Personal Statement Writer's Block
December 8, 2016 9:13 PM   Subscribe

I've been trying to write my statement of purpose in order to apply for my MLIS for the past few months and I am getting nowhere and the application deadline is lingering closer and closer. How can I get past this writer's block and finish this thing in the next little while?

I already work in the field, I know *why* I want to continue to get my MLIS. Even though it's a risky move, I feel like it makes sense for me. I just cannot get the 1,000 words I need to get into library school out of my head and onto the page.

I've written a few drafts and they either end up sounding like "Why Libraries Are Important 101" or "A Very Long Cover Letter." I've read examples of statements of purpose and I just can't seem to write like that and I don't think I'm a truly terrible writer.

Is there any advice about how to make this thing easier to write? I just can't figure it out!

I've had advice from some people telling me that I shouldn't worry too much about what I write and that they don't pay too much attention to the opening statement, and that may be the case, but I'd rather not write a piece of shit.
posted by modesty.blaise to Education (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Have a friend sit with you and take dictation while you explain to them, out loud, in a conversational manner, why you want to pursue an MLIS. Have your friend interview you and type out your responses as you speak, then take that source material and organize/formalize it.

Interview questions would be along the lines of "What do you hope to achieve with an MLIS that you cannot without one?"; "Why this program and not another program?"; "What is the risk, and why are you willing to take that risk?" and so on.

I'm sure others will have additional ways of framing the question.
posted by Schielisque at 9:50 PM on December 8, 2016 [6 favorites]

I think the key thing is finding your "hook." Maybe it's a (very short) story that illuminates why you are interested in library studies, maybe it's a librarian you look up to, maybe it's just the one thing you are super-passionate about. And then you build your statement around that.

I write a lot of content for my job, and when I am struggling with writer's block, it's usually because I haven't found my hook. There are a few ways to find it. Sometimes, just making a list (bullet points, no complete sentences) is enough - so maybe just making a list of the reasons you want to be a librarian, and/or the things you're excited about. And pick one you want to build your statement around. Or if that doesn't work, maybe talk it through with a friend and when you get to the thing that makes you really animated, go with that.

When I was applying for a professional program, I picked someone I really looked up to, who exemplified the profession and its values, and how I hoped to use my education to further those values. And I got in!

Good luck.
posted by lunasol at 10:12 PM on December 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

A personal statement IS a "long" (not "very long" at two double-spaced pages) "cover letter." That's all it is. It should not be a philosophical statement about why libraries (or whatever field you're applying for) are important. Assume the people reading your statement agree with that, and realize you come off as idealistic and naive by overstating grander narratives about yourself or your chosen field. Nitty gritty: what are your skills and background, how did that lead you to deciding to pursue an MLIS, what skills do you hope to refine, and what are your broad careeer goals? Why is this program a good fit given these factors? What resources or emphases of their program attract you?

A little fluff in the opening or conclusion goes a long way.

I often say (after 23 years of reading PHD program applications) that "personal statement" is a misnomer for the genre. "Cover letter" is a lot closer to the point.
posted by spitbull at 6:06 AM on December 9, 2016 [4 favorites]

When I advise applicants to grad programs about their "personal" statements, I tell them that the statement needs to do three or four things:

1. Explain why you want to pursue the degree (MLIS, in this case). How will it advance your career goals?

2. Explain how your previous education and experience have prepared you to succeed in a grad program in the field.

3. Explain why you're applying to this particular program. What about it is attractive or distinctive?

4. If necessary, address any aspects of your application that might give the admissions committee pause, such as a low GPA, bad grades in predictor courses, etc., in order to show that they're not going to be problems. ("My overall GPA is 2.9 due to a lack of focus in my first two years of college, but my GPA in my major is 3.7 and I was on the Dean's List my last three semesters.")

As spitbull says, no one is looking for a big philosophical reflection on the broad significance of the subject. Stick to specifics.
posted by brianogilvie at 6:32 AM on December 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yep, maybe talk it out loud to a friend. To my mind the biggest deals are having a reader come away with some sort of specific impression of you and having an answer to the generalized question "Why library school?" as well as, as brianolgivie says addressing anything that is weird. So I often structure stuff like this in my head like

"I want to go to library school because of this thesis sentence reason. This particular program appeals to me for this specific reason.

I am this sort of person doing this sort of thing. Here is a specific thing or two. Here is a little bit of background on how I got to this position in my life. Here is a little bit about my values and how they line up somewhat with the professions' values.

Here is what I am doing now. Here is a specific thing or two about that. Here is something that draws a connection between where I have been and what I am doing now.

Here is why I want to go to library school. Here is a thread between where I have been, where I am now and where I want to go. Library school is the thing that connects my past and present with my future, a future in which I want to do this and this which ties into who I am generally.

Here is a statement of my enthusiasm and excitement about library school and my feelings about the future of the profession. Here is me thanking you for reading this."

Depending on your deadline (i.e. if it's not due in the next six hours) I would be more than happy to read a draft if you think that would be helpful. Drop me an email or MeMail.
posted by jessamyn at 7:13 AM on December 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

This advice has been making the rounds on tumblr of late and I found it to be really interesting. I went back and looked at my own personal statement submitted for grad school and I only got half of this in there, alas. These aren't "rules" per se, just a new way of framing how you think about writing your personal statement.
posted by komlord at 8:13 AM on December 9, 2016

I feel this hard, friend. This was me around this time last year when I was applying for MLIS programs. I had pretty much everything else prepped and ready to go but the personal statement was BRUTAL. It's so hard to write a sales pitch about yourself!

It's a little formulaic, but with good reason: kicking off your statement with a relevant anecdote and then following up with the "just the facts, ma'am" answers is a tried and true method for admissions essay success.

My personal anecdote was about the moment it clicked for me that it was time to go back to library school (I was visiting the NIH libraries in DC). Maybe for you it was the first time you helped a patron with something important, or the first time you visited a historic library, or a great interaction you had with a librarian growing up--something personal and fun that kind of tipped you off to the idea of working in a library or specifically going to library school.

BUT because this is for and MLIS program and not an MFA, I would also try not to sweat whether your personal statement is the best thing you've ever written or not. I mean, proofread the heck out of it, obviously, but it doesn't have to be a work of staggering memoir or anything. Keeping that in mind helped keep me from noodling with mine endlessly even after it was objectively "done".

Beyond that, my approach for writing my personal statement was to just word dump everything I wanted to say (why library science? why THIS program? what background do I already have? etc.) and then prune it down to fit the word count in a way that answered all of the important questions but also (hopefully) kept a bit of my genuine enthusiasm for the subject intact. It seemed like it worked okay--I got in at least!

Good luck! MeMail me if you want to chat more!
posted by helloimjennsco at 8:25 AM on December 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Talk about your past experience in libraries and what you've learned.

Talk about why the MLS is the next step to what you want to be doing in libraries.

"Likeing to read" is the amateur personal statement response and will get an eye roll from the application committee, because it shows you don't understand what the job entails.
posted by MsMolly at 3:01 PM on December 11, 2016

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