Personal Statement Style and Composition Tips

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This article is probably more useful for people who’ve finished several drafts, and are trying to work towards finalizing. Keep in mind, trying to finalize before you’re ready to put “closure” into your personal statement shouldn’t be done. When I speak of a finalized draft, I mean: you’ve drafted (7-10 drafts), worked out your narrative/premises, had plenty of people read it, and tackled the typical grammar issues were already addressed. Then, and only then do I personally find it useful to address style and deeper thoughts of composition; trying to perform these tasks earlier is difficult because you’re trying to hit a moving target — or at least, I’ve found it to play out that way while writing. Adding style, and improving composition is very similar to baking a cake, i.e. it is the heat process that congeals everything together into one unit; remember that if you bake your cake without including some ingredients you’re likely in for a world of hurt once it comes to having a finished product. That was a very long winded way of me trying to impress upon you that you should wait until the end to use these next seven tips:

  1. Make the paragraph the unit of composition, one paragraph to each topic: when I review personal statements it’s common that I find people will, for a lack of better wording, ramble on. It’s a bad habit to just start writing, because you’re just ramble-writing. Conceptually, a sentence, a paragraph, and a essay are not that different in structure: there’s a topic, and you talk about the topic. While it’s perfectly fine to have a nuanced theme throughout, remember that each paragraph you write should have a function — and really some paragraphs have no function.
  2. As a rule, begin each paragraph with a topic sentence; end it in conformity with the beginning: my mentor loved to say “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them”. This seems to work well when you remember this mantra for each paragraph (loosely). The opening sentence of a paragraph introduces the topic, the middle supports it, and the last sentence sums up some type of conclusion while making space for the next paragraph is there is one. Across the whole personal statement, for example mine, you’ll notice I used this structure: the introduction presented a way for me to lay out my premises (tell you what I’m going to tell you). The back story just allowed for that, while allowing me to lay out my premises (tell you), and trying to get you to follow me in the consequences. Then in the conclusion, I just summed up my experiences. I was specific about the pathology of my grandmother and the importance of research, and although it might of felt like new information it didn’t really move away from what I’ve already told you
  3. Use the active voice when appropriate (it usually is): instead of using phrases like, “All of the experiences in the hospital will always be impressed upon me”, it’d be better to say, “I will forever be influenced by my experiences in the hospital”. Sometimes, a passive form is either necessary or better. For example, “[on bad grades] When I first started college, my newly found independence got the best of me”, sometimes the tone is passive on purpose for ‘writerly’ purposes. Though, after that, it would be important to follow up with an “active voice” to use a voice that indicates that I’m taking ownership of those “bad grades”. In general, right in the active voice as possible, then go back and replace things with passive ones selectively. (This ratio of active >> passive isn’t always true, but it’s a good rule of thumb.)
  4. Put statements in positive form: replace stuff like,”While tutoring adolescent coal minors in Mongolia who were not very skilled at reading…”, with, “While tutoring illiterate adolescents in Mongolia…” Notice the first sentence using several words just to say what one word could/would/does do better, i.e. the word “illiterate”. Also, see rule six. 
  5. Use definite, specific, concrete language: please do not say things like, “With great pomp and circumstance, I was elated to be bequeathed the task of drawing blood…”, instead use concrete language, “Drawing blood was the highlight of my day…” Remember, the point of communication is to communicate. Don’t fall into the sophomoric college habit of using 100 dollar words for a 1 dollar idea.   
  6. Omit needless words: often you omit useless words. Use control+f to find: of, have, to, for. There’s probably a lot of those pesky little words you don’t need. For example, “For myself, one of the easiest ways I get rid of all of the extras are to go ahead and have a critical eye review your work”, was full of speed bumps, “For myself, one of the easiest ways I get rid of all of the ‘extras’ are to go ahead and have a critical eye review your work”. So, a quick fix would be to see how many times I can jettison “of” and still maintain the same meaning, typically it’ll even sound better, “For myself, I rid the “extras” with the help of a critical eye”. Sleek.   
  7. Avoid a succession of pointless sentences: what this means is don’t just throw together five sentences taped together to make a paragraph. For example, often I find that when people are explaining their shadowing experience their writing style switches to a crude play by play. If you’re not sure if you’re doing this, just look back at your paragraph and ask yourself was this sentence even necessary? If it’s not necessary, then take it out. Whenever I can make three sentences into one, and it still makes sense I do it. This can be pretty tricky, be it does a lot. 

If you want to know more about this subject, there’s actually a whole book just about rules of grammar and usage. It’s written when American English was still quite civilized: Elements of Styles of Style by William Strunk Jr. Even if you have a friend checking your style and composition, try your best to give them a decent product to start critiquing by doing your best; it’ll make for a more finished product. After doing the finishing touches, run it by your friends again, it should read better — if not, address it.

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