Getting Personal: Tips on How to write a Personal Statement

By Giannina Ong

As English majors, we often find ourselves separating the “I” from our classwork. This maintenance of objectivity is an illusion, of course; everything we write is something we personally think to be true. The falsehood of objectivity within my typical coursework made beginning to write my personal statement or cover letter difficult. I began (falsely) by thinking, What do I want people to know? 

The problem with that? I am always writing about what I want people to know, whether it's about Shakespeare, television, women, popular culture, etc. In a classroom setting, I was separated from the ownership of those ideas and thus, when I began by writing what I wanted people to know, I wrote distant quips about the realities of the entertainment industry and of the influence of popular culture — all things that I care about, but nothing really about myself. 

There is something very daring about the nonfiction that I read as Nonfiction Editor of the Santa Clara Review. The stories are so nakedly intimate; even if it's an essay, the author is putting a part of their mind/body/soul out there for us to view and at times, judge, and more often, understand. (Often, the comments I send out ask that authors provide more of this sense of intimacy.) 

In a personal statement, you need to write about yourself. On the surface, it seems so simple. But for someone who hasn’t written a sentence with a first-person pronoun in a while, it can be startlingly tough. Add on to that the virtue of humility, and I can’t even name the best parts about myself without blushing and feeling embarrassed.

Expose yourself. Not the cringing details that you intend to bring to the grave with you, but in a way that an observer would, and then dive deeper and analyze who you are from your perspective. Why do you think that way? What experiences have you had that formed you? Then tie in what you want people to know coming from your personal standpoint; I know, it's such a subjective bedrock to sell yourself from (but everything is truly subjective). 

Next, I will discuss how your personal statement/cover letter should operate. Because it is not just enough to know yourself and talk about who you are. Yes, it’s a niche audience and specific genre, but also a great life skill to have.