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Archive for the month “January, 2016”

Personal Statements Part 2: Research and Focus

We bring you the second installment in this week’s series on the personal statement.  See part one here.

Stephen Cohen, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing20150824_140027

Working with writers at both the Belknap and HSC campuses has taught me that, despite differences in discipline and focus, writers everywhere are working through very similar hurdles and anxieties. Students across both campuses right now are thinking about taking the next step in their academic careers; often this involves applying for residencies, internships, or further graduate study. Though these applications can be stressful, I try to help people think of them as opportunities to present themselves and find the program that is the best fit.

Many of these applications require a version of the “personal statement” essay. For this post, I’ll be thinking through some of the most common stumbling blocks in this process and (hopefully) giving you a few useful tips to help you through writing a statement of your own. Also remember that one of the best ways to develop a personal statement is to make an appointment to discuss it with one of our consultants here in the University Writing Center.

1. Do your homework.

Find out what the requirements are for the statement – and don’t deviate from them. How many words? Does the application ask you to address specific questions? Carefully adhering to guidelines demonstrates to the committee that you’ve taken time to understand their particular application process, and, by extension, their program.

Speaking of which, you’ll want to find out what you can about the school and the program to which you’re applying. Mission statements and program descriptions are great places to look for information that you can use to your advantage – demonstrate to the committee that you understand how their program differs from others and that you are excited about what makes it unique.

If you are applying to multiple programs, try to contain anything that applies to a specific program to one paragraph. That way, you can switch that paragraph out for each program without having to do extensive revision on the rest of your letter.

2. Put your best foot forward.

People often understand “polishing” a personal statement to mean carefully proofreading it and ridding it of errors. While this is important (you don’t want to send a letter addressed to University of Louisville to University of Kentucky because you forgot to change it!), it’s more important to think about polish as careful presentation of the experiences you list on your CV or Resume.

Think carefully about what you list on your CV/Resume and choose the experiences that best demonstrate why you are a great candidate for a given program – you’ll want to use your experiences to show a committee not only how well prepared you are for graduate study, but also what makes you unique – what you can bring to the program that others can’t. Remember, the committee won’t necessarily know how your work (as a student assistant, for example) has prepared you for the demands of grad school – you’ll have to tell them.

If there was ever a time to toot your own horn, this is it. Though you don’t want to seem arrogant, most people I’ve worked with err too far on the side of caution. This is your chance to let the committee know how great you are – take it!

This is also an opportunity to answer any questions you think might be raised while the committee considers your other materials. Is there a gap on your resume? Don’t leave the reason for it up to the committee’s collective imagination – explain it to them, in the most positive terms possible.

3. Be Specific

Be sure you include particular reasons for your proposed path of study, and where possible, who you would like to study with. Remember the part about doing your homework? The more you know about a program, the better positioned you are to explain specifically how that particular program can help you meet your academic and career goals in ways that other programs can’t.

Use appropriate details to support any claims you make about yourself and your preparedness (in my case, an example might be not “I am a good teacher,” instead I would write “I have successfully taught introductory Rhetoric, Literature, and Business Writing courses).

4. Be Yourself

Often, a program will ask for a personal statement because they want a sense of who you are that they just can’t get from scanning a CV. Coordinate the experiences you’ve selected to write about to demonstrate some personal characteristic(s) that you think will appeal to the committee. In other words, rather than writing “I am a hard worker,” choose to detail a few experiences from your CV/Resume that demonstrate how hard you’ve worked.

Use the personal statement as a place to tell the committee what you think are the most important things to know about you – the things that make you different from another candidate. What life events have led you to consider your course of study? What challenges have you faced along the way, and how have you overcome them in order to achieve the accomplishments listed elsewhere in your application materials?

The personal statement is only a small part of your overall application, but a thoughtfully prepared statement can have a big impact on how your whole package is received.


Personal Statements Part 1: Just How “Personal” is it?

As application season is in full swing, we bring you a two-part series on the personal statement. See part two here. Read more…

Kill Your Darlings: Four Steps to Making Difficult Revisions

Anthony Gross, Consultant


“In Writing, you must kill your darlings.” This somewhat morbid advice from the celebrated author William Faulkner is telling of what it feels like for writers to omit—or “kill”—pieces of writing they have grown to love. The phrase “kill your darlings” is often interpreted as the need for fiction writers to kill off major characters, but it is more broadly applicable to entire sections of writing within any genre. Whether you define yourself as a writer and tend to become deeply attached to your writing or as a student hoping simply to finish a paper with a good grade, killing parts of your writing, no matter how much you love them or how much they contribute to your word count, is an essential part of the revision process. To help you manage the brutal task of murdering your compositional babies, I offer the following advice:

Don’t become too attached.

It’s good to get something down on the page, but don’t become too attached to your original writing. When you’re struggling to come up with ideas and you’re struck by a sudden pang of inspiration, what you produce at the beginning of your draft may not coincide with your concluding thoughts. Especially when you’re crunched for time on an assignment, it’s tempting to skip revising and go straight to editing—that is, skip major structural and ideological changes and target lower order concerns. Your goals will vary depending on the type of writing you are doing, but whether you are producing an argumentative essay, a short story, or an application letter, you should aim to make the individual parts of your writing add up to a cohesive whole. In making sure every aspect of your writing conveys your overall purpose for writing, cutting those pieces that don’t, your reader will be better equipped to understand your ideas.

Give yourself time.

Have you ever looked back at a piece of writing you hurriedly composed for a class during a previous semester and thought, “Oh my goodness; why didn’t anyone tell me how bad this is?” As time lapses, we gain perspective, and we’re able to view our past selves, including those constructed through our writing, more objectively. With this in mind, it’s a good idea to let your work sit for a period of time before committing to the self you’ve constructed in your writing. If you find that you’re still pleased with what you’ve produced a few days, weeks, months, or even years ago, great. But if you’re anything like me and countless other writers, I bet you’ll find something that needs to be killed. It’s also good to note that major revisions should come before minor editing because the small things that you’ll find yourself editing— from spelling to grammar—may be axed from the final project.

Eliminate the unnecessary

Killing your darlings is really about eliminating unnecessary sections of your writing despite how much you love them. This isn’t to say that you have to nix your creative voice, but you must balance creativity with utility to ensure that every aspect of what you’ve written contributes to your purpose for writing. You should read for obscurity, redundancy, and argumentative support. If you find that what you’ve written might confuse your readers, even if it makes good sense to you, clarify or cut it. If you find that a section of your writing repeats an already stated idea to no useful effect, cut it. And if you find yourself including superfluous details, whether they are plot points that aren’t meaningful to your story or argumentative details that don’t progress your thesis, cut them. If deleting these sections permanently is too stressful, create a separate word document where you can paste them in case you change your mind. Remember, you may have spent a lot of time producing your draft, but if what you’ve written doesn’t help your readers discover your purpose, you haven’t met your ultimate goal.


Killing aspects of your writing that you’ve become attached to can be really difficult, especially if you’re so blinded by that attachment that you can’t differentiate purposeful from superfluous details. If you find that you can’t revise on your own, get some outside help. This could be as simple as asking a family member or friend for their opinion, but talking to someone familiar with the genre in which you are writing might be more helpful. University writing centers are a great place to work with other writers who can help identify what they, as a reader, see as essential or non-essential to your draft at any point in your composition process.

Killing your darlings can be difficult, but it is an important step in ensuring you produce your best work possible.

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