This essay is connected to a prior post I wrote about helping graduate students become better writers. While not exactly on the same topic, this piece continues with the idea that we need to find more ways to support and help develop student writing in the discipline of English. The following essay takes that as the overarching goal, but I also deliver particular advice about writing the personal statement for grad school applications. If you are here only for the most practical of the writing advice about the personal statement, it starts after the video from Clueless. If you are here for the long haul, here goes:
Last fall I wrote about how in our discipline we don’t focus enough on teaching graduate students about writing and what writing in the profession actually looks like. We think good writers pick up the tools of writing by osmosis. But we should know better, since so much of the coursework in our profession is dedicated to teaching writing. In the composition classroom, we constantly repeat to our undergraduate students that writing is a process, people aren’t just magically good writers, writing is hard work, etc., yet once we get passed the introduction levels when many of our courses shift to more of a literature base we don’t teach enough about writing. As I wrote about in the last post, this lack of attention to writing falls of a big cliff when students enter graduate school and are expected to be able to navigate all of the ins and outs of writing with very little guidance.
I have realized lately, though, that the biggest drop-off in support for student writing might not happen in graduate school but even before that when students start to gather their material for graduate school. Unlike when students are applying for colleges—when the advice is so plentiful it is probably dizzying—the amount of reliable information about graduate school is lacking. I have a theory on this* but my general advice to students looking to go to grad school is to use as many resources, from your professors to writing on the subject, to figure out where you want to apply and how to apply. I know that many universities have workshops about applying to graduate schools and professors who are asked to serve as graduate school advisors for any student in the department interested in graduate school. Make sure you are using all of the resources at your disposal but also be as discerning as possible in your seeking. I have heard a lot of not great advice about applications, and I think some of the most dreadful of it comes with the personal statement. This is especially true if you don’t have access to good mentors and are trying to comb through resources you find yourself.
In the rest of this post, I want to give some tips for one of the most important parts of the grad school application—the personal statement. But before I get into the meat of the discussion, I would like to mention two important elements:
1) I’m not advocating here for anyone to go or not go to graduate school. You have to make up your mind for yourself, but if you are reading this as a student thinking about applying to graduate school make sure you do your research about graduate school and academic jobs in the profession. And if you are advising a student about graduate school, think about how you can best mentor the particular student you are working with.
2) All of my advice is discipline specific. I would guess that it would broadly apply to at least other programs in the Humanities, but I am only speaking from my personal experience in English literature graduate programs (M.A. and Ph.D.). I know what I am talking about, but it is also coming from my own relationship to grad school and the profession.
Below is my advice to students on their personal statement. I believe it will also help those professors mentoring students, but it is addressed to the students themselves. And while it applies to all personal statements in the field, I am specifically addressing undergraduate students who have probably not written these kinds of personal statements before:
Some of the following points might make you bristle a bit because they are a little bit blunt, but it is hopefully practical too. I just want you to succeed, I promise.
Before you write your statement:
- Get as involved in your academic discipline as possible. These are all things that you can do in the year or two before you apply for graduate school. I think a lot of application committees would be interested in you discussing:
- Your senior thesis. If you have the option to write a senior thesis, you definitely should.
- Your involvement in English-specific organizations, such as Sigma Tau Delta.
- Any conference that you have attended.
- If you tutor or work in the writing center.
- If you have been an RA or TA for a professor.
- A student journal that you have worked on.
- If you are applying now and you haven’t done any of the things I mentioned, that isn’t necessarily a huge problem, you can still discuss the coursework you have done and the papers you have written for your classes.
While preparing to write your statement:
- Be skeptical about information you find online. I know you can find out anything from Google, but I have not read a lot of good advice on personal statements on the internet. (If you have gotten here because of a Google search, well, you have to make the big decision whether to trust me or not.)
- The personal statement is incredibly misnamed. It is not personal at all. Rename it in your head: the professional statement. Once you have made this switch, you will have a better understanding of what kind of information needs to go into the statement.
- Think of yourself as a scholar and begin to construct a narrative of your scholarly interests. It will be easy to do this if you are an M.A. student applying for Ph.D. programs, but you should start thinking this way even if you are an undergrad. (Some people will probably argue that this is too much professionalization to ask of an undergrad, but I think this is where we are at in terms of what will impress committees.) When you applied to college, you were most likely trying to be a well-rounded student. You played soccer, were in the school play, took vocal lessons, and maintained a great GPA. The kinds of extracurricular activities that you listed on your college applications and in your college essays don’t matter anymore. You want to construct a narrative of your intellectual history and scholarly interests.
- In order to construct a narrative of your intellectual history, you want to think about the choices you have made in your course work and the other activities I mentioned above. What are the threads that you see in your work? Do you see yourself continually working with the same themes? Are you drawn to particular time periods? Have all the papers you wrote in the last two years been about poetry, or fiction, or…? In other words, close read your own choices as an English major and draw connections in order to see the throughlines.
When writing the statement:
- No one cares if you love literature! I know this is harsh, but I promise you do not need to convince anyone that you love literature. Of course, you love literature; you are applying to graduate school. Leave the section about loving literature in your draft. It doesn’t need to be said to the application committee.
- Do not tell the story about when you first learned to read, or when you first were drawn to literature, or when you decided to become an English major. This is something I have seen over and over again, and I think it wastes time and space in a personal statement. I would just jump right in to what I had to say about my scholarly interests.
- What committees do want to hear about:
- The history of your intellectual career so far. What courses have you taken? What work have you done? What papers have you written?
- How this has combined to give you a trajectory moving forward. In other words, how will you use this past history in grad school?
- What your specific area of interest is. You do not want to study English. You want to study nineteenth-century American literature or contemporary Latinx literature. Be as specific as possible here.
- A specific focus/research plan depending on your program and what level of program you are applying for. You might, for example, outline what you would want to write your M.A. thesis on depending on how the program you are applying to is structured.
- Any teaching/tutoring experience you have that will be applicable to the requirements of your program.
- I think the personal statement should be personalized for each school. What do you know about that school and what do you specifically want to do at that school? Why are you applying there? This can include:
- Professors you want to work with.
- Classes you want to take.
- Organizations you want to be involved in.
- Special collections and archives you want to work in.
- Your long-term future goals. Why are you getting this degree?
- It is important to note that you will not be beholden to any of this. You will not be punished if you say you want to work on a specific topic and once you are in graduate school, you change your mind. Professors want to see that you know what to expect from graduate school and that you will be capable of doing the work. It is okay to shift once you are there.
After writing the statement:
- Send it to your professors to read. Ask them for their thoughts on your drafts.
- Proofread the heck out of it.
- Make sure it is appropriately personalized for each school.
- Send it to the professors who are writing you recommendation letters, so they can write about your plans in their letters.
Those are my main ideas about personal statements. I’m sure people have further tips to give, so I would love to hear it. What is your best personal statement advice? What do you wish someone had told you before you applied to graduate school?
*Academia is full of gatekeeping. One of the first acts of keeping that gate closed is the application process. Of course, applications are by nature ways to keep some people out and let others in. However, a big part of the gatekeeping for the application also has to do with how students are or are not taught to approach the application. Maybe there isn’t a lot of information about the personal statement because people don’t really want you to know—there is some sort of prestige in figuring it out on your own. I don’t really believe in this kind of thinking, so I hope this essay unmasks the process a bit.