“Way Harsh, Tai”: Writing Advice for the Personal Statement

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 add 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.

 

 

 

 

Waiting for Godot and “Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo”: Genre Pairings

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“Bare” by John Benson

I watched Waiting for Godot in undergrad, I think. It was in a theater class. I think? I don’t have a vivid memory of it, but I do remember how it made me feel. I felt frustrated and trapped when watching it. I didn’t really “get” it, and I certainly did not want to read or see it again. I can’t remember the details and did not want to repeat the experience, but I never forgot how it made me feel.

At the beginning of this January more than ten years after first encountering Waiting for Godot, I was putting final touches on my syllabus for a course in modern drama. I had the feeling that something was missing from the syllabus, which I had crafted in an attempt to span the time period of the course while representing a diversity of voices. What was missing? Well, Waiting for Godot, of course. This realization gave me pause because I didn’t remember exactly having a pleasant time with it in my first encounter. Did I really want to teach Waiting for Godot? Would it be a slog for me and my students? I decided that it just might be, but that it would probably be worth it nonetheless given how much it is still referenced in our larger cultural sphere and how many of the playwrights coming after Beckett were influenced by his work. I put it on the syllabus, and it was worth doing so not only because of how it helped us read the rest of the plays on the syllabus, but also because it gave us a new light within which to read the works we had already encountered. In many ways, it became the center of our semester—the piece that illuminated the rest of the texts.

When I hesitated to put Beckett on the syllabus, I almost violated one of my own teaching rules. One of my rules for reading literature is that you don’t have to like the literature to have something to say about it.* People often think that professors teach literature that they love, and we do sometimes, certainly. However, I also think that liking or loving literature is not really the point in an individual reading of a text. I want my students to learn how to read texts; it doesn’t really matter if they like those texts or not. In fact, liking can often get in the way of critiquing a piece—the literary critic equivalent of kill your darlings—, and we are fundamentally in the literature classroom to analyze texts.

I ask my students to push away from their desire to like texts, but I do recognize that their aim in liking something is often predicated on how I introduce texts (especially with lower level students). One means of getting students into the discussion of a work is to ask them basic questions about their reactions to the text. What did you like about this? And what didn’t you like? Our reactions are the basis for how we interpret and analyze texts, so it is not wrong to ask students these things to get them into a close reading of a text. However, sometimes this approach narrows this response and teaches them that what is most important is if you liked a text or not. In my own teaching, I need to work on making it clear how we shifting from liking to analyzing when interpreting literature. This is important to me because as a literary critic, I fundamentally do not care if I like something that I am working on. And as someone who studies non-canonical texts historically and culturally, I’m not really looking for “good” works of art. I am asking what that work tells us about a moment in time, either within the literary tradition or in a wider cultural sphere. So, sometimes I give my students the, “It doesn’t matter if you like it speech” when they seem particularly unmotivated by a text.

When I was gearing up to teach Waiting for Godot, I had to give myself the “It doesn’t matter if you like it speech,” but I also had to examine why I didn’t like it. I didn’t want to teach Waiting for Godot because of how it made me feel. As an ambitious American who has absorbed the tenants of the American dream (even if I know better, it is still with me), I hate feeling stuck in one place. I want to go, to move forward. I want to know that my work is worth it. That I am working towards a larger goal. The feelings I had about Waiting for Godot are largely the point of Waiting for Godot. The play makes you feel the ennui of waiting—of asking for more—and knowing that not only will it not come but also that you will be in the same place tomorrow waiting and asking, asking and waiting.

Yes, Waiting for Godot gives me my own existential crisis. Once I had this realization, I was left with how to approach this with my students. Would they have a negative reaction to the play? And if so, would that reaction be insurmountable in terms of their desire to engage with the text and interpret it in class. My students this semester are advanced, so I don’t know if we would have struggled with the text regardless of how I approached it. I did find, though, that Susan Sontag’s “Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo” made for an excellent pairing with Waiting for Godot because it took the play that exists nowhere and showed how applicable it was to real experiences. Even if my students weren’t as skilled as they are, I imagine that this would be a very good way to begin a lesson on the play.

American Intellectual and Writer Susan Sontag

I stumbled upon “Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo” when I was looking for literary criticism to pair with Waiting for Godot. I wasn’t looking for a nonfiction text, but when I found it, I thought it might make for an insightful pairing with the play. As the title suggests, the article is about Sontag’s experience directing Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo while it was under siege in the 1990s. This pairing did several things for our class in terms of helping us understand the text. I’m going to outline a few important aspects in the following paragraphs.

The first thing it did was simply introduce the play and its themes. I had students say that they skimmed through the play while reading Sontag’s piece, so they could better understand her point of view on why she decided to stage the play in Sarajevo. Sontag also introduces details about the play that help the reader understand the way the plot of the play works. For example, she notes that because of choices she made in the casting and practical concerns of the theater in Sarajevo, such as the lack of electricity, she decided to only perform the first act of the play. Sontag writes that this decision would work because the second act of Waiting for Godot repeats much of the first act and, in fact, starts and ends in the same place as Act I. Sontag notes, “For this may be the only work in dramatic literature in which Act I is itself a complete play.” This is an interesting concept to ponder. How can half of a play be a complete play? If it is so, what does that mean about Act II? How do we approach reading Act II? Sontag’s words give students a heads up as to how to read the play. I imagine that my students might have been less frustrated by Waiting for Godot than I was because they understood that the meaning of the play was not as closely linked to the plot. They weren’t not as focused on what happens next because they already knew it was more of the same.

Interspersed throughout Sontag’s texts to mark the sections of her piece are quotes from the play. The first quote is “Nothing to be done,” which is the opening line of the play. Even without reading the play, students can think about this line. Why would you start a work of art with this sentiment? Isn’t any work of art about what is done, about what is coming in the work? If there is “nothing to be done,” then why are we reading this at all? The quote also applies to what Sontag was doing in Sarajevo. She had previously visited the city while it was under siege, and she felt she wanted to return, and that if she “went back,” she would find a way to “pitch in and do something.” Sontag got a lot of questions from media in Sarajevo and from friends and colleagues when she was home about what exactly she was doing there and what effect it had. The second paragraph of her essay answers this quite succinctly; she helped make something “that would only exist in Sarajevo, that would be made and consumed there.” Yes, that is a simple achievement, but it was still an achievement for the actors she worked with and the audience that came to see their production. Estragon and Vladimir’s games and skits in Waiting for Godot, seem much more futile, but they still help them cope and if not make sense of, then make use of their situation. The gift of expression is not the biggest gift in the world, but it can help people persist. One of the takeaways of Godot is persistence in the face of lack of clear answers about the future. Maybe Sontag just helped her actors mark time, but even those moments of reprieve “do something.”

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via Adam Muszalski

Waiting for Godot could seem like it is about nothing. Nothing really happens. It ends where it starts and then starts over again. The dialogue is repetitive and hard to make sense of. What could this have to do with anything? Sontag’s piece helps us see that the questions of Waiting for Godot are the questions of humanity. No matter who we are or what we are doing on earth, humans ask themselves questions about their circumstances and situations and try to make sense of their world—even if no one ever gets closer to the truth. The play can ask us to think about these things in a disorientating way, but Sontag helped my students see themselves in the play because she helped them see themselves in the citizens of Sarajevo. One of the questions that people often asked Sontag about her experience was if Waiting for Godot was too depressing to put on in Sarajevo. Sontag replied that people didn’t just want a reprieve from their lives; she writes, “In Sarajevo, as anywhere else, there are more than a few people who feel strengthened and consoled by having their sense of reality affirmed and transfigured by art.” My students went into a reading of the play with those thoughts bouncing around in their heads, and I think it made them more receptive to the play and the lessons it has for its readers. Beckett’s lessons delivered in exchanges, such as, “I can’t go on like this/That’s what you think,” are not lessons in the traditional sense. He does not give us hope to end on, but he does give us two characters who have each other and who work together to fight off despair. That isn’t much, but it is something essentially human.

A lot more could be said about teaching Waiting for Godot, but I wanted to emphasize some of the prep work that went into my approach to the play. I would also love to hear about how people incorporate introductory material and critical essays into their lessons, especially with upper-level students. How much do you prepare your students? What do you let them figure out? How do you see literary criticism working in your classroom? I never really considered a pairing like the one I just described until I happened upon it. What are your best pairings?

*When thinking about liking literature, I looked back to see if I had written about this point in any other PALS post. I don’t think that I have. Perhaps it feels so familiar because I have thought about the point a lot and explained it to many students. However, that I can’t remember if I have written about this before while writing about a play about not remembering is not lost on me. Not for nothing, Waiting for Godot alters your thinking.