State your purpose–with some actual purpose

By February 14, 2013Writing about Writing

fistStatements of purpose, or personal statements, make for some of the most interesting tutorials at the UCWbL.  These writers are looking forward to the next stage of their careers, whether it’s graduate school or a new job.  It’s great to hear the stories and experiences these students bring with them, and always inspiring to hear of their plans.  But there’s a lot of pressure, too, and the high stakes that go into a personal statement can sometimes overwhelm us; we feel too self-conscious, and the result is rather uninspired.

Here are three examples from real personal statements that our tutors have worked on.  Bear in mind, these are the opening lines, the very first thing the audience will read.

“The position that I found on DePaul career center for an accounting is one I am very interested in and for which I am very well qualified.”

“My primary research interests are in the cultural and intellectual interactions and exchanges between medieval Europe, the Byzantine Empire, and the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates.”

“I enjoy climbing the mountains with my friends in Beijing once a year and I realize that life is like climbing up a high peak, where you will be amazed to find a beautiful landscape. The same is true of my accounting study.”

Now I didn’t study accounting, but my friends who did would disagree that it’s as exhilarating as mountain-climbing.  In all three cases we see varying riffs on the same theme: “I don’t know what else to say, so I’m just going to launch directly into this thing.”  There might be a half-hearted attempt at sincerity as in the first one, or specificity in the second, or cliched comparisons in the third, but in all three cases these don’t do much to establish interest.

Stanford University has shared some winning opening lines from its applicants.  “Any student,” they argue, “who hopes to be the hero of his [or her] own life will strive to write a great opening line.”  That itself is excellent advice for writing your own statement of purpose, but here are some particularly killer selections to get you thinking:

“Unlike many mathematicians, I live in an irrational world; I feel that my life is defined by a certain amount of irrationalities that bloom too frequently, such as my brief foray in front of 400 people without my pants.”

“Sitting cross-legged on the floor of a Bhimanagar slum dwelling in Bangalore, I ran my fingers across a fresh cut on my forehead.”

“I almost didn’t live through September 11th, 2001.”

“When I was 8 years old, I shocked my family and a local archaeologist by discovering artifacts dating back almost 3,500 years.”

“When I was in eighth grade I couldn’t read.”

“I had never seen anyone get so excited about mitochondria.”

“I stand on the riverbank surveying this rippled range like some riparian cowboy—instead of chaps, I wear vinyl, thigh-high waders and a lasso of measuring tape and twine is slung over my arm.”

“I have old hands.”

“Flying over enemy territory, I took in Beirut’s beautiful skyline and wondered if under different circumstances I would have hopped on a bus and come here for my vacation. Instead, I saw the city from the window of a helicopter, in military uniform, my face camouflaged, on my way to a special operation deep behind enemy lines.”

“Some fathers might disapprove of their children handling noxious chemicals in the garage.”

“I was paralyzed from the waist down. I would try to move my leg or even shift an ankle but I never got a response. This was the first time thoughts of death ever crossed my mind.”

“As an Indian-American, I am forever bound to the hyphen.”

“Journey to Gulu’s outskirts and you will uncover the scene where education was raped 11 years ago; some Ugandan teens also lost their innocence in exchange for their lives.”

“I have been surfing Lake Michigan since I was 3 years old.”

“On a hot Hollywood evening, I sat on a bike, sweltering in a winter coat and furry boots.”

“I change my name each time I place an order at Starbucks.”

Now if those made you feel bland and enervated, don’t worry–me too.  But the point is that when it comes to statements of purpose, there is no such thing as too descriptive, too bold, too willing to tell a story.  In fact, UNI’s Vince Gotera puts the “passionate hook” at the top of his list in his excellent guidelines for writing statements of purpose.  “Here’s an organization I would recommend, he says:

(1) passionate hook

(2) segué to your background in the field

(3) specific classes by title and professors you have had (especially if well-known in the field) [or, if this is for a job, relevant work experiences and projects that have prepared you for this position–this can replace 3-5]

(4) related extracurricular activities (especially if they hint at some personal quality you want to convey)

(5) any publications or other professional accomplishments in the field (perhaps conference presentations or public readings)

(6) explanations about problems in your background (if needed)

(7) why you have chosen this grad school (name one or two professors and what you know of their specific areas or some feature of the program which specifically attracts you).

But, you ask, isn’t the point not to go with the boilerplate response?  Well, I think there’s a big difference between an unoriginal outline and the unoriginal thoughts that you fill it up with.  Plus, when you can dissect the statement of purpose down to its parts, it starts to appear less intimidating, and you’re freer to think about how you present yourself in a way that grabs your readers’ attention.