What’s your story?

Advice for writing your essay or personal statement.

Telling a good story makes your essay and personal statement stand out. Whether you’re applying to a school, for a grant or employment, your essay will land in a pile of others written by candidates similarly qualified as you.

It’s like being a fan of Harry Potter and attending a convention for Potter-maniacs. No matter which character you choose to dress as, there will be many people similarly, or even better, costumed than you. Other attendees will share your interests, and have the same, or more, knowledge about the world of Harry Potter. A great setting for making friends. Not so great if you want to stand out from the crowd.

Similarly, the selection committee members who read your essay will read about other candidates who sound a lot like you: similar interests, experiences, backgrounds, goals, and desire for admission. You need to distinguish yourself as a unique individual, not just applicant #437 in a pool of 2,356 — and often need to do it in 750 words or less.

I helped numerous students with their personal statements this past academic year. They all gained entry into their high school, college, or graduate program of choice. I believe an effective essay contributed to their success. Their essays told a personal story that highlighted their strengths and individuality, and addressed the questions posed by the applications.

My favorite example is Ann’s story. Ann was applying to a prestigious graduate program in education in Boston. The prompt on the application was straightforward: “Tell us about yourself.” The initial draft of her essay stated her strong qualifications clearly: 3.95 undergraduate GPA, ranked eighth among a graduating class of 425, years of practical experience. However, focusing on the strength of her stats made Ann sound like the other 417 applicants vying for 33 spots.

“What’s your story?” I asked her when we met.

Guided brainstorming helped us identify the story Ann used to distinguish her essay. She recalled the slide projector she requested for her 11th birthday: it was the one thing missing from the classroom she’d set up in her bedroom. While her friends’ bedrooms displayed posters of NSync and Ricky Martin, Ann had a dry erase and bulletin boards, and student work on her walls. Yes, student work by neighborhood kids she led through vocabulary, art, and multiplication lessons in her “classroom.”

The story illustrated Ann’s early passion for education, her commitment to her life-long dream of teaching, and her quirky creative determination. Ann’s story provided a unique context for her impressive stats – and transformed her from candidate #248 to Ann, the young woman who’s pursued her dream of being a teacher since she was 11 years old.

My advice: Remember, as you sit to write your statement, start by asking, “What’s my story?”

I can help you tell your story.

I’m a writing specialist and work with individuals and lead group workshops on clear communication. For more information, contact me at nmenbooth@hotmail.com.

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