Personal Statement Pitfalls: Ramona Quimby vs. The Automaton
You’ve been told the Personal Statement is the place where most application mistakes occur. You also know it’s vitally important that you carefully craft this piece to best present yourself. That means writing well and at the same time showing show the admissions staff just who you are.
Sounds pretty simple, right?
Maybe, but not always easy. You could be making one of these two common Personal Statement mistakes.
The two biggest Personal Statement Mistakes
- writing a personal statement like a diary entry and over-sharing using tweet-worthy language, or
- the opposite: using highly academic language to say nothing personal at all.
To write a good Personal Statement you must strike a balance between two poles.
By way of example, let me address two imaginary offenders in the styles to which they are accustomed, starting with the “Ramona Quimby” diary entry folks, whose statements seem like something Beverly Cleary or Judy Blume would have written.
(For those of you under 30, Ramona Quimby was the fictional character whose many misadventures were chronicled by Beverly Cleary in her beloved 1980s “Ramona Quimby” series of books. Ramona was an adorable, if precocious, little girl, who taught young girls like myself much about the pitfalls of growing up. But, even so, she would not have been admitted to seminary on the basis of her diary entries.)
I’m sooooo excited that you want to attend this seminary – that’s great! But I didn’t really need to know that your first crush was Han Solo, or that you think your church’s baptismal font might have an algae infestation – LOL! I appreciate your enthusiasm, but every sentence can’t end in an exclamation point, right?!?!?! So, we need to totes tighten up your language, drop the TMI stories and professionalize your statement a bit, K? I hope I’ll get to hear these stories once you’re here, but the Admissions Committee is trying to make sure that you have good boundaries, and your statement as it is doesn’t inspire that confidence – yuck, bummer! So, do me a solid and pretend that you’re writing for your professors and not your diary because, well, you are! :)
True Story: I once spent a good 5 minutes at my desk staring at the first line of a Personal Statement that started with the abbreviation, “IMHO.” It must have been early-on in that abbreviation’s life cycle, because I had not yet heard it, and so I was annoyed at the applicant for both not explaining an abbreviation and making me feel old since I couldn’t immediately place it and knew it was popular jargon. Please do not make your Admissions Director feel old.
Here’s the opposite kind of offender:
To Whom It May Concern:
In the year of Our Lord two-thousand twenty twelve, in its tenth month, which is to say, October, on the seventh day of that said month, I am writing to you, lowly as I am, to make a humble request, borne of humility and experience – something of import that could conceivably foment change in the righteous decisions of one Admissions Committee: the writing of your statement of a personal nature must be improved. For I tell you that the longer your sentences, the more commas, nay, punctuation, of any kind, that you use, the more language that seems formal but is, in truth, quite wasteful of your limited space, the less credibility you hold. To never say anything personal is to miss the point of this statement altogether – we truly, and with great enthusiasm, want to know you as a person, Child of God, academician. But how might we know this unless you do, in truth, tell us? I beseech you to hone your language, as well, to something that you might speak in public, for if you truly spoke like this it would be surprising to me and to anyone beyond the 18th century. Kindly, and with haste, review and personalize!
You may think I’m being facetious – surely no one would stoop to either of these levels – but I can promise you they do.
The Sweet Spot
So here are two tips to make sure you don’t fall into the same trap as our imaginary friends.
- Choose personal stories that are relevant to your faith or academic journey. Choose a couple even if you only want to write about one. That way if your first choice turns out to be unworkable you have others to fall back on.
- Write them up in a way that shows they mean something to you, but without so much emotion that the strangers reading your file feel uncomfortable. I tend to think that the best style is the one you would adopt if you were writing a formal email to your favorite professor – human, but not unprofessional.
While that’s still not easy, it is a simple formula. The rest is up to you. The admissions staff at your dream school knows you have stories to tell, so take your time crafting the Personal Statement into the fine self-introduction it should be.
Anastasia Kidd was once a confused seminarian looking for her own calling, but is now the Director of Admissions for the Boston University School of Theology. For more suggestions on discernment, check out the Admissions section of the School of Theology website.