Cassie Book, Associate Director
There’s no shortage of advice about writing your personal statement for graduate school applications on the University Writing Center’s blog or website. Our past writing consultant bloggers have tackled the personal statement from several angles:
We also have a handout on personal statements, which comes in handy during appointments.
With so much great advice, you should be good to go, right? No? In my experience, both as a writer and a consultant, the most difficult aspect is getting started. So that’s what I’d like to write about today: moving from nothing to something on your personal statement or statement of purpose.
We do have a helpful FAQ about getting started on personal statements, so I’d suggest checking that out too. However, here are three strategies, adapted for this particular writing task, to jump start your process. These strategies will work best after you’ve reviewed genre basics about personal statements and the instructions for your specific program applications.
- Freewrite: Prompt yourself with an open-ended question such as “Why am I interested in this specific program?” and set a timer for five or ten minutes. Keep your pen or pencil moving on the page or your fingers typing on the keyboard. The point isn’t to produce coherent writing; the point is to work yourself up to an idea you can build on later.
- Start a shoe-box collection: If you have time, take a day, week, or month to let ideas for your personal statement simmer in your mind. When an idea or experience comes to you, write it down and put it in a box or envelope. When it comes time to draft, you’ll already have a few starting places.
- Create visual or a map: Generate ideas visually either with a paper/pencil or a digital mind map. You might find that approaching the project visually loosens your writer’s block and helps you see the personal statement in a new light organizationally and logically.
Getting started is not a problem unique to personal statements. The difference with personal statements is you can’t distract yourself from writing with reading or research. Writing a personal statement always comes back to thinking about constructing yourself with words, and that is what you’re trying to avoid! No matter how much anyone says “just start writing,” sometimes you just feel frozen.
This is a moment where the Writing Center can be a huge help in your writing process. When I talk with new peer writing consultants about their job, one of our first discussions centers around the various roles a writing consultant can play. One of those roles is the motivational coach. And this is the role we’ll play for you as we help you get started on your personal statement. You don’t have to write anything beforehand, just schedule an appointment to brainstorm and bounce ideas off someone else. Bring your personal statement instructions, and we’ll have a low stakes conversation to help you generate ideas.
Another opportunity the University Writing Center offers is the New Year. New You: Personal Statement Workshops in January. The workshop will be designed to help you even if you haven’t gotten started yet. We’ll talk about personal statements in general, give you some prompts for getting started, and look at a few examples.
So, if you know that you’re applying to graduate school in the next few months, but you’re having trouble getting started, let the Writing Center do what we do best: talk with you. Schedule an appointment or stop by one of our workshops in January. You do have to write about yourself, but there is no reason to do it alone.