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March 9th, 2011

Engineering Your Personal Statement Topic: Do Something Worth Writing

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(Photo Source: Richard Scott)

“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”
-Benjamin Franklin

Saturday Morning Crisis: “What Should I Write My Personal Statement About?”

My phone rings suspiciously early on a Saturday morning.  After reeling in my Blackberry by its power cord, I finally find the courage to confront the blinding light of the phone’s screen.  Caller I.D. reveals that it is my cousin.  As a junior in college, he is in the process of studying for the LSAT so that he can apply to law school next fall.  I have a feeling that I know exactly why he is calling.

“Mike, I know it’s early, but can I ask you a question?”

“Is it about the LSAT or applying to law school?”

“Yeah, how’d you know?”

He proceeded to ask me what he should write his law school personal statement about.  He explained that he believed that his work experience wasn’t impressive enough, especially because he had never worked in any legal capacity.  All he had was a strong interest in criminal law, one year of mock trial experience, and a handful of undergraduate “pre-law” courses.

I tried to help him brainstorm ideas; however, he was convinced that he didn’t have enough to write about.  But with over nine months left before he had to submit his law school applications, I knew exactly what advice I should give him.

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June 27th, 2010

Stumped? Brainstorming Ideas for Personal Statements: How to Effectively Tap Into Your Inner Creativity

Written by admin

(Photo Source: andymangold)

So you have to write your personal statement, but about what exactly?

“I’m great. The End.” ­­­­If it were only that easy, you wouldn’t be reading this.  First things first:

Breaking Writer’s Block

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We all have it. It happens.  Usually, the time we set aside to finish a task like writing a personal statement or essay isn’t the same time that our creative juices are flowing.  Duly noted, now what? I go into more detail about writer’s block in How to Overcome Writer’s Block; however, now, the most important thing to do is to think about your process for writing.  It is much easier to come up with ideas once you have the groundwork laid out for the structure of your personal statement.

Personal Statement Structures (Examples)

Short Narrative (Single Experience):

Now, I’m not saying you need an outline. It is always helpful, but that isn’t what I mean by structure.  What I mean by structure is the angle at which you approach your writing.  For instance, you can write in a narrative style about a particular situation that demonstrates your best personal and professional qualities.  Maybe a company or firm you worked for, a volunteer organization or a business you started might provide a single set of succinct events that contain all the attributes you want to relay to the readers of your personal statement.

Personal Statements are short, so this approach of using a single set of interconnected events which create a concise narrative really takes full advantage of the limited space provided if done properly.  This method will allow you to give interesting details about a certain experience you would otherwise not be able to tell.  It is also an exceptional method for capturing a reader’s attention because inherently everyone enjoys a good story (key word being “good” in that previous sentence.)  A dull story will not help you.

Brief Experience-Building Chronological Timeline (Multiple Experiences):

Sometimes, you just do not have an experience that lends itself to being made into a short daytime Made-for-TV movie like the previous example, meaning it will not translate well into a narrative about a single situation.  In this case if you want to include multiple experiences in your personal statement, you should try the chronological experience-building timeline approach.  Using this method, you will show the reader what led you to the path you are on now, demonstrating reasons for your intentions along the way.  This timeline will not only include what you have done in the past and what you are doing now but also what you plan to do in the future with your degree while you are in school as well as after you graduate.

You will want to start with the first experience that logically began the path you are on now.  You do not want to start with: “Well, I was born, and then I went to grade school, junior high, high school, had my first job, blah, blah, blah…”  This is not interesting and is too much information.  Your personal statement must be short and to the point.

You also do not want to restate your resume; although, using this method, it might be tempting to do so.  Nevertheless, remind yourself that not everything on your curriculum vitae is relevant to the program you are applying to now.  Nor does it really make clear exactly what you got out of those experiences.  Using a brief experience-building timeline will not only show why you initially were interested in each step and what you got out of it but also how it led to the next logical step (aka your next experience on your chronological timeline).

So you might be asking: “Does this mean I need to include every job or experience that might have happened during that period of time?”  The answer is clearly no.  Realistically, for this type of personal statement, you want between two and four worthwhile experiences that transition into each other in a believable manner and all lead to where you are now in your decision to apply.

An example of this could be as follows in your brainstorming outline:

Experiences to use in personal statement about pursuing a law degree to practice intellectual property law in the maritime industry:

  1. Life Guarding – became interested in people’s safety swimming in the ocean at a young age because I knew someone that almost drowned (or my brother was a life guard, etc.)
  2. Volunteer Coast Guard – wanted to learn more about seafaring vessels while saving lives and doing my part as a volunteer.
  3. Sailing Club – as an undergraduate engineering student I became interested in the design of ships and their propulsion technology.
  4. Law Firm – as a legal assistant I worked for attorneys specializing in nautical technology patents, sparking my interest in law, and leading me down the path to becoming a lawyer to pursue intellectual property litigation in the maritime industry.

This example clearly shows the logical steps in the candidate’s path towards going to law school as well as what he wants to pursue during law school and on into his professional career afterward.  Your experiences might not be as clear cut, but many scenarios can work using this method.  The key is that the experiences mentioned build upon each other and lead the reader to believe not only will you be interested in the program for which you are applying but also that you have some experience in related fields.

Theme-Based Personal Statement (Multiple Experiences):

This type of personal statement is self-explanatory.  It can make use of personal as well as professional experiences.  They just all need to be wrapped together under one theme.  There are many themes to choose from such as: personal perseverance over hardships (e.g. financial, family/friend illness or death, prejudice, handicap, etc.), focus of interest (e.g. particular hobby, volunteer work, industry, craft, idea, etc. that can be related to the program or field to which you are applying in a meaningful way), innovative thinking (i.e. how attending the program you are applying for will help you achieve creating an innovative process, device, business, etc.), and many others.

Themes do not have to have any chronological order to their events; however, you may want to organize your ideas chronologically if that makes the most sense.  If not, you should order your experiences in a way that best supports your main theme.

These are just a few methods for structuring a personal statement.  They are not totally exclusive to each other, and they are not an exhaustive list.  They do and can overlap if the writer wishes so; however, they are a starting point for thinking about ideas to use to build your personal statement.  It is kind of like creating a sketch of a painting with a pencil and then filling it in by painting over it, using the lines as a guide to get you started.

How to Overcome Writer’s Block

Written by admin

(Photo Source: Alun Salt)

Writing isn’t easy many of the times we sit down to write.  Overcoming writer’s block at the time that we have it can seem near impossible.

Here are a few tips to help you conquer your creative woes:

Find the locations where you feel the most creative

Find the times of day you feel most creative and write down ideas

You may not want to write your entire essay while you are in the shower in the morning, but if that is where you think of all your great ideas, you may want to keep a pen and paper on the sink counter.  You may not even be conscious of these times.  If this is the case, try to go through your normal routine one day and make note of all the times you are feeling particularly creative.  The next day you should bring some method of recording your thoughts and ideas during these time periods.  Having a notepad, PDA, smartphone, voice recorder, or laptop readily available during these times can make a huge difference.

With all the ideas you have recorded during these creative peaks of your day, you can now begin the brainstorming and writing process without having to start from scratch. (Note: some examples of these creative peaks are right before bed, right when you wake up and certain idle times during the day like commuting when you aren’t doing analytical or conscious decision-making.)

Ask someone who knows you for help with ideas

This may seem obvious, but it is often overlooked.  You may not remember times or events that would make good writing material, but a friend, family member, or coworker might.  Don’t be shy about it.  If writing this essay is important enough to you, you should ask for help at least with ideas.  Thinking of a few ideas does not take much effort on another person’s part, and if they can’t or won’t, try someone else that is familiar with you and your experiences.  You may also want to consult someone that has written the same essay or personal statement for a similar program.

Take a break

If you are tired, burnt out, or just not being productive, taking a break and coming back later can help the writing process.  Not everyone can get their writing done in one sitting, and many times it is preferable to stop work and come back at a time when you can review what you have written with a fresh perspective.  You will be biased towards what you have just written.  Taking a break can help you revise your essay or come up with new ideas to expand upon it.  It will also give your mind time to subconsciously mull over the ideas of your essay.  The term “sleep on that thought” was created for just this reason.

Eat something healthy

There are supplements like Ginkgo Biloba, Siberian Ginseng (also known as Eleuthero Root), Ginger, Fish Oil, Gotu Kola, and Ashwagandha Root that can help with brain function; however, just eating some fresh fruit, vegetables, and whole grains can really help you in the right direction.  Eat a banana, blueberries, or an apple.  The potassium and magnesium in the banana along with the B vitamins in the blue berries and the quercetin in the apple all help with brain function, energy, and alertness.  Eat some salad with various colored vegetables, and eat a piece of whole grain bread.  Ditch the fast food and soda.  Caffeine may keep you awake and the food may taste good late at night, but the crash from the caffeine and your hypoglycemic reaction to sugary soda and starchy take-out will leave you feeling even more tired than before.

It is difficult to think when you are hungry and even more difficult when you feel like you are about to fall asleep.  That’s why eating right while you are writing can make a real difference in the way your body and mind function.  Keep this in mind for those times where a late night snack at a fast food joint may seem both delicious and necessary to keep your writing process chugging along.