Many students come to me when they are at a loss. They have worked on draft after draft, corrected every misplaced comma and spelling mistake, and chose each word meticulously. They have great topics and great experiences to choose from. So, “why isn’t this working?”
The most common mistake I’ve encountered, even including grammar and syntax, is disorganization. There are too many things to say, not enough words to say them in, and they’re in a rush to say them all.
I’ve discussed in a previous post the idea of the personal statement being a form of branding. Now, I’m taking it one step further. With a personal statement, you are asked, essentially, to devise an argument: you are asked to argue why you are an ideal candidate for the admitting class. Regardless of what you end up writing your personal statement about, or how you decide to go about the statement itself, your end-goal is to make this argument, effectively. That is, your goal is to convince the admissions counselor of your side of the argument– which is, of course, admittance.
So, how does one make this argument, effectively?
One of the principles of rhetoric, according to our ancient Greek friends, is disposito, or arrangement– the organization of the argument itself. A large part of the compelling, persuasive strength of an effective argument lies in this organization– the clarity of not only what you’re arguing but also of how you’re arguing it.
With that said, the best way to organize your essay (and your entire thought process, too) is to make an outline.
I know, I know– outlines are usually stressed when talking about writing papers or much longer essays, but they are just as applicable to personal statements.
When you write an outline, all sorts of magical things happen. You will not only be able to organize your essay, but you’ll also be able to fully flesh out what your topic is, in a clear and succinct way.
Many students write about their work/school/life experiences, leading to some sort of conclusion as to why this has brought them to a particular point. Sometimes, this may be about an obstacle or problem of some sort– whether it be professional, academic, or personal– that had lead to a life change or achievement or development of a particular skill set. Others may forgo this model and choose to write about an anecdote that highlights their personal qualities or work ethic.
Regardless of what your topic is, you have to expand upon it enough to create a framework, a structure around which you will build your statement. It, in other words, has to form your main argument.
Experiences —> Problems/Issues Raised —> Solution
This is a quick mock up of a diagram I had drafted up for one of my students. To create this, I took her topic (how working as a case worker in foster care has led her to pursue legislation) and boiled it down to its most basic elements– through her experience, significant issues and obstacles were raised, leading her to propose a solution. The purpose of this diagram is to visualize an argument structure. Seeing how your argument is formed, even in the most rudimentary way, makes writing your statement remarkably easier. Creating a visual can be all the difference between setting up the foundations to your statement and staring at a blank page in a panic.
Once you create a diagram of your argument, you’ll start to see a theme, or even a number of themes, present in your statement. Whether it’s your love for community-building or your own sharp aptitude and drive, these themes will build upon the framework you’ve just created.
These thematic elements are the pieces you will use to build upon your framework– they form the muscular system on top of the skeleton. Together, they are the solid core of your argument. The rest of your statement– the specific examples, quotes, or other creative elements– will be organized around this core. This is when your outline comes in.
How you outline your statement is up to you– you can use a (albeit more advanced) linear diagram like what I had just shown you or simply a bulleted list. For those looking for a more spatial outline, I advise not to use a brainmap as it will be too confusing and unstructured (but I definitely recommend using one during topic formulation). Either way, you want to use an outline to further visualize how your argument will unfold. With everything– your argument and its structure and the specific examples used to develop your story– laid out in front of you, you will be able to organize your ideas and your thoughts better. (Whew!) From there, you can begin to piece your statement together, with a clearer sense of direction and a much-clearer head.