Friday, January 06, 2006

Writing workshop: The Personal Statement

Only "writing is writing," according to E. L. Doctorow, whose birthday is today (scroll down for the Doctorow stuff, but don't miss the Simic poem). And he's right. I like the work of writing, which is a good thing, since the teaching of it is how I pay for things around here. But I've been reminded these past few days that one sort of writing task is, to me, the graphological equivalent of confession under a slow, incrementally-increasing torture: the Personal Statement. I have told my students this many times, but I consider myself unspeakably blessed not to have had to write one, or even think seriously about how to write them, for some years now.

Then I had to go and marry a woman who aspires to be a law student.

As I've noted here a few times (most recently here), Mrs. Meridian is in the midst of making application to law schools. Most of these schools ask applicants to submit a Personal Statement, and the request seems easy enough to satisfy at first glance. A typically-worded request (this one from the University of Mississippi School of Law) follows:

The personal statement provides you with an opportunity to point out noteworthy academic achievements, extracurricular activities, and business or civic experiences. The statement also enables you to demonstrate the ways in which you can contribute your talents and experiences to the School of Law. Successful applicants have also elaborated on meaningful personal and intellectual interests, and challenges or disadvantages met and overcome.

Easy, right? How very generous of Ole Miss--and, it goes without saying, all those other equally-fine institutions to which Mrs. M. is making application--to want to hear this from HER, and not just her resume and transcripts and LSAT score. Heck. How hard is it to represent oneself in the best possible light? We do it all the time in conversation; this is just the same thing, but in writing.

Except. As those of us who have written them know, what makes these things so hard to write is that the writer is missing the piece of knowledge that, were she to have it, would make them considerably less anxiety-attenuating: knowledge of her audience's criteria and prejudices, the very things we tell our Comp I students they need to take into account as they draft their papers. So, then, the writer can't merely write to an audience; she has to INVENT that audience even as she is trying to figure out just what to say to that audience.

We have, of course, had discussions about these statements' contents. But last night, as we were talking about one of her paragraphs, Mrs. M. turned to me and said, "I like to write sentences with dependent clauses followed by independent clauses."


"In this paragraph, 4 sentences follow that pattern. There are 6 sentences in the paragraph."

She has noted her excessive use (to her mind) of prepositional phrases. I have noted her tendency (to my mind) toward redundancy and passive voice constructions. She has noted that my suggestions (to her mind) occasionally head off in directions other than the Task at Hand. In studiously avoiding sounding as though she is just writing these as though she is checking off a list of requirements asked for, she is nevertheless hyper-aware of those requirements. The standard length for a personal statement appears to be 2 pages; Mrs. M.'s basic one runs not quite 2 1/2 pages. Should I cut? What to cut? How to cut? Each of us has taken small offense at the other for not seeming to be listening. I have, maybe a few too many times, said, "It's your statement, not mine," which causes her to wonder if that means that I think it's badly written (it doesn't, and it's not).

It's hard work, besides being stress-laden, forcing us writers as it does to look at what we write and HOW we write as few of us ever have to do on anything like a regular basis. I'd rather write a dissertation. Really. I do not envy her her task.

Would that the task of writing the Personal Statement were only the same as that of Montaigne's as he understood it:

At least I have one thing according to the rules: that no man ever treated a subject he knew and understood better than I do the subject I have undertaken; and in this I am the most learned man alive. . . . To accomplish it, I need only to bring it to fidelity; and that is in it, as sincere and pure as can be found. . . . It cannot happen here as I see it happening often, that the craftsman and his work contradict each other: "Has a man whose conversation is so good written such a stupid book?" or "Have such learned writings come from a man whose conversation is so feeble?" ("Of Repentance")

It is precisely that which Montaigne sees as a strength--that his skill as a thinker, such as it is, is reflected accurately in his writing--that makes the Personal Statement such a fearsome beast to contemplate. Montaigne of course was read by others, but his public pose in the Essais, so far as I can tell, is that he is ultimately his own audience: a brave pose in those days of the Counter-Reformation, and I don't in any way mean to trivialize Montaigne's intellectual courage. But the writer of the Personal Essay actively courts the approval of others through her writing: This is (part of) who I say I am, the Personal Statement radiates to the Admissions Committee. Accept me! And more: as she writes, she is compelled to imagine what in her writing will make the Committee smile in approval, what will make them drop it into the circular file* (or, worse, a Wait List).

We soldier on. It's my job today to edit out that 1/2 page without losing content. Wish us luck. Soon, if all goes well, we can substitute the torture of waiting for replies for the torture of writing Personal Statements.
*Amazing that this Wikipedia entry as about as long as the one on Montaigne.

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Mrs. Meridian said...

Actually, I aspire to be a lawyer, not just a law student.

And I had one sentence in passive voice--ONE!

R. Sherman said...

Alas, Mrs. Meridian, you are also blessed with a spouse who desires "assist" you with your work. Mine, (Ph.D. English MU '93) constantly harps on my use of the passive voice. I tell her that in the law, it's all about avoiding accountability. :)


P.S. My official 14 year old daughter is doing these darn things applying to a Lutheran High Schools. Her response on reading the first question: "Dad, I'd rather eat a bowl of puke." Not exactly Montaigne, but I got the drift.

D-Day said...

Mr. SauceBox is working on his personal statement also, and ugh -- what a nightmare. As bad as they are to write, I can't imagine anyone actually likes reading these things. The parameters always seem to be "write about who you are," but who knows? Are lawyers expected to be that self aware?

I think the schools would get more vivid and active responses if they would ask you to "write about what you've done." But of course, everyone is afraid to leave things out, so the schools get the same warmed-over mini autobiographies that cover a lot of the same ground that a resume does.

Seriously, don't you think you'd get the same amount of insight into a person's character, discipline, and priorities from "Please submit a 2-3 page statement detailing the very coolest thing you've ever done in your life" vs. what they actually ask for?

Then again, my personal statement was TERRIBLE, so don't ask me. :)

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David Miller said...

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David Miller said...

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