with v important people! (Current / former members of the National Society of Genetic Counselor’s Head Leadership, Program Directors, Other nationally recognized GCs)
  • Waiting to hear anything
  • Other application and interview disasters not otherwise specified 😂

So I’m saying it’s pretty easy to get burnt out. Last cycle interview offer season was really hard for me. I started off with an interview offer, then two days later, two rejections. As rejections and awkward waiting limbos piled up, I found it harder to sleep, eat, and generally care for myself. With so many stressful parts of the application process, I wanted to share some things that I did and want to do to maintain balance and self-care. I hope someone out there going through the same thing finds this helpful! Rather than a comprehensive list of activities, here’s 3 principles I use for building a grad school app season self-care plan– no matter what program you’re applying to. (Or even if you’re not an applicant at all, rather a caring friend or family member who reads this blog to support me. I see you and I thank you.)

#1: Plan Not-Related-To-Grad-School Events to Look Forward To

Especially in the interview and waiting for Match half of the application process, it can really feel like your whole life waits upon Match Day. Living that way can decrease hopefulness about the future and make life feel empty post-match. To combat this, last year I calendared a couple of fun events for after Match Day, including Disneyland, our family trip to see a musical in St. George, and the Utah Valley Half Marathon. These events gave me something to look forward to, even if it wasn’t grad school. This year, I’d also like to plan some good events for January-March so that it’s not like my life is completely devoid of adventure beyond trips to interviews. Who wants to take me to try skiing or snowboarding for the first time before I maybe move away from the snow??

#2: Build a Caring Community

You can find an online community of struggling applicants for basically any grad school admissions type. Med, Dental, PA, and yes even GC have forums and subreddits devoted to talking about the field and getting through the stress. These forums are not right for everyone though! The opportunity they offer to compare yourself to other applicants can be more stress than it’s worth. At the same time, they offer the support of others in the same situation. My recommendation to anyone applying to any grad program: if you’re feeling alone try these communities. If you’re already feeling stressed stay away haha. I used to be a pretty active poster in those GC applicant communities, but I’ve tried to stay away more often this cycle. I am friends on social media with several of the people I met on the forums though, so I still don’t have to feel alone. These communities and the people in them can be great resources if used effectively.

#3: Always Be Improving

Counter-intuitive, right? Push yourself to remain unstressed? What kept my stress down most last cycle was having new activities I was doing that I was proud of, including starting at Primary Children’s and at Crisis Text Line. Even taking on more responsibilities at work made me feel like I could see myself being happy and fulfilled even if I had to stay another year. Always be on the lookout for ways you can better yourself and find fulfillment in your current situation. Then, getting in won’t make or break your future, just momentarily change your path.

I hope someone out there finds all of this helpful, and I think it was so needed for me to remember these principles of self-care as well. Talk to you next week, and seriously drop me a comment or DM if you want to teach me how to do a winter sport this winter!

-Laura Cooper-Hastings

What Happened Last Cycle: A Quick Breakdown

Before we embark too far on my journey into my second year applying, I thought I should share what happened last time, in brief.

Last cycle I applied to genetic counseling schools while I was still an undergraduate. I knew I for sure wanted to be a genetic counselor and I didn’t want to take any gap time before getting my Master’s of Genetic Counseling degree. I applied to 10 schools and interviewed at 2, one in New Jersey and one in South Dakota. That means I received 8 (!) rejections without an interview!

However I had the most wonderful and interesting interview experiences like this

This was coincidentally my first time in a bar. The bar was also a Chinese restaurant on Times Square.

And this

Did they steal BYU’s Motto?!

A medical school interview tip book I’m reading states that many students overestimate their ability to interview and that is so the truth for me. I thought if I’m just confident and show my love for GC, they will love me back. Not the case! The whole process was fun and new and it made me come off excitable. I was so excited to be there, I didn’t ask questions showing that I wanted to find out if it was the right program for me. Even though I showed enthusiasm, I didn’t show the kind of thoughtful, collected maturity these schools look for. Having interviews and feedback last cycle played in huge role in knowing what I want to improve this cycle.

As I said, I was thrilled to visit both of my schools. Beyond that, I won’t speak to my particular impressions of these schools or any schools I will visit this cycle, because they are only my personal opinions based on limited experience. I will say that I am very lucky that I got to experience two completely different programs with different values and culture, and I developed a better idea of what types of programs I should apply to this year. Even the schools I didn’t interview at gave me feedback about what they were looking for. I learned what to improve, and whether I wanted to try for that school again.

As I previously mentioned, last Match Day happened on my graduation day. Getting notice that I hadn’t matched, while trying to celebrate graduation, wasn’t easy. There were advantages to this set up though. My whole family found out at once, so there was no repeating the bad news, at least not to them. Also Match Day really can never get worse than ruining graduation, so it’s all looking up from here. I’m also quite grateful that we scheduled a self-care Disneyland trip for the weekend immediately following Match Day.

Now that you’re caught up, I’m planning on expanding the scope of my posts from my own story to topics covering everything about prepping for genetic counseling and graduate school. I’m hoping to not only keep my own friends and family updated, but also share my blog widely to become a resource for other pre-GC students. In a world where there are hundreds of books, YouTube channels, blogs, and Instagrams about pre-med / med school life… We need at least one speaking for genetic counseling amiright?!

So for the next few months I’ll share weekly posts of both personal updates and info that could be helpful for others like me. Then starting in January there might be news about interviews (and rejections haha!)

I hope you’ll all stay along for the ride!

-Laura Cooper-Hastings

“When Do You Hear Back?!” : Life as a 2nd Year Genetic Counseling Applicant

I am a second year applicant.

In the genetic counseling applicant community, that statement is a badge of courage. Yet it’s one that no one wants. First year applicants look to second year applicants for wisdom… but it’s mostly hoping that maybe they can avoid the same awful fate. I have tried for months to hide my rejection from my first round applying to genetic counseling schools. But now I want to invite others into my story as we journey together to find out what the next chapter will be. This cycle, from now until next April, I will share here my highs and lows, interviews, rejections, awkward limbo waiting games, and more. I’m not ashamed of the struggle to reach this goal.

To be a genetic counselor is to take genetic knowledge out of the lab and straight to the people who need it most– patients with genetic disease in the family. The daily work relies heavily on principles of counseling and psychology as they help families cope with the genetic world. As a genetics-lover and a longtime crisis counselor, I am still in awe every day that somehow there is a perfect career for me.

When something’s so perfect, there’s always a catch. The catch in this case is the 8% acceptance rate to each genetic counseling program. In any given year about 70% of applicants will not receive offers of acceptance from any school. Beginning last year, genetic counseling schools began participating in The Match, which uses a computer algorithm and rank order lists to find the best possible “matches” between schools and applicants they interviewed. I’ll write a post all about it here soon. It’s an 8-month long process from start to finish and many applicants repeat the process 2-3 times before acceptance.

It’s been 5 months since I found out I didn’t match last year, and I still have people ask me when I’ll hear back from the schools I interviewed at, when and where we are moving, etc. It’s a struggle for people to understand that I could be rejected from every school. Luckily, now I can tell them: Next April! Last year I got rejected from GC School at my college graduation. Like literally standing in line to walk across the stage. Check out the #sadgrad picsadgradhaha.jpg

Me and my husband at my grad, featuring my completely faked smile.

It was the worst day! But this year I’m going to make Match Day the best day, or at least write a lot of blog posts as a try to. My message is: it’s okay to struggle to reach your goals, it’s okay to own your roadblocks, and it’s a great time to try to become a genetic counselor.

I’ll post updates weekly, even before anything really happens! I’ll talk about applications, shadowing, Match, interviews, counseling experience, and more. Thanks for joining me.

-Laura Cooper-Hastings