Generation PS: The evolution of the personal statement
Editor’s Note: the name of a student has been changed to protect the privacy of source currently involved in the FlexMed admissions process, denoted with an asterisk.
“Just about here, in the second paragraph, you write that when you got to college you decided to work harder for better grades.”
My pointer finger was hovering over a piece of paper positioned on a table between Wyatt*, a student I met ten minutes ago, and myself. His paper was overcrowded with black, single-spaced text. Wyatt was writing his personal statement.
Wyatt is a sophomore at the University of Michigan applying to a FlexMed program — an early application process for undergraduate sophomores looking to guarantee early acceptance to medical school — at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
“You go on to show me how rewarding getting good grades has been for you, compared to the grades you got in high school, and you articulate pretty well that you are a driven student … which is good.”
Wyatt’s writing was strong, but it seemed to be missing something: His writing needed to prove to admissions officers that this change in getting good grades is significant in his growth as a person. I can tell that, for Wyatt, this failure to get good grades in high school is somehow crucial, but the "somehow" is not clear for the reader and maybe not for Wyatt either.
I felt challenged with the task of figuring this out for Wyatt — talking to him just enough so that he eventually, through wonderings and mumblings with me, exposed why his change was so crucial.
As a peer consultant at the University of Michigan’s Sweetland Center for Writing, I work for four hours every Sunday night in a small room in the basement of the Alice Lloyd Hall dorms where students bring their essays for workshopping. According to Sweetland’s Peer Writing Center System Statistics Report, this past fall 6.7 percent of students brought their personal statements for graduate programs, internship programs or job applications. Last fall, 7.26 percent of students brought personal statements. The fall semester before that, 3.9 percent of students did.
“What was the turning point?” I asked Wyatt. Wyatt’s head arches upward toward me; his eyes don’t quite meet mine.
“What made you decide that you were going to get better grades?” I clarified. “Was it really just looking at your high school transcript at the end of senior year, that was the turning point? Or was there something else, some other repercussion? What truly made you realize it was important to work harder?”
Wyatt hesitated and then told me that if he was being honest, it was after he got rejected from so many colleges. He felt horrible. Quickly after, he noted doubtfully that he couldn’t write that in his personal statement. That would make him look like a failure to a FlexMed admissions board.
“The personal statement” is a very real noun in today’s dictionary. The page it’s on in that dictionary is fairly worn if you are a young adult. At the early age of seventeen we are asked to write a 500-word document for various college admissions boards. Many undergraduate students will write another personal statement when applying to a study abroad program, again when applying to an internship program, again when applying to graduate schools, and possibly many more times when applying to jobs as graduation creeps closer.
In April 2014, The New York Times wrote, “Enrollment at American colleges is sliding, but competition for spots at top universities is more cutthroat and anxiety-inducing than ever.” U.S. News and World Report calls it a “right college” frenzy. The Atlantic says the myth of colleges becoming more selective is both true and untrue. Whether universities are becoming more selective or not (they are, technically, but there are still plenty of spots for students — just not plenty of spots at the top schools), there is a demanding emphasis placed on how to best get into college.
The application process has been picked apart and formulized: 3.6 GPA plus 1950 SAT score plus five extracurricular activities plus a personal statement equals accepted or rejected. Despite the formulation of the college admissions process, the most human part of this entire process, and arguably the most important part, is the personal statement. So just like the GPA, the SAT and the extracurriculars, does the personal statement have a coefficient in front of it? Does it have an equation that if satisfied with the right values produces the right results?
In September 2015, University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts’s Newnan Advising Center piloted a small program that specifically advises students on their personal statements for medical, law and graduate school. The pilot program, headed by Academic Advisor Christopher Matthews, is a collaboration among several advisers: five writing consultants, plus Newnan's pre-law advisers, who offer sessions for law school-specific applicants, and pre-health advisers, who do the same for med school applicants. A service somewhat resembling this was previously offered through the University’s Career Center.
According to Kerin Borland, the director of the Career Center, the center decided last spring to stop offering their personal statement advising services. They saw students through the summer months but discontinued the service last September. Borland explained that the center’s intention in working with students on their personal statements was to talk about presentation and telling their story, but in reality they found themselves correcting students’ spelling, sentence structure and theses. It became less of a “career issue” and more of a “writing skills issue,” Borland said.
Newnan Advising Center general advisers have often helped students with personal statements in the past, and the pre-law and pre-health advisers usually work closely with their students on their statements, but until this past fall there was no overall program to allow for greater collaboration and to focus specifically on the writing challenge that personal statements represent. Now this new program works with students on two levels: First, with a consistent pre-professional adviser’s instruction, and secondly, with a writing consultant critique.
Matthews is one of these five writing consultants. “To shift over and meet with one of us who is just coming at it from the writing angle produces different kinds of objectivity,” Matthews said. “We don’t know that student that well, we are really mostly responding to what they are showing us on the page. I think we can fully play that role of an admissions officer who is relying on this document to tell us something about who they are.”
In November, Matthews and his colleagues visited a Sweetland Peer Consulting meeting to tell us tutors about advising personal statements. A couple weeks after, I sat down with David Brawn, one of the four pre-health advisers, to ask him for more specifics about how he instructs students to write about incredibly personal topics for an incredibly specific audience: an admissions board.
“There is a lot of language out there on the Internet that you need to stand out and be unique because that is what is going to get you into a school,” Brawn, the pre-health adviser, said. “I can understand that, but with 47,000 people applying to medical school every year, unless you’re a Martian, and there are probably at least two Martians applying in any given year, unique doesn’t happen.”
The slogan at the top of Accepted.com, one of these websites, is “Guiding Clients Worldwide through the Admissions Maze to Acceptance at 450+ Top Schools since 1994.” It offers both “flexible” and “comprehensive” plans for students. The comprehensive plan includes an “outline for your essay based on your responses in the questionnaire and the brainstorming session.”
“One of the things we have to do is unmake this artificial and self defeating emphasis on uniqueness,” Brawn said. “We have to make it more about reflection, self realization and explaining what you hope to do next in life and why.”
Almost three years ago, I wrote my own personal statement. As a senior in high school I took my school’s very first creative nonfiction class: titled “The Craft of NonFiction,” taught by my favorite teacher. In the class we wrote personal statements for our college applications together, we shared these statements — our stories — in workshop, and we helped each other figure out what our stories were going to be exactly. Claire wrote about the guilt and miscommunication that comes from being raised by immigrant parents, and how she spent hours on the phone filing her parents taxes for them. Katie wrote about her single mother surviving stage three breast cancer and the associated maturity that came with. Eva wrote about how having epilepsy all her life created a desire to find a career within the intersection of business and medicine. As a senior class, via 500-word-packaged essays, we grew up together.
English Prof. Eileen Pollack, the author of “Creative Nonfiction: A Guide to Form, Content, and Style, with Readings,” brought the creative nonfiction essay to the University’s English class curriculum in 1994. Previously, creative nonfiction classes such as English 325 and 425, which are now titled “Art of the Essay,” only instructed how to write academic essays that did not use the personal voice.
In the 1970s, Pollack was an undergraduate physics student at Yale University. She enrolled in one of the very first creative nonfiction writing classes to exist called “Form and Style in Nonfiction Writing” taught by John Hersey. John Hersey was one of the inventors of New Journalism — a style of writing termed in the 1960s that combined devices of fiction literature like scene, dialogue and character development with nonfiction reporting. Pollack said that New Journalism is truly creative nonfiction.
At first the English department was resistant to her curriculum, Pollock said. She noted that they didn’t really get what it was. They questioned how academic prose could be personal at the same time. They asked: Isn’t writing about the self kind of limiting?
“I couldn’t get them to take it seriously,” she said. “In time it gained more respect.”
Pollack attributed this respect to three reasons: one, she continually demonstrated that this type of writing reaches beyond the individual.
“You do go beyond the self. You write about things you are interested in, science or history, but in your own voice … in a more creative way.”
Two, the quality of the writing that was being produced was high and the faculty began to see that. And three, the faculty themselves began reading more creative nonfiction books as the genre became more popular.
Furthermore, during a time when English class enrollment was dropping, enrollment in these personal essay classes was increasing rapidly.
“It attracted students,” Pollack said. “These classes became really popular, students really liked doing this type of work: writing about topics they really care about, trying to find answers to questions they really want to find answers to … They are happier students.”
Despite a growing popularity of the creative nonfiction curriculum in classrooms, when asking Matthews, Pre-Health and General Academic Adivsor David Brawn and Pre-Law and General Academic Advisor Denise Guillot how they instruct students on their for-college personal statements, it’s clear not a single one of them is studying the personal statement as a curriculum. It’s because there isn’t a curriculum per-se. Instead, personal statement advisers at the Newnan Center follow a combination of their past experiences in the field, their past experiences working with personal statements and their interactions with admissions officers.
Guillot, one of two pre-law advisers, was e-mailing the Law School a series of questions about how to deal with students writing about sensitive issues like health problems or learning disabilities the Friday morning I went and spoke with her.
“I try to get really specific feedback about how admissions people respond to that kind of deeply personal issue,” she said. “It is important for students to be able to talk about it. And to be able to talk about it in a way that is constructive is really important in the personal statement.”
This type of communication is common. Guillot consistently invites representatives from law schools around the state to come talk to her and her students. Every year there are both national and regional pre-law adviser networks that host conferences where advisers and admissions officers meet. Both Guillot and Brawn sit in and watch admissions work.
“They’ll be very explicit with us,” Brawn remembered. “Saying please tell your students that we need to hear these things: If we can’t see some sense of cultural humility, if we can’t see some genuine caring for the patients that they worked with, then we don’t care if they have a perfect MCAT and a 4.0, they aren’t getting into med school.”
The words were rolling off Brawn’s tongue faster than I could write in my purple notebook. When he paused to take a breath, I jumped in, awkwardly.
“But does it feel genuine? Is what those admissions officers are saying to you really what they are looking for when reading a personal statement?”
I was thinking about Wyatt and the competitive FlexMed application process he is in. Do colleges expect more from the personal statement because they are really trying to find a connection with the student? Or are consultation services that strive to generate these perfectly crafted statements, maybe the very one I’m involved in, just players in this cutthroat admissions game? Are our efforts, of making a student find some connection with his growth and articulate that on page, worthy efforts?
Brawn smiled a bit and sat up straighter in his chair.
“I was surprised the first time I got to sit in on an admissions committee work," he said. "The language that I saw was like community, is she going to be happy here? What does he really know about medicine?”
Brawn’s words painted a room for me: There are people who have various commitments sitting around a table. Someone’s there whose emphasis is research, someone’s there whose emphasis is diversity, someone’s there who is specifically trying to provide a different perspective. Sometimes there’s even a student on the committee. As a whole they are trying to put together a class that clicks. They want this person to join this community and have the people in the community better off because this student is in it. They see the profession as a community. So, they’re asking: Is this person going to carry the reputation of this school forward? Is this a person I want to work next to?
Brawn’s picture made me think of the personal statement with so much more weight and importance. The personal statement process — when stripped of the commercialized, cutthroat culture of writing the best personal statement that so many high schools, websites and outside college counseling firms talk about — is the powerful gateway that determines if someone is going to be a doctor.
Steven Gay, Assistant Dean of Admissions for the University's Medical School, uses the language of passion. “I’ve heard him say, if you love the violin tell us about the violin,” Brawn said.
“They know that for medicine to survive in any meaningful way it has to continue to grow and for it to continue to grow it has to bring in people that have a drive of some sort of kind.”
Though this type of reasoning is a motivating factor for why there has been such a demand for increased help on personal statements that present true and genuine personalities on the page, these types of influences can’t be the only ones for advisers like Brawn.
Brawn recalled two students who he thought had perfect, very human, personal statements that didn't get in. Being colleagues with many admissions officers at schools, Brawn calls a school and asks what happened here? Two times in the last two years, Brawn has heard from admissions officers that the student, despite having personal statements that explains “what makes their heart beat,” as Brawn put it, didn’t answer the medicine question for them.
“That also narrows the range of possibilities for things you want to talk about,” Brawn raises his hands a bit when saying this next part. “Because you have to make the connection. You have to imagine that hyper-caffeinated wretch who is staying up reading your application the night before they are going to present it to the rest of the admissions committee.”
“Look, Claire, there are cynics everywhere and there are sales people everywhere but they tend to be fewer and farther between among admission committees,” he told me.
“But sure, does that sense of real commitment to what I think are laudable ideals, does it get shunted to the wayside when you look at thousands of numbers of people, every once and awhile when you look at the thousands of numbers going through the systems? Yeah, probably. It can get a little messy, superficial at times.”
“But at the moments when med school admissions people are talking to advisers about what they want to see, my perception is that they are being pretty sincere, and they are genuinely trying to put us in a position where we can shape the applicant pool in a way that serves those higher goals.”
When Pollack, the English professor, was in high school she wrote her personal statement about being involved in her high school’s debate team.
“I didn’t even show anyone my college essay. I thought about showing it to my teacher but I was too embarrassed,” she laughed.
“Of course it existed in my time but wasn’t as prevalent and wasn’t quite as confessional,” Pollack said. “The personal statement today is much more influenced by the world of the memoir and the creative nonfiction genre that you are growing up with. All of this is water falling down to the high school level and even to the junior high and elementary level. It is much more common in the curriculum now so when a student goes to write a personal statement for the college application or med school application they are going to use what they have learned in a writing class which now some are teaching this nonfiction essay.”
Pollack said she has heard students complain about how they feel they have nothing to write about because some big tragedy hasn’t happened to them.
“I think the writing is much better, it is genuine with more of the natural voices and more details. But it has also become more confessional, more self-revelatory. People feel they need to talk about something that happened to them, a disability, a tragedy.”
Sitting around the table of my high school’s “ The Craft of NonFiction” class, we all had secrets. My classmates and I were exactly who Pollack was talking about, the generation who looked to the literary world of memoir to know how to write about ourselves. Our summer reading had been Dave Eggers’s memoir “Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” our class discussion the week before was all about Joan Didion’s “Goodbye To All That,” an essay about her navigation as a young adult living in New York City. We weren’t anyone significant at the table if we didn’t have a story to share. In dangerously thick waters of comparing our tragedies with others’ tragedies, we wrote real writing that helped us grow as young adults. But at the end of the day we were cutting sentences, ideas, thoughts, reworking structure and adding shameless plugs of leadership characteristics not for ourselves, not to share with our peers, but for that “caffeinated wretch” who Brawn has put in all of our minds. At the end of the day, we were exposing our vulnerability for potential gain in a college process. We were marketing our troubles as tangible, manageable and “overcome-able” to show colleges, to show our world around us, that we were good enough. But if those colleges didn’t like that, didn’t like everything we had overcome on paper, they could — and usually did — reject us.
For Guillot, the pre-law advisor, one of the most interesting parts of the job comes when she sits in front of students that don’t feel they have a story to tell. “I try to ask them to try to just talk to me. Sometimes when you think about the challenges of telling a story it is the process of writing that is stopping them.”
They can tell a verbal story just like they talk to their friends about something that happened to them or to family members,” she continued. “But somehow translating between verbal and written is hard for a lot of people. I will ask them to tell me about something they experienced while they were a college student that had an impact.”
The hardest part of the job and one of the most fundamental truths when it comes to these personal statements is that there are appropriate topics and inappropriate topics. There are students who may mentally be going back in their memory many times to something but it may not be the proper thing to write about for a professional program.
“You have to find positive ways to tell them it is not going to work,” Guillot said. “If you do a good job with the personal statement you position someone to see themselves in a new way, ideally with a greater understanding of their agency, a greater sense of where they want to go next and why.”
Guillot shared that students aren’t always there, in terms of understanding or connection, when writing their personal statements.
“If the student is not ready to see the connection between their experience and their skill, I don’t force it on them. I try to talk to them about it, I try to pull it out and ask probing questions, try to get them to see.”
“If they don’t see it and it’s not genuine or sincere then that is not what their statement should be about,” Guillot’s eyes looked up. “And it is okay, they need to be who they are and their personal statement needs to reflect where they are at in life.”
The University of Michigan’s campus, along with every college campus, is filled with literary magazines and newspapers that print personal statements. A literary, more artistic version of what we are asked to do for college admissions boards. In high school I tried to weave my own story into 500 words. I wrote about a series of events: my siblings going away to college and leaving me, the youngest sibling, behind, my parents’ marriage fumbling apart and back together again, my move out of my childhood home. This was one way to put what was going on in my life into words. And though you could argue my writing was for an admissions board, marketed and packaged, couldn’t you say the same thing about the writing being published in these magazines and newspapers advertising the lives of our generation’s confessional writers? Via competitive admissions processes, creative nonfiction curriculum and literary magazines popularity, we seem to be asked and encouraged to expose ourselves a whole lot more than our parents’ generation ever was.
I told Wyatt about my creative nonfiction class in high school where we wrote our personal statements. I asked him to think about how getting rejected from colleges made him learn something about himself. I waited for him to think, to dig deep and tell me some secret about his life. I was hoping, maybe more because of my own attraction to story telling, that he would give me something I could help him expose, market and package for an admissions board. Something he could write about, love the sound of, and know was a new, significant part of who he is.