The Personal Statement, One Year Later

This past week I did something crazy. Or at least something I thought I would have to be crazy to ever do again. Maybe it was the fact that I was giddy to be finished with classes for the semester. Maybe I was just swept away by the nostalgia that comes with reflecting on the past year. Whatever it was, I found myself doing something I knew would be painful but very illuminating. I re-read the personal statement from my library school applications that I submitted one year ago. It was indeed painful and mildly entertaining, but, looking at it with fresh eyes, it was obvious what was working and what wasn’t. So, if you’re still drafting your personal statement for your first application or if you’re tweaking it before submitting it to another school, this post is for you! I hope these tips help you take your personal statement to the next level.

Trim. Don’t try to fit your whole life story into your personal statement or insert too many details about your experiences that distract from the main idea of your essay. When I was writing my personal statement, I remember feeling like I had to explain somewhat minute details of my work experiences and academic projects in order to make the essay make sense. For example, when writing about my experience developing a program for an undergraduate class project, I spent almost an entire paragraph talking about what prompted me to develop the program and explaining the program activities. Really, the point I wanted to make was that the project demonstrated my capacity to take initiative and risks in developing programming in the future as an information professional. I could have just said that without all the extra details.

Aim to be as clear as you can about how the degree will help you address the professional issues you care about most.

Aim to be as clear as you can about how the degree will help you address the professional issues you care about most. Photo from BuzzFarmers, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Go for the “why.” Overall, my essay was heavy on explanation of qualifications and experience and light on conveying WHY I wanted to get an MLIS. At certain points, my essay relied on my qualifications and experience to convey my motivations for going to library school. Sometimes experience and qualifications reflect motivations, but they don’t really do a good job of telling your reader what you hope to be able to do after you get the degree. If you find yourself in a similar situation, try approaching your personal statement as if it were an advocacy piece. What issues do you feel strongly about? Digital literacy? Historic preservation? Outreach to underserved populations? Explain how getting this degree will help you better address those issues. Just remember that conveying what you want to be able to do with your degree requires more than mentioning what kind of job you’d like to get after graduation. And, don’t be afraid to reach out to a professional if you need help articulating your ideas about a certain issue.

Use concrete examples. While you definitely don’t want to over-explain details about your academic achievements and work experiences, when you do talk about them give the reader some clear examples to latch onto. Using concrete examples is one thing I did well last year, but I tended to give too many details. The trick is to strike a balance between giving the reader too much information and making the essay so lean that it lacks substance.

Tailor your statement to the school. If the school you’re applying to has something in its curriculum that really excites you, be sure to write about it! I remember feeling like most of the schools I applied to were very similar, so it was hard to come up with different reasons for selecting each of them. UW-Madison, the school I ended up attending, has a strong emphasis on technology and offers classes like Digital Curation and Database Design that aren’t offered at all of schools I applied to. I mentioned this as a reason for applying to the school, but looking back I wish I had written more about how this tied into my career goals. Don’t forget to tie your reasons for applying to the school into the bigger picture.

If you’re interested in reading more application tips, check out this post about hacking your library school application and this post with strategies for tackling the entire application process.

Happy writing and Happy New Year!

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on December 28, 2015.

Featured image by Orin Zebest. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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