Without question, the most common place for writers to exercise their freedom in personal statements, as well as the most common place where writers feel uncertain about what they’ve done, is in their beginnings. Even personal statements that are scientific in tone and content might have creative beginnings. Although there’s nothing wrong with a straightforward opening simply stating your purpose, especially if you have just one page for your essay, most writers take a bolder tack. Readers of personal statements are used to openings that tell stories or borrow quotations, essays that discuss relevant current events, and even daring writers who risk a bit of well-conceived humor or surprise.
As the most common creative beginning, a personal story tells a tale by briefly setting a scene, often capturing some formative moment of your past when your interest in your course of study blossomed. Whether setting the scene in a classroom or on a mountaintop, remember that your goal is make readers feel they are there with you, and remember that the setting itself can be a character in your “short story”—influencing both the action and a response to that action.
Here is a perfect example of a lengthy creative beginning that winds its way into a formal thesis statement, excerpted from a Rhodes Scholarship essay in Chapter 5:
Soaked in sweat, I sat deep in thought on the small mound of sand and broken rocks in northern Kenya, where 1.7 million years ago a desperately ill Homo erectus woman had died. Her death had entranced me for years. KNM-ER 1808 had died of Hypervitaminosis A, wherein an overdose of Vitamin A causes extensive hemorrhaging throughout the skeleton and excruciating pain. Yet a thick rind of diseased bone all over her skeleton—ossified blood clots—tells that 1808 lived for weeks, even months, immobilized by pain and in the middle of the African bush. As noted in The Wisdom of the Bones, by Walker and Shipman, that means that someone had cared for her, brought her water, food, and kept away predators. At 1.7 million years of age, 1808’s mere pile of bones is a breathtaking, poignant glimpse of how people have struggled with disease over the ages. Since that moment two summers ago, I’ve been fascinated by humans’ relationship with disease. I want to research paleopathology, the study of ancient diseases, in relation to human culture, specifically sex and gender.
Note how this opening confidently integrates technical detail and even slips in an informal citation on the journey to the thesis. Here, setting acts as a character, moving our story’s protagonist to imagine a woman’s long-ago death, and we also recognize the writer’s seriousness of purpose about her work as she (as a character in the tale) contemplates the woman’s fate from a “small mound of sand and broken rocks in northern Kenya.” Just as she was taken to this important place and moment in her life, we are taken there with her as well through narrative.
Here is another example from an introduction to a student's application to medical school:
When I was little my grandfather gave me piggyback rides, brought me donuts every day when he came home from work, and taught me about nature. A simple farmer who survived World War II and lived most of his life under Russian occupation, he told me why trees grow so high, why I should not pull a cow by its ear, and why I should not chase chickens across the back yard. As fond as I was of him, as I grew and became more educated I also saw how this great man made bad choices about his health. I constantly nagged him about his smoking and poor diet. He loved bacon with eggs and milk straight from the cow. In response to my nagging he would simply say, "Eh, you are so young, what do you know?" One morning after breakfast when I was sixteen, he had a heart attack and died in the kitchen while waiting for an ambulance to arrive.
Here we find a writer who simultaneously evokes the memory of his beloved grandfather and also introduces us to his own sensibility. Simple details about his simple upbringing make up a brief but vivid tale with a tragic end, and thus we understand a very personal motivation behind this writer's choice of career.
Other essays open with much briefer and less narrative personal stories, sometimes relying on just one line to set the context, with the writer heading to a purpose statement shortly thereafter. Here are some straightforward but artful beginnings to personal statements from Donald Asher’s book Graduate Admissions Essays:
I attended seventeen different schools before high school.
I spent the morning of my eighteenth birthday in an auditorium with two hundred strangers.
Radio has been my passion for as long as I can remember.
Clearly, the style of an opening that shares a personal story can range from the flashy to the plain—what matters most is that the opening truly is personal.
Like many writers and readers, I’m a sucker for a good meaty quotable quote, which is part of why quotations are used to open each chapter of this handbook. We tape handwritten quotes on our bathroom mirrors, clip them onto the visors in our cars, and paste them into our e-mail signature lines. In a personal essay, not only do quotes set context for the reader, they also allow you to ride on the broad shoulders of another who actually managed to say or write something that was worth quoting. Quotations might be used at the start of the essay, in the closing, or they might appear at a key moment within the body as a way to set context or emphasize a point. In Chapter 5 of this handbook, a quotation is used as an opening to a science-related essay by an applicant for a National Science Foundation Fellowship. In the same chapter, another writer uses a narrative opening in her essay to repeat a favorite quote that her mother used to say: “To find out where you’re going, you need to know where home is.”
Keep in mind that some quotations are highly overused and that quotations can also come off as merely trite and silly, depending on the taste of the reader. Some find Forrest Gump’s “Life is like a box of chocolates” hilarious; others just groan when they hear it. If using a quotation, be sure that you’re not just propping yourself up on it as an apology for a lack of substance to your text. Comment on the quotation’s relevance to your life rather than just let it sit there, and choose the most meaningful quote for the circumstances rather than one that simply tickles your fancy.
The Use of Surprise or Humor
Indeed, the weapon of surprise is a key ingredient in a Monty Python skit about the Spanish Inquisition (no one expects it, just in case you forgot). But in a personal statement humor and surprise can fall flat in the hands of a fumbling writer. Nevertheless, some writers take these calculated risks, and do so with style. Witness this passage from a sample essay in Chapter 4, as a film student explains how he spent his freshman year in a different major:
With a high school education grounded rigorously in math and science, I entered Mythic University on an academic scholarship with Polymer Science and Engineering as my intended major. I like to joke that, after seeing Mike Nichols’ film The Graduate and hearing that terrific line, “plastics,” delivered poolside to a wayward Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), I was inadvertently led into the hands of the great polymer Satan. But, by sophomore year, I quickly escaped the plastic devil’s clasp and found a new home in the film department.
Here, this student uses self-deprecating humor as many do in the personal statement: to explain what might otherwise look like a curiosity in his background. Readers need not question his devotion to film despite his beginning in the sciences—he even blends the two interests together by being influenced into his initial major by a film, aligning himself briefly and humorously with the hapless character of Benjamin Braddock.
Others use humor or surprise less expansively, but again with the purpose of revealing something personal and using intentional self-commentary. In Mark Allen Stewart’s How to Write the Perfect Personal Statement, one writer quips that his high school classmates voted him “Most likely to have a publishable resume,” which shows that this writer can simultaneously poke fun at and uplift himself. In Donald Asher’s Graduate Admissions Essays. Another writer opens her essay unconventionally with a surprising admission—“Skeletons. Like everyone else I have some hanging in my closet”—then later reveals herself as a “survivor of sexual assault.” Here, the writer’s tone is surprisingly frank, which under the circumstances could help her be viewed as mature and courageous, despite the risk she takes.
Part of what unifies these disparate approaches above is that the writers clearly know they are taking a risk with their rhetoric—there’s nothing accidental or highly cutesy about it. All of them reveal a passion for their chosen fields, and the humor and surprise are attention-getting without being too distracting.
Perhaps a good rule of thumb, then, is this: If using humor or surprise, aim it squarely at yourself without making yourself look silly or undermining your character, and dispense with it quickly rather than push it over the top. No matter how well you tell a joke, some readers may not care for it. And remember that not everyone likes, or even "gets," Monty Python.
It’s often said that one of the best ways to prepare for an interview for a national scholarship is to read The New York Times and be ready to discuss current events. If you make it to the interview selection stage, it’s already clear that you have an excellent academic record and look good on paper. What’s unclear is how you will present in person. By showing yourself to be not just committed to your field but also knowledgeable about the world, you paint yourself as a mature thinker, an informed citizen, a responsible student of life.
In a personal statement, writers typically create topical context by narrating a recent event of some consequence, citing a respected source, or simply establishing an arena for discussion. “Martial arts and medicine,” opens one personal essay from Richard Stelzer’s How to Write a Winning Personal Statement for Graduate and Professional School, using an intentional sentence fragment to grab our attention and to crisply define two intertwined themes in the writer’s life. Other essays—the first from the Asher book and the second from the Stelzer book cited above—lend a sense of importance to their subject matter through topical references:
As I write this statement, Governor Mario Cuomo makes preparations to vacate the Executive Mansion in Albany, New York, after New Yorkers rejected his appeal for another term.
As the United States launched yet another small war in a distant corner of the globe, Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen returned to life and captivated a hometown audience in Pekin, Illinois, with the folksy eloquence that made him nationally famous.
As these politically savvy allusions show, writers who use topical references impress upon their readers that they are both informed and concerned. Here, the color of one’s political stripes is irrelevant—what matters is that they are painted clearly. Whether employing a political reference or citing a current event, when you create topical context you represent yourself as a keen observer of the world.