Student Academic Grants and Awards

Personal Statements: Getting Started

"The best advice I received about writing the application was to 'freewrite.' I just sat down at the computer and filled up the page. This made it much easier to tell my story."      - 2001 Truman Scholar

The easiest way to begin is simply to start writing. Don't start with the object of "writing the personal statement;" and don't worry about making it the right length-that can come later. Just write honestly and truthfully about yourself and the significant moments and people in your life.

Understand that you will write multiple drafts, and give yourself permission to write very very badly. Chances are the first, second, and even third drafts will be just awful, and that's OK. Spill it out on the page, let your sentences romp, pretend you're Faulkner and you've never heard of commas and periods. Don't worry that if tomorrow you are hit by a truck and friends read through your papers, that they will find your personal essay drafts and decide that you are a fraud. The truth is, perfection is not lovable anyway.

"I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it."

- Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Only after you've written some really terrible drafts will you be ready to begin sifting, organizing, and revisioning your life story.

Keep some basic principles in mind as you go:

There is no such thing as a model for a personal statement.
Samples of other applicant's personal statements can help you see how they tackled the problem of explaining themselves to the world, but your personal statement is yours alone. Only you can write it, and it must be specific to you. That doesn't mean it must be absolutely unique and the ideas you express must be totally original. It does mean that it must be honest, sincere, and convey something about your ideas, your beliefs, and your experiences that lists of activities and the praise of recommenders cannot. Capture the passion you feel, and don't worry about whether the committee has heard it before.

Everybody has a story.
Maybe you didn't endure a traumatic childhood, or spend a year in Bosnia working with refugees, but you have had experiences that are interesting and have been formative to your development as a person and a scholar. Don't worry about whose stories are most important or most interesting to committees--just tell yours.

What's your line? Telling your story chronologically may help you to remember key moments and turning points, but there are more compelling narrative techniques. What are the threads that tie together the separate pieces of your life? What questions about the world do you find yourself consistently attempting to explore? Was there a moment where you just knew you had discovered what you want to do next?

Think strategically.
You can't reveal everything about yourself in 1000 words, so you must decide what personal characteristics to emphasize in your statement. What are the most important life experiences, service activities, values, and ambitions that define who you are? What do you most want a committee to know about you?

Questions to ask yourself:

  • What's unusual, special, and distinctive about me? What events, people, or family history have shaped and influenced me? What would help the committee better understand me?
  • When did I first become interested in my field of study? What have I learned since then? What have I learned about myself?
  • What drives me, motivates me--in my field of study, my projected career, my life? What makes me tick?

For more excellent writing advice on personal statements in general, and on the Truman application in particular, see http://www.truman.gov/advice/.


Adapted from material authored by
Jane Curlin, Program Manager
Morris K. Udall Foundation