“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.

 

 

 

 

Digital Literacy and Women in Knowledge-Building Systems: #MOWomenOnWikipedia

PALS Note: We welcome this contribution from Megan Peiser on using Wikipedia in the composition classroom. Peiser holds a doctorate from the University of Missouri and is the creator of the Novels Reviewed Database, 1790-1820. Find more information about Megan here

Class: Digital Literacy and Women in Knowledge-Building Systems: #MOWomenOnWikipedia

Level: Intermediate Composition

Class Demographics: 15 students. ¾ of class upperclassmen

Classroom: Computer Lab

This past semester my Intermediate writing course also became a history course. Our focus was digital literacy, and I wanted my students to participate in digital writing, to do quality writing that required research, and to have a piece of digital writing they could put in a portfolio at the end of the semester. I also wanted them to participate in a digital writing community. So, we joined a movement to put more articles about women on one of the worlds most visited websites: Wikipedia.org. Wikipedia’s own research shows that women editors make up only 9% of their contributors, that articles about women are severely lacking, and that these articles are more likely to be tagged for deletion than those about their male counterparts. And while students have been warned not to use Wikipedia.org for most of their academic work, it does have significant cultural value. The average college-educated American uses Wikipedia as a resource to check facts, or look up quick information on a new topic. Many users worldwide are getting basic information about current events and history from Wikipedia. So, the lack of representation of women on the site contributes to an idea that women don’t contribute to their communities, that women don’t have achievements worth celebrating, and that women are invisible people in our human record. Our class hoped to help change this for Missouri women.

Prewriting Work

We collaborated with several groups across the course of the semester, including the Missouri State Historical Society and our University Library, to write articles about women from Missouri history. The organization that supported us the most was the Wiki Edu Foundation. They were easy to partner with—all I did was send an email and they set up a dashboard for my class and assigned me a WikiEdu support representative. The dashboard is completely customizable. I chose from modules that WikiEdu had already set up, which included readings, training videos, and practice exercises for my students. I created my syllabus in their “Timeline” feature, using some of the assignments they provided and adding some I wanted my students to work on. I was also able to list reading assignments and set deadlines in the dashboard. Students login with a code WikiEdu provides, and you can also track their contributions to Wikipedia.org. This way, even if another Wikipedia editor changes the students’ writing contributions, you can still view their work to grade it. WikiEdu assignments, like practicing writing in your user sandbox, how to post your article live, how to contribute to article talk pages, and how to cite references, were really useful. I added assignments that focused on analysis of Wikipedia pages that already existed about women and research-based assignments to give students work milestones. The side also provided an “impact tracker” so that our class could see our contributions to Wikipedia in a live-counter.

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While slowly learning Wikipedia.org editing skills in outside assignments, when our class met we held discussion about women in knowledge-building systems. We started the semester with John Warner’s “Why Can’t My New Employees Write?” Inside Higher Ed (June 29, 2016), an essay that focuses on making decisions as one of the hardest parts of writing. It set the tone for the course—I didn’t give much guidance on what would be enough of an article to count for a grade. I let the students decide: was your contribution enough? How should you organize it? Should you add a picture? We also read Jack Lynch’s You Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf From Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia (2016) on knowledge-building systems. We watched video interviews with Adrianne Wadewitz, who served on the board of the Wiki Education Foundation and began the movement to get Wikipedia writing into collegiate classrooms. We discussed the hostility women experience when working in online spaces like Wikipedia.org, and how the gender-gap on Wikipedia hurts all of its users because it provides only part of the story. We also discussed carefully the language we use when we write about women online, and how these microaggressions influence the ways worldwide cultures think about and understand women’s positions in the world. Students had no trouble finding real-world examples of these microaggressions and their implications: from the way that female Olympic athletes’ bodies were described to reporting on women politicians.

Writing Articles

Each student chose a woman from Missouri history that did not have a Wikipedia page. They conducted research along Wikipedia’s parameters (secondary sources only, reliable sources—no blogs, or opinion pieces) to show that their person was “notable.” Wikipedia’s notability requirement was also a topic of discussion in our course. Their parameters about a person’s notability are themselves rooted in gender-bias, and students were appalled to learn that their articles could be tagged for deletion if other Wiki-editors didn’t think their person merited a Wikipedia page. It made for great discussion on how systems can be inherently biased toward certain marginalized groups and encouraged the students to work to ensure the stability of their pages.

Because the students had already practiced using Wikipedia.org, they had made the site’s required 10 edits to authorize them to create new pages. We spent time in class conducting research and making trips to the State Historical Society, who helped us overcome some of Wikipedia’s source restrictions by posting images and source information on their website when we needed a link. We had writing days in class where students drafted their articles in their Wikipedia “sandboxes”—draft spaces that aren’t live or searchable on Wikipedia. But they did post their articles early. This enabled other Wikipedia users to give them feedback on their “talk” pages. They peer-reviewed one another’s work and received feedback from Wiki-editors all over the world. The result: 15 fantastic pages on Missouri women.

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Student Wikipedia Pages:

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Edit-A-Thon

Toward the end of the semester, we rotated our class to a “flipped classroom.” Students did readings and watched videos on planning an Edit-A-Thon before coming to class, and in class, they planned. I did not plan. The students together decided what work needed to be done, what jobs to assign one another, and what needed to be written and prepared for presentations at the Edit-A-Thon. I took this information to our campus library, who hosted the event. They were proud to present their accomplishments and to share their work with our community. We had a good showing and added an additional 19 articles to Wikipedia that were about Missouri women, or supported pages about Missouri women.

Payoffs

Students left this course and our Wikipedia assignment with a live writing sample, with experience using local records offices for research, and increased digital literacy skills, especially in their ability to analyze digital sources and check digital writing for gender bias. Their work organizing the Edit-A-Thon gave them experience in event planning and community outreach—both skills that will grow their resumes. Most importantly perhaps, they left knowing they made a difference by increasing the number of women visible on Wikipedia. Many of them have gone on to write more Wikipedia articles and advocate for growing visibility of women in their respective fields and classrooms.

As a teacher, this class reinforced for me the importance of learning with my students. I was not very well versed in Wikipedia editing when I started, and by learning alongside my class, I set the example of how to meet a difficult task, to encounter a problem, and to work through it. Often the students were teaching me shortcuts! The Wikipedia assignment also taught me that providing fewer parameters for an assignment could be an asset. By offering loose evaluation procedures for their articles and allowing the students to come up with requirements for their own assignments, their creativity had room to grow. Students came up with wonderful additions to their articles that I did not or could not have predicted when creating assignment parameters. Their work was more thoughtful and well researched because of the freedom I gave them.

Contributor Bio:

Peiser, MeganMegan Peiser earned her PhD from the University of Missouri in 2016. She is the creator and project manager of the Novels Reviewed Database, 1790-1820 and is currently working on her monograph The Review Periodical and British Women Novelists 1790-1820. As a teacher, she pushes students to uncover their own learning style, and embrace it as a means to empower their taking responsibility of their own education. Her students participate in service learning across the University of Missouri campus and in the Columbia, MO community. You can read more about her teaching and research at meganpeiser.com