Rachel Herzl-Betz is a PhD student in Literary Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, pursuing a minor in Rhetoric and Composition. Her research focuses on intersections between nineteenth-century British literature, rhetoric, and disability studies. This is her first year with the UW-Madison Writing Center.
I have a thing for personal statements. I realize that I’m unique in my appreciation for 500-1000 word essays required for graduate school, professional school, and most other “school” applications. The personal statement, otherwise known as the statement of purpose, has long been a sticking point for students who know what they want to do next, but not how to express their desire in two pages or less.
When I say that I enjoy working with students on high-stakes application essays, I’m not ignoring the many reasons why many of us despise writing them. The genre asks us to turn our messy lives into compelling narratives: a daunting task for even the most reflective author. We application writers often assume that we have to force connections between our experiences and our future goals, which leads to either frustration or fiction. I would like to suggest that the writing center provides a necessary space for self-discovery, where—rather than telling the stories we think we ought to tell—authors can uncover the stories already waiting to be told.
Before moving on, we should pause to appreciate the personal statement from an applicant’s perspective. To get into a program that already requires stellar grades, recommendations, and personal initiative, I (as the author) am tasked with writing an essay that will elevate my application above the thousands of other equally-stellar candidates. In 500 words, I must find a way to compensate for every lazy Sunday spent watching American Idol when I, obviously, should have been starting a tech company in my basement. I can no longer change my test scores, my GPA, or my recommendations, but I can obsess over every word in my personal statement until it resembles a thesaurus written by monkeys.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison doesn’t limit the pleasure of personal statements to graduating seniors. Students who wish to join pre-professional undergraduate programs, such as journalism, business, and nursing, apply during their sophomore year and, like their upper class counterparts, must find a way to capture their experiences and goals in 500 words or less. While I have already had the privilege of working with students on personal statement for both undergraduate and post-graduate programs, my love for the genre predates my time with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Writing Center.
Before joining the Literary Studies department, I served with an Americorps organization now known as College Possible, and worked with thirty low-income students as they applied to college. Although we began with their ACT scores and GPAs, the personal essay process turned our motley crew into a family. There is something intimate about listening to a student’s most formative moments and helping them see the connections between the lives they have known and the lives they want to lead. Most of my cohort had a good sense of where they were coming from and where they wanted to go, but they often couldn’t explain how their experiences had shaped their goals.
I remember one young man who had only been in the United States for three years. Like several of my students, he had spent almost his entire life as a Somali refugee and, yet, had become a proficient English speaker while most of his peers were just learning how to ask a girl on date. When he was a child, his homeland “fell into the hands of cruel militias,” and, at the age of seven, four men with AK-47s invaded his home to kill his father. In the same year, he walked for five days in search of a safe home. At twelve, he got his first job in a Kenyan refugee camp and starting supporting his family. While researching colleges and majors, he decided to study political science, the perfect field to help rebuild his former homeland.
From an outside perspective, the line between his extraordinary life and his extraordinary goals seems clear, but like the rest of us, he couldn’t see the forest for the trees. For him, his childhood in the refugee camps had just become one facet of his personality. He already had the experiences, the motivation, and the writing skills to create a remarkable personal statement, but he needed an outside perspective to bring all of those pieces together.
Another student spent her childhood caring for a younger brother with cerebral palsy and needed help connecting that experience with her dream of becoming a nurse. A third didn’t see the link between his love of math and his difficulty learning English as a fourth language. Each of my former students could be seen as having lived extraordinary lives, but like most of us, they saw their own lives as thoroughly mundane. They felt the need to shove their experiences into a pretty shape, while the most effective essays reflected stories that were just waiting to be told.
To foster a sense of openness, I frame writing personal statements as a process of discovery. In a well-known letter to a friend, Michelangelo reflects a similarly receptive process: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” Rather than forcing the raw stone into foreign shapes, he looks for the shapes that naturally exist and brings them to fruition. Likewise, the best essays reveal and magnify the natural contours of a life, cutting out the background noise so that readers see how a favorite book in fifth grade connects to the business plan five years down the line.
We cannot simply equate college application essays to those required by professional and graduate programs, but the process of cooperative discovery remains remarkably similar. Recently, I had two students come into the UW Writing Center to work on separate personal statements. One needed to complete a graduate school application in cartography, while the other was facing down the final Teach For America application deadline, but each writer found herself paralyzed by the process.
So, we talked.
The TFA applicant talked about her earliest memories in a crowded kindergarten classroom, while the prospective graduate student described a long portage in the boundary waters, and—slowly—their discreet moments started to sound more like stories. I’d like to be able to say that I did something brilliant to facilitate their respective discoveries but mostly, I listened. I laughed, I empathized, I asked questions, and we took turns transcribing their answers. They brought experience, hard work, and determination to our meetings; I just brought the new pair of eyes and ears that they needed to re-envision their own lives.
Today, my former high school students have become upperclassmen and women in colleges and universities from Minnesota to Maryland. In the next few years, many plan to become nurses, engineers, business professionals, lawyers, or graduate students, and I wish I could be there for all of them. Thankfully, working with our writing center has has given me a glimpse of practices and philosophies across the country and the world; I know that my former students will likely have a space and a group of engaged professionals who can help them find their “angels in the marble” and began the satisfying work of setting him free.