If you’ve applied for a writing or directing fellowship, grad school, or another professional program, you’ve probably encountered an application that requires a personal statement. And then you’ve probably groaned, because writing a personal statement can be really tough, emotional, and confusing. But if you want to tell your story in a truthful way, you've got to be the one to write it, so it's time to learn how. Keep these three tricks in mind, and you’ll be well on your way to crafting a great essay!
1. Use an authentic voice
Why do professional development and school programs require a personal essay? Because they know that a person is more than their resume. Your personal statement is a chance to showcase who you are and what unique perspective you'll bring to the table. It’s critical that your personality is reflected in the essay’s tone. If you’re funny, be funny. If you’re poetic, be poetic. If you’re conversational, be conversational. Use details to illustrate your story and paint a picture of the world as you see it. Keep in mind that this isn’t an academic essay; words like “therefore” and “hence” don’t really belong in your story, unless that’s how you actually speak. Your voice also extends beyond your writing itself -- you’ll want to showcase the lens through which you see the world and how your work is impacted by your background. Which leads us to…
2. Develop a clear thesis
Some personal essays have specific prompts, which makes it easier to figure out where to start. But more often, the prompt is nebulous, like “How does your background offer a unique perspective to your writing?” or “Why do you want to be a director?” The worst part is that you generally have to keep the essays short -- how do you tell your entire backstory in one page or less? The short answer: You don’t. Instead, pick a hook that you can rest your story on. Find one aspect of your personal history that you think adds something extra to your resume and/or sample and thread that through your essay. An essay isn’t abiography (in fact, many programs require both), but rather an opportunity for you to tell one story with a beginning, middle, and end.
3. Keep your writing clean
What’s the most effective way to hammer home your thesis? Through clear, concise writing. First, focus on getting rid of extraneous words and tightening up your sentences as much as possible. We often like to play a little game called "make each paragraph one line shorter." Try it, it's fun! One easy way to streamline your writing is to minimize clauses like “I think” or “in my opinion.” This essay is personal, and it’s already clear to the reader that you’re the one telling the story -- and that story should be as simple as possible. Secondly, consider outlining your essay before you sit down to write -- that’ll ensure the details you’re including are necessary to enhance your voice, and not part of a rambling tangent. If you break down the specifics of the story you want to tell, you’ll find your way in and out easily.
Angela Silak & Cindy Kaplan
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