The Personal Statement

This post was originally written by Dr. Paul Heilker. All thoughts and ideas expressed below the byline are his thoughts.

By Dr. Paul Heilker

Your personal statement is an articulation of 1) who you are, 2) what your compelling interest is (your exigence), and 3) why other people should care about #1 and #2. It is a critical professional text to develop effectively. You will use some version of it every time you apply for a graduate program, scholarship, internship, or fellowship, every time you apply for a job, a promotion, or a raise, every time you propose a project, every time you apply for funding, every time you speak in public on an important issue, every time you publish your research.

Think about it this way: at a certain point in any search process, all viable candidates are going to have very similar qualifications. They will all have strong credentials: good grades, good letters of recommendation, notable work experiences and internships, etc. What decision makers are looking for is something less tangible, something we tend to call “fit”: how well will this person fit in our organization, our effort, our program? And the only way they can know this is through some version of your personal statement.

Research in professional communications suggests that you will have about 90 seconds to secure the interest and goodwill of the decision maker in any meeting. Consider the “elevator pitch,” a common scenario in professional communications: you find yourself on an elevator with the CEO of a company you dream of working for, and you have 90 seconds to ride the elevator to the lobby to convince him or her to be interested in you and your idea. Or take the first question in almost any interview: “Tell us a little about yourself.” If you don’t have a flexible, well rehearsed version of your personal statement in your toolbox, ready to go, you can never take advantage of these strategic moments (kairos).

And yet somehow we teachers never show you how to compose in this critically important genre. There are several reasons for this, I think. First is that we erroneously think that the easiest thing to write about is yourself. After all, what subject do you know better than yourself? But the truth is that one of the hardest things to do is write about yourself in a way that anyone else will care about (and still not be a braggart or a blowhard). After all, seriously, why should *I* care about *you*? A second reason professors, especially, may be reluctant to help you with this is that as soon as you know how to do this, how to articulate who you are, what your exigence is, and why anyone else should care, you become competition for us: competition for fellowships, jobs, promotions, raises, funding, space on a conference program or in a journal, etc. It is to our advantage to keep you mystified about all this, all the way through your PhDs, should you care to go on that long.

So let us rectify this unfortunate state of affairs. I invite you to write a personal statement of approximately 1250 words (the standard size of these statements for graduate program and fellowship applications). While these statements can take any number of forms, I would like you to use the following general outline, which elucidates a focused narrative arc of your life, because I have seen this format work quite effectively over the years:

A) Begin with a brief intellectual biography. Explain how you got to where you are now as a thinker, or scholar, or activist, or professional in your field of study. Who or what influenced your path to this point? How, exactly, did this person or persons, did this event or these events, change you, influence you, move you in your particular direction? This is the beginning part of your narrative arc.

B) At this point in your life, explain as best you can where you think you would ultimately like to end up, what you would ultimately like to be doing in your vocation or avocation. In the best of all possible worlds, what is the dream job you would like to have? What is the good that you would like to do in the world? What is your personally compelling interest? What is the thing that you seem to be put on the planet to do? By the time we are done with this statement, the connections between A and B should be obvious, natural, “but of course .” This is the concluding part of your narrative arc.

C) Explain how the opportunity you are applying for (this particular graduate program or job or scholarship or funding opportunity or . . . ) will help move you from A to B, from where you are to where you want to end up. Please note that you will each choose something real here, some actual assistantship or internship or summer job or other opportunity you will actually go for at some point in the near future. By the time we are done with this section, you will have articulated how this real world opportunity at hand is precisely what you need to move from where you are to the where you want to end up, how it will enable you to do the work you want to do in the world, why you are such a good fit for this organization or program, why they should care about you (and care about you more than they care about others). An effective job on C shows what’s in it for *them*, what *they* can expect to get out of the deal.

As I have done in the past, I would be happy to review your drafts and give you suggestions about how you might improve your statements. You can contact me at pheilker@vt.edu.


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