How to craft a personal statement that’s actually about you

About three years ago, I was on vacation with my family staying on the German-Austrian border. We were visiting Neuschwanstein, the castle that inspired the Disney castle at the tail end of a family road trip from the Netherlands to Croatia and back home. My husband was working on a grant application at the time and wanted some advice on writing his personal statement. So, one evening while the kids tried to sleep on the sofa bed, we sat at the tiny kitchen table and stared at his laptop.

From the initial reading, it was absolutely clear to me that he had done the same thing that almost everyone does when they have to write a personal statement. He had gone to the granting organization’s website and read their mission statement. Then he wrote a personal statement that basically said, ”I want to do all things that you want to do with you.”

Sound familiar?

Here’s the problem with that: everyone or nearly everyone who applies for that grant did the same thing. It’s the safe thing to do, the easy thing to do. It’s like checking your date’s Facebook profile to decide what to talk about over coffee. It seems like a grand idea, but in the end, they’ll see through you. Why? The stilted language, the failure to add nuance to any of the terms you’re using, and the fact that it all feels so thin.

We aren’t made to go after other people’s dreams. We have to go after our dreams. If we’re wise, we’ll find the way our dreams intersect their dreams and spend all our energy talking about that!

The alternative approach is to start where you come from. You know where you come from when you know what your goal is and what your values are. In other words, what are you going for, how and why? Once you have that, it should be relatively easy to find the intersection between your goals and the organization’s goals. If it isn’t easy, maybe you should look for a different organization!

In my husband’s case, the organization he was applying to prioritized personalized healthcare. “Personalized healthcare” is a huge buzzword in healthcare these days. Nearly everyone wants to make it happen. What he needed to do was figure out what it meant to him. We talked, I asked a lot of questions, and it turns out that personalized medicine specifically meant talking to patients about what they consider a better quality of life and setting treatment goals based on their needs. This is different than using clinical measures or a protocol checklist to measure care. He was able to start from this definition of personalized medicine and essentially write about how the organization would offer him a place to accomplish a shared goal.

A lot of us don’t think about our goal is until something pushes us to answer a question about them. If the thing that pushes is a job application, it’s tempting to make the job your goal. Don’t do that.

If getting the job Is your goal, what are you going to do after you have? Why should someone hire you if you’re completely satisfied that you’ve accomplished everything you want to accomplish after you have the job?

Set a goal that’s bigger than the job that you’re applying for. I’ve talked to doctors who want to cure chronic diseases and people who want to advise top government officials. The next job should put you in a position where you can have experiences or learn skills that will bring you closer to achieving a larger goal.

If your goal is to cure a disease, you can use that in every situation. Whether you apply for an internship or Masters programs, a job or a PhD you will be able to tell people exactly how the experience and skills that you plan to acquire with them will help you eventually accomplish your larger goal.

The extra benefit of having a clear goal is that it will guide you in making choices and drive you forward on a path that will bring you closer to something big with every important decision you make.

Think carefully about and worked hard on crafting your goal because that goal will help you shape your story, both the one you’re going to tell and the one you’re going to live!

Posted in Personal Stories, Story Structure and tagged , , , , .

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