Personal Statement Woes
January 21, 2008 9:33 PM   Subscribe

Applying for a university summer school program, which requires a personal statement of 150 words. What could I say with such few words?

I am applying for a rather competitive university summer school program designed to train undergraduate students interested in pursuing graduate studies in the cognitive sciences. Most of the application is fairly standard -- a transcript, a letter of recommendation, &c. -- but I am stumped at the personal statement, which has a rather restricted limit of 150 words!

The personal statement field asks for "academic experience, research experience and interests, [and] career plans" -- I have no idea how I could describe all of those in 150 words or fewer. This is particularly difficult because I am in a rather unusual multidisciplinary program that is not really offered at other universities, so it takes me a few sentences to even describe my undergraduate degree, never mind explain my interest in it and why my education is appropriate for the summer school. Furthermore, having a lengthy description of my academic background prevents me from delving into my involvement with research projects, which are very much related to topic of the summer school -- although, I suppose the letter of recommendation from my supervising professor could probably cover that fairly well.

The application form does not ask for a CV, nor does it have a section for attaching other documents, so I am not really sure of how to best discuss my academic and research background outside of the personal statement section. It does, however, have a free-form "other comments" section, whose purpose I am not entirely sure of at the moment.

I really, really want to accepted into the summer school this year and I feel that improving my personal statement would definitely help. Last year, I wrote one or two sentences tackling each of the categories listed in the personal statement; I was not accepted into the program. To be honest, I thought my personal statement was rather boring and did not express my aspirations very well -- it gave a rather dry overview of who I am as a student.

How could I best tackle the personal statement? Should I be enthusiastic? Should I focus on one aspect of the personal statement, such as my research aspirations, and rely on my letter of recommendation to describe other relevant experiences? Should I go crazy packing my background information in the "other comments" section? How do I limit myself to 150 words and yet still stand out among other applicants, many of whom are likely more qualified and interesting than I am? I should add that I have a rather dry, boring writing style, which really does not help my cause.

Most of the advice that I found on the internet seem to be geared towards longer personal statements, in which there is more wiggle room for being interesting. I'm really not sure of what to do. Ask MetaFilter, please hope me!
posted by tickingclock to Education (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Be pithy. Think of what you what to say, write out everything you'd like to convey, then get help from teachers and friends to break it down into smaller sections that do double or triple duty.

Don't rehash info from your application; use the statement to personalize your application. Don't be afraid to be a little bold, but use that boldness to convey strength and confidence.

If you have trouble with any of these areas, check out books on writing resumes and cover letters. If anyone knows about condensing whole lives into a few quips, it's resume writers.

If you can do this, you will have a great start on college writing. It's all about being succinct and well-organized.
posted by mynameismandab at 10:04 PM on January 21, 2008

the personal statement is your opportunity to make a persuasive case for why the program should accept and fund you over another student. What makes you a better candidate? Figure out what your strongest suit is (academics, research, and certainly you should mention if you are interested in graduate school in the cognitive sciences, especially if it's grad school at that program) and then play it up. is it impossible to explain your research interests without a lengthy description of your academic program? Then I would use that "other comments" section to describe it, and then refer to it in your statement where appropriate, to save space. What do you think you will get out of attending the program? You seem to really want to go, but it's not clear why.

I'm not sure how much a dry writing style works against you. believe me, plenty of people who are less than scintillating authors go on to have successful and productive careers in the field. enthusiasm is fine, but take care that it doesn't come off as immature. definitely have your advisor and other people in the field take a look at your statement, because they will have a better idea for what the directors of the program will be looking for.

is this for the Penn program? If so, I attended years ago and had a blast. good luck!
posted by dropkick queen at 10:28 PM on January 21, 2008

Have you considered getting in touch with the program anbd asking for advice?
posted by Jahaza at 10:29 PM on January 21, 2008

This is particularly difficult because I am in a rather unusual multidisciplinary program that is not really offered at other universities, so it takes me a few sentences to even describe my undergraduate degree, never mind explain my interest in it and why my education is appropriate for the summer school. Furthermore, having a lengthy description of my academic background prevents me from delving into my involvement with research projects, which are very much related to topic of the summer school.

If you think that your unique undergraduate program really helps you in getting into the program, then I think you should focus on explaining why you chose this undergraduate program over others and how it has shaped you into the person you are today (i.e. it shows what your priorities are and how able are you to make your resources work for you). Then expand that into why this summer program will help further your goals in life and how those goals impact others (society, group of people, etc).

If that's not the case (and it doesn't sound like it), then honestly, you do not need to explain your undergraduate program or your research in your personal statement unless you think it really showcases why you are a better candidate than another person. Otherwise, it's just a paper on why your undergraduate program is different but it still says nothing about you.

What I have done in the past is start by making a list of all the things I've done or experienced that I think are important. Then I order them from most important to the least important from my point of view as well as the point of the view of the summer program. From there, I write about the top one, or at most, two things on the list. This way, it keeps me focused on one or two things while still being able to showcase me as a person. Remember this is about depth and not about rehashing your resume.

Usually this works pretty well but I always have a few people proofread it for mistakes as well as getting feedbacks on whether there's enough background information in the essay to make sense. If not, then I try to limit myself to one to two sentences of background information because of the limited amount of words allowed.

I'm currently helping a few friends out with their college essays, resumes, etc so I'll be happy to review your draft and give you some more feedbacks if you want.

Good luck!
posted by vocpanda at 11:02 PM on January 21, 2008

I think they're trying to weed out people who's parents made them do everything so they could pad their personal statements with things they've got certificates for.

Do you have a passion, or a goal? Goals are good, as are plans to reach them. Accolades are only examples of goals reached, not goals planned, executed, and worked towards. Have you any disappointments in life? Did you do something about it?
posted by porpoise at 11:15 PM on January 21, 2008

Oh goodness. I feel your pain. I've also done a lot of things in just the past few years alone (I love being a busy bee, evidently) and personal statements like those flummox me because I'm always too long. Doesn't help that I'm not very good at being concise.

Write a draft statement first, with everything you can think of. Don't worry about word length just yet - just write as though the question didn't have the limit. Then give it to a person you trust who's good at editing (in my case, my boyfriend who is awesome at being concise) and get them to cut out whatever they feel is unnecessary. Repeat until done. You can try giving the draft (or different versions of the draft) to different people at once - often the main trouble is that we can't be objective so we think "oh! How can we cut that bit out?!".
posted by divabat at 2:41 AM on January 22, 2008

I had to do a similar thing (3000 characters, so a little longer) for the NDSEG. I'd suggest taking a strong position on an issue relevant to your field (what is the most important problem to address in your research? what is and underrepresented group that you want to help? how do you feel about certain popular opinions in your field?)

After stating your position, use your academic/research experience and interests to justify your claim and add a personal angle to it.
posted by rxrfrx at 6:25 AM on January 22, 2008

OK, so I am the person making the selection, how do I do it? First of all, concentrate on those with high marks. Letters of recommendation? -- who ever saw a bad one? -- not worth reading. Personal statement? -- I find these so useful that I cut down the space to 150 words.

What do I look for in the personal statement? Well, what do I need? Bright students (transcript) who will benefit from the program and won't drop out (academic history, but high marks probably indicate stickability anyway) and will progress to research. So it is the "benefit from the program" and "progress to research" bits that you can sell in the personal statement.

So, explain your odd degree aspects in "Other comments" (and in your covering letter if your transcript is going to look very odd and might be tossed out immediately). Then in the personal statement write 'I am very enthusiastic about doing this program because I have a long-standing interest in...., as you can see from my past activities of ...... On graduation I want to do research into what I see as the key area of ...... because I .... My long-term ambitions are to build an academic research career in........ hoping to .............' Pick relevant highlights -- prune rigorously to fit this application, so you don't say that alternatively you might just run away to sea (or take your PhD into industry -- probably not what they are aiming for). The "long-standing" interest bit is useful, give relevant evidence.
posted by Idcoytco at 8:25 AM on January 22, 2008

Which of the comments above best exemplify the standard to which you'll be held? Some of the responses exceed 150 words while telling you how not to.

Writing is not conversation. Good writing is about clear and concise communication. On target, crafted writing can meet any word count limit.

The solution is not found in editing down, but in writing from scratch. What separates you from the pile of unsuccessful applicants? Your personal statement is the only chance you get to make the faceless readers say, "Hey, did you see this one?" and "Remember the applicant who..."

[This paragraph is entirely intended to pad my word count up to 150 words. Ooh, I'm so concise and pithy. Good looking, too. I'll close with a quotation so I sound erudite.]

"I have made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it shorter." -Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)
posted by lothar at 9:11 AM on January 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

This is a very typical grantwriter problem: "What does your organization do. Please use the space provided" and then they give you 5 lines and require 12-point type.

Go ahead and write your dream statement. Don't start by trying to be frugal with the words, say what you need to and then start chopping, Use the word count feature to monitor yourself. You'll be amazed at what you can get rid of.
posted by nax at 7:25 PM on January 22, 2008

Thanks for all of your comments, everyone! I see that there are a lot of issues for me to consider... I'm not sure that I will be able to pick the best answers until I've had more of a chance to think about what I should do.

is this for the Penn program? If so, I attended years ago and had a blast. good luck!

Actually, I am applying to a Canadian university (I'm Canadian). But, the Penn program looks very interesting, too -- it's definitely something for me to look into!
posted by tickingclock at 1:18 AM on January 28, 2008

For what it's worth, I got into the summer school program! It takes place next month, and I am very much looking forward to it.

Thanks for all your help, everyone. I'm marking every comment as the best answer, as I ended up doing a little bit of everything (i.e., aiming for a short statement and then cutting down brutally).
posted by tickingclock at 6:15 PM on May 1, 2008

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