What Defines You?
“I can’t think of ONE story that defines me,” my student laments as I explain the concept of a “hook” in our personal statement brainstorming session. “I haven’t saved whales or changed my company culture or rescued orphans….”
And yet, that is exactly the point – since nobody is defined by one story, your challenge in a personal statement is not to single out the best possible moment of your life, but to show yourself in action. When you do this, readers can’t help but read on, eager to hear how you got there and where you are headed.
Imagine an admissions officer with thousands of applications to review every season and perhaps 10 to review in the hour before lunch. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could both entertain and show something about who you actually are? Why should he dig deeper into this essay? How could she imagine you as a member of the community next fall?
When I lived in Italy, I ran with feral dogs…
This was the eye-catching first sentence of a successful personal statement about a student’s terror on a training run, preparing for her off-season college sport while studying abroad, and how her thoughts and emotions that day represent qualities she most values in herself. This hook gave her an excellent jumping-off point, from which she went on to discuss her perseverance, organization, and delight in solving puzzles—all qualities that made her a great candidate for law school.
I had taken a right at African horticulture and a left at 20th Century American farm tools, but beyond that, my mind was drawing a blank as I tried to retrace my steps.
Another student’s personal statement starts with her, lost in the Library of Congress, and then goes on to tell about her journey to writing her senior thesis on Virginia Woolf, describing how this has both steered her towards and perfectly prepared her for graduate school.
Successful hooks have no formula or rules aside from grabbing the reader’s attention, whether you are writing a personal statement for law school, composing the 5300 character essay required for the medical school AMCAS application, or answering Stanford’s “What Matters to you most and why?” as you apply to their Graduate School of Business.
When an individual incarcerated for a violent crime asks you to smuggle a message out of prison for them, the answer should be no.
Does Your Writing Reel People In?
Do you want to read more? Do you get a sense that this is an intriguing applicant? This was the beginning of a successful application to that Stanford question above – the student is a Stanford JD/MBA. Ultimately, her essay explained that her family mattered most to her. But the opening hook – about analyzing the risk of helping a father, seeing him as an individual rather than a criminal – was central to the message. By describing that moment, she conveyed meaningful insight into who she is and why.
During the brainstorming meeting, I encourage students to start by telling me about themselves. What do you read? What do you do for fun? What is the funniest/scariest/most meaningful thing that has happened to you in the last 5 years? That hour usually produces great ideas for the stories you want to tell, reflecting who you are and how you might explain yourself in the limited words allowed by each admissions essay. The key always is – as my high school English teachers hammered into me years ago – “Show, don’t Tell.” Don’t tell readers that you are smart, engaged, analytical, hard-working, or creative. Show them through stories of yourself in action.