Personal statement

Perhaps a more important lesson than “thou shalt not be cliché” is the maxim to “be yourself”.

Written by Jackie Wirz, Ph.D.

Fall is swiftly approaching, and with it comes a new crop of students*.  It seems like only yesterday that I was writing my applications for graduate school and dealing with the universally awkward “Personal Statement” essay.

One of my goals was to never use the words “destiny”, “passion” or “dream”.  And definitely no Robert Frost quotes**. To be sure, my attempts at squishing a lifetime of hopes and dreams into one tiny document were just as awkward as everybody else’s.

I was also hampered by the fact that my educational background focused more on numbers and smelly chemicals rather than grammar and style. Extracting DNA from fish kidneys was, and probably will always be, easier for me than trying to portray a sense of intellectual ability, sincerity, humor, and all of the other sterling qualities that an application essay needs to convey. These days, crafting a CV has replaced having to labor over personal statements; however, the personal statement problem still crosses my mind–and my desk–periodically.

I’ve read quite a few statements from friends over the years. No matter how good (or bad!) the essay is, I’m always frustrated by how inadequately the words represent the individual. (A small word limit can be exasperating, but even a short essay is better than a single word: USC’s college application has a “quick take” essay portion where questions are to be answered with a lone word—guaranteeing a cliché 99% of the time.)  I was recently reviewing a friend’s application and found his essay to be mature, well-worded and sincere.  But, it was still a shadow of the real Scott. He’s so much more than his essay:  funny, sarcastic, entertaining, smart, caring … an all-around awesome guy IN ADDITION to being mature, well-worded and sincere. If I was writing a letter of recommendation for him, I’d copy and paste that whole phrase. Unfortunately, writing glowing statements of awesomeness about oneself without sounding like a jerk is difficult. Covering all of those concepts in a persuasive essay with evidence-based, factual support? Downright impossible.

(Admissions always want you to back up your claims; can you imagine having to do that for the intangible qualities that make a person a REAL person? “I am 67% humorous and 12% sarcastic. Roughly 44% awesome. I took a standardized test. I know.”)

This isn’t to say that people don’t have fun with their personal statements***. We’ve all heard stories of really original and ‘out there’ application essays. My coworker, Melissa, wrote her personal statement about the chemistry of cheesecakes and shipped an entire cheesecake to the admissions office. (Apparently, it arrived on the birthday of one of the admissions officers; needless to say, she got in.) I’ve always wondered if anybody has actually done an Elle Woods –style video essay. And it turns out, many people have.  Notably, Tufts University started an optional video application in 2010 where over 1000 entries were received that first year. According to a story by NPR, the video essays could be as amazing OR as dreary as the written essays. Although a picture may be worth a thousand words, a bunch of them strung together in a video may still do a bad job at capturing an individual.

These can be so bad, they become downright legendary.  Case in point: Aleksey Vayner’s video resume became a viral hit in 2006.

Its overuse of cliché phrases is only slightly less horrific than the obviously fake action stunts peppered throughout the video. In this case, not only was the video essay itself painful, much of the information presented turned out to be false. Perhaps a more important lesson than “thou shalt not be cliché” is the maxim to “be yourself”. In my opinion, that’s the best rule of thumb for any kind of personal statement–if the voice doesn’t sound like yours, don’t use it. When I speak, I don’t use the word “destiny” nor do I quote Robert Frost. And I definitely don’t pretend to bench press 450 lbs or break seven bricks in one karate chop. Yes, the “be yourself” mantra is a cliché in and of itself, but I simply can’t pretend to be somebody I am not.

That isn’t to say that the over-produced video resume doesn’t deserve a spot in this modern world; I just think that the appropriate spot is in a sitcom more than in an application to medical school. Which brings me to the fictional Barney Stinson Video Resume, quite possibly the best “possimpible” video ever.   You have to check it out.  Raw awesomeness is priceless.


*Did you know that we have 44 different academic programs?

** So, what DID I talk about in my personal essays?  Star Wars, Jeff Goldblum and indecision.  I kid you not.

*** Sometimes people have fun with the process by making fake, terrible essays for stress relief.  Google “worst titles for college essays” and be amused.



Jackie Wirz is an Assistant Professor and the Biomedical Sciences Information Specialist at the Oregon Health & Science University Library. She earned her Ph.D. from Oregon Health & Science University in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and has a B.S. from Oregon State University in Biochemistry & Biophysics. Her research career has spanned 15 years and has covered diverse topics such as transcriptional regulation, macromolecular structure determination, collagen biophysics and DNA repair. Her professional interests include information, data, and knowledge management, as well as the publishing paradigms of scientists.

Additionally, Jackie is a strong proponent of science outreach and volunteers with a variety of programs designed to promote scientific literacy.  Jackie believes in evolution, salted caramel buttercream and Jane Eyre.