Without question, the most common place for writers to exercise their freedom in personal statements, as well as the most common place where writers feel uncertain about what they’ve done, is in their beginnings. Even personal statements that are scientific in tone and content might have creative beginnings. Although there’s nothing wrong with a straightforward opening simply stating your purpose, especially if you have just one page for your essay, most writers take a bolder tack. Readers of personal statements are used to openings that tell stories or borrow quotations, essays that discuss relevant current events, and even daring writers who risk a bit of well-conceived humor or surprise.
As the most common creative beginning, a personal story tells a tale by briefly setting a scene, often capturing some formative moment of your past when your interest in your course of study blossomed. Whether setting the scene in a classroom or on a mountaintop, remember that your goal is make readers feel they are there with you, and remember that the setting itself can be a character in your “short story”—influencing both the action and a response to that action.
Here is a perfect example of a lengthy creative beginning that winds its way into a formal thesis statement, excerpted from a Rhodes Scholarship essay in Chapter 5:
Soaked in sweat, I sat deep in thought on the small mound of sand and broken rocks in northern Kenya, where 1.7 million years ago a desperately ill Homo erectus woman had died. Her death had entranced me for years. KNM-ER 1808 had died of Hypervitaminosis A, wherein an overdose of Vitamin A causes extensive hemorrhaging throughout the skeleton and excruciating pain. Yet a thick rind of diseased bone all over her skeleton—ossified blood clots—tells that 1808 lived for weeks, even months, immobilized by pain and in the middle of the African bush. As noted in The Wisdom of the Bones, by Walker and Shipman, that means that someone had cared for her, brought her water, food, and kept away predators. At 1.7 million years of age, 1808’s mere pile of bones is a breathtaking, poignant glimpse of how people have struggled with disease over the ages. Since that moment two summers ago, I’ve been fascinated by humans’ relationship with disease. I want to research paleopathology, the study of ancient diseases, in relation to human culture, specifically sex and gender.
Note how this opening confidently integrates technical detail and even slips in an informal citation on the journey to the thesis. Here, setting acts as a character, moving our story’s protagonist to imagine a woman’s long-ago death, and we also recognize the writer’s seriousness of purpose about her work as she (as a character in the tale) contemplates the woman’s fate from a “small mound of sand and broken rocks in northern Kenya.” Just as she was taken to this important place and moment in her life, we are taken there with her as well through narrative.
Here is another example from an introduction to a student's application to medical school:
When I was little my grandfather gave me piggyback rides, brought me donuts every day when he came home from work, and taught me about nature. A simple farmer who survived World War II and lived most of his life under Russian occupation, he told me why trees grow so high, why I should not pull a cow by its ear, and why I should not chase chickens across the back yard. As fond as I was of him, as I grew and became more educated I also saw how this great man made bad choices about his health. I constantly nagged him about his smoking and poor diet. He loved bacon with eggs and milk straight from the cow. In response to my nagging he would simply say, "Eh, you are so young, what do you know?" One morning after breakfast when I was sixteen, he had a heart attack and died in the kitchen while waiting for an ambulance to arrive.
Here we find a writer who simultaneously evokes the memory of his beloved grandfather and also introduces us to his own sensibility. Simple details about his simple upbringing make up a brief but vivid tale with a tragic end, and thus we understand a very personal motivation behind this writer's choice of career.
Other essays open with much briefer and less narrative personal stories, sometimes relying on just one line to set the context, with the writer heading to a purpose statement shortly thereafter. Here are some straightforward but artful beginnings to personal statements from Donald Asher’s book Graduate Admissions Essays:
I attended seventeen different schools before high school.
I spent the morning of my eighteenth birthday in an auditorium with two hundred strangers.
Radio has been my passion for as long as I can remember.
Clearly, the style of an opening that shares a personal story can range from the flashy to the plain—what matters most is that the opening truly is personal.
Like many writers and readers, I’m a sucker for a good meaty quotable quote, which is part of why quotations are used to open each chapter of this handbook. We tape handwritten quotes on our bathroom mirrors, clip them onto the visors in our cars, and paste them into our e-mail signature lines. In a personal essay, not only do quotes set context for the reader, they also allow you to ride on the broad shoulders of another who actually managed to say or write something that was worth quoting. Quotations might be used at the start of the essay, in the closing, or they might appear at a key moment within the body as a way to set context or emphasize a point. In Chapter 5 of this handbook, a quotation is used as an opening to a science-related essay by an applicant for a National Science Foundation Fellowship. In the same chapter, another writer uses a narrative opening in her essay to repeat a favorite quote that her mother used to say: “To find out where you’re going, you need to know where home is.”
Keep in mind that some quotations are highly overused and that quotations can also come off as merely trite and silly, depending on the taste of the reader. Some find Forrest Gump’s “Life is like a box of chocolates” hilarious; others just groan when they hear it. If using a quotation, be sure that you’re not just propping yourself up on it as an apology for a lack of substance to your text. Comment on the quotation’s relevance to your life rather than just let it sit there, and choose the most meaningful quote for the circumstances rather than one that simply tickles your fancy.
The Use of Surprise or Humor
Indeed, the weapon of surprise is a key ingredient in a Monty Python skit about the Spanish Inquisition (no one expects it, just in case you forgot). But in a personal statement humor and surprise can fall flat in the hands of a fumbling writer. Nevertheless, some writers take these calculated risks, and do so with style. Witness this passage from a sample essay in Chapter 4, as a film student explains how he spent his freshman year in a different major:
With a high school education grounded rigorously in math and science, I entered Mythic University on an academic scholarship with Polymer Science and Engineering as my intended major. I like to joke that, after seeing Mike Nichols’ film The Graduate and hearing that terrific line, “plastics,” delivered poolside to a wayward Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), I was inadvertently led into the hands of the great polymer Satan. But, by sophomore year, I quickly escaped the plastic devil’s clasp and found a new home in the film department.
Here, this student uses self-deprecating humor as many do in the personal statement: to explain what might otherwise look like a curiosity in his background. Readers need not question his devotion to film despite his beginning in the sciences—he even blends the two interests together by being influenced into his initial major by a film, aligning himself briefly and humorously with the hapless character of Benjamin Braddock.
Others use humor or surprise less expansively, but again with the purpose of revealing something personal and using intentional self-commentary. In Mark Allen Stewart’s How to Write the Perfect Personal Statement, one writer quips that his high school classmates voted him “Most likely to have a publishable resume,” which shows that this writer can simultaneously poke fun at and uplift himself. In Donald Asher’s Graduate Admissions Essays. Another writer opens her essay unconventionally with a surprising admission—“Skeletons. Like everyone else I have some hanging in my closet”—then later reveals herself as a “survivor of sexual assault.” Here, the writer’s tone is surprisingly frank, which under the circumstances could help her be viewed as mature and courageous, despite the risk she takes.
Part of what unifies these disparate approaches above is that the writers clearly know they are taking a risk with their rhetoric—there’s nothing accidental or highly cutesy about it. All of them reveal a passion for their chosen fields, and the humor and surprise are attention-getting without being too distracting.
Perhaps a good rule of thumb, then, is this: If using humor or surprise, aim it squarely at yourself without making yourself look silly or undermining your character, and dispense with it quickly rather than push it over the top. No matter how well you tell a joke, some readers may not care for it. And remember that not everyone likes, or even "gets," Monty Python.
It’s often said that one of the best ways to prepare for an interview for a national scholarship is to read The New York Times and be ready to discuss current events. If you make it to the interview selection stage, it’s already clear that you have an excellent academic record and look good on paper. What’s unclear is how you will present in person. By showing yourself to be not just committed to your field but also knowledgeable about the world, you paint yourself as a mature thinker, an informed citizen, a responsible student of life.
In a personal statement, writers typically create topical context by narrating a recent event of some consequence, citing a respected source, or simply establishing an arena for discussion. “Martial arts and medicine,” opens one personal essay from Richard Stelzer’s How to Write a Winning Personal Statement for Graduate and Professional School, using an intentional sentence fragment to grab our attention and to crisply define two intertwined themes in the writer’s life. Other essays—the first from the Asher book and the second from the Stelzer book cited above—lend a sense of importance to their subject matter through topical references:
As I write this statement, Governor Mario Cuomo makes preparations to vacate the Executive Mansion in Albany, New York, after New Yorkers rejected his appeal for another term.
As the United States launched yet another small war in a distant corner of the globe, Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen returned to life and captivated a hometown audience in Pekin, Illinois, with the folksy eloquence that made him nationally famous.
As these politically savvy allusions show, writers who use topical references impress upon their readers that they are both informed and concerned. Here, the color of one’s political stripes is irrelevant—what matters is that they are painted clearly. Whether employing a political reference or citing a current event, when you create topical context you represent yourself as a keen observer of the world.
Writing an essay often seems to be a dreaded task among students. Whether the essay is for a scholarship, a class, or maybe even a contest, many students often find the task overwhelming. While an essay is a large project, there are many steps a student can take that will help break down the task into manageable parts. Following this process is the easiest way to draft a successful essay, whatever its purpose might be.
According to Kathy Livingston’s Guide to Writing a Basic Essay, there are seven steps to writing a successful essay:
1. Pick a topic.
You may have your topic assigned, or you may be given free reign to write on the subject of your choice. If you are given the topic, you should think about the type of paper that you want to produce. Should it be a general overview of the subject or a specific analysis? Narrow your focus if necessary.
If you have not been assigned a topic, you have a little more work to do. However, this opportunity also gives you the advantage to choose a subject that is interesting or relevant to you. First, define your purpose. Is your essay to inform or persuade?
Once you have determined the purpose, you will need to do some research on topics that you find intriguing. Think about your life. What is it that interests you? Jot these subjects down.
Finally, evaluate your options. If your goal is to educate, choose a subject that you have already studied. If your goal is to persuade, choose a subject that you are passionate about. Whatever the mission of the essay, make sure that you are interested in your topic.
2. Prepare an outline or diagram of your ideas.
In order to write a successful essay, you must organize your thoughts. By taking what’s already in your head and putting it to paper, you are able to see connections and links between ideas more clearly. This structure serves as a foundation for your paper. Use either an outline or a diagram to jot down your ideas and organize them.
To create a diagram, write your topic in the middle of your page. Draw three to five lines branching off from this topic and write down your main ideas at the ends of these lines. Draw more lines off these main ideas and include any thoughts you may have on these ideas.
If you prefer to create an outline, write your topic at the top of the page. From there, begin to list your main ideas, leaving space under each one. In this space, make sure to list other smaller ideas that relate to each main idea. Doing this will allow you to see connections and will help you to write a more organized essay.
3. Write your thesis statement.
Now that you have chosen a topic and sorted your ideas into relevant categories, you must create a thesis statement. Your thesis statement tells the reader the point of your essay. Look at your outline or diagram. What are the main ideas?
Your thesis statement will have two parts. The first part states the topic, and the second part states the point of the essay. For instance, if you were writing about Bill Clinton and his impact on the United States, an appropriate thesis statement would be, “Bill Clinton has impacted the future of our country through his two consecutive terms as United States President.”
Another example of a thesis statement is this one for the “Winning Characteristics” Scholarship essay: “During my high school career, I have exhibited several of the “Winning Characteristics,” including Communication Skills, Leadership Skills and Organization Skills, through my involvement in Student Government, National Honor Society, and a part-time job at Macy’s Department Store.”
4. Write the body.
The body of your essay argues, explains or describes your topic. Each main idea that you wrote in your diagram or outline will become a separate section within the body of your essay.
Each body paragraph will have the same basic structure. Begin by writing one of your main ideas as the introductory sentence. Next, write each of your supporting ideas in sentence format, but leave three or four lines in between each point to come back and give detailed examples to back up your position. Fill in these spaces with relative information that will help link smaller ideas together.
5. Write the introduction.
Now that you have developed your thesis and the overall body of your essay, you must write an introduction. The introduction should attract the reader’s attention and show the focus of your essay.
Begin with an attention grabber. You can use shocking information, dialogue, a story, a quote, or a simple summary of your topic. Whichever angle you choose, make sure that it ties in with your thesis statement, which will be included as the last sentence of your introduction.
6. Write the conclusion.
The conclusion brings closure of the topic and sums up your overall ideas while providing a final perspective on your topic. Your conclusion should consist of three to five strong sentences. Simply review your main points and provide reinforcement of your thesis.
7. Add the finishing touches.
After writing your conclusion, you might think that you have completed your essay. Wrong. Before you consider this a finished work, you must pay attention to all the small details.
Check the order of your paragraphs. Your strongest points should be the first and last paragraphs within the body, with the others falling in the middle. Also, make sure that your paragraph order makes sense. If your essay is describing a process, such as how to make a great chocolate cake, make sure that your paragraphs fall in the correct order.
Review the instructions for your essay, if applicable. Many teachers and scholarship forms follow different formats, and you must double check instructions to ensure that your essay is in the desired format.
Finally, review what you have written. Reread your paper and check to see if it makes sense. Make sure that sentence flow is smooth and add phrases to help connect thoughts or ideas. Check your essay for grammar and spelling mistakes.
Congratulations! You have just written a great essay.
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