05 May 2011

Personal statements and “I-don’t-know-what-is-it-but-I-like-it”

Imagine you were going to listen to a bunch of new songs. Could you tell me which songs you would like before you heard them?

You could probably make some good guesses, in broad strokes. “I like jazz, but I’m not very into country.”

But it starts to get very unpredictable at the level of individual songs? Even for my favourite artists, for songs I know well, I couldn’t tell why this song works for me so much better than that one.

There isn’t a formula to predict what songs are going to be global worldwide hits, and which ones are going to find an audience of maybe a few thousand. The small audience may love their song as passionately as the large audience loves the global hit. But the only way to tell which is which is to put it out there to the masses.

I realized today that personal statements, which we use so much for things like grad school applications, are like that for me. I can often pinpoint why I don’t like something retroactively, but I can’t easily articulate the common features in ones that I like.


This is frustrating for me as a teacher and grad program coordinator. I teach biological writing to my undergraduates, and I always have them do personal statements. It’s always the students’ favourite assignment. They find it useful. I try to help students who want to apply to grad school.


It’s as difficult to explain to people what will make a successful personal statement as it is to explain to them what will make a hit pop song. The things I can explain to people are very general – like saying, “Accordion songs are not likely to be huge hits.”

Of course, for students, it may be a revelation that they may have to put away the accordion if they want to reach a large audience. But I wonder how much more can be conveyed on the subject.

Photo by Irregular Shed on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

1 comment:

Miss MSE said...

I think one of the most common problems with coming up with guideline for personal statements is right there in the name: they are supposed to be personal. There's a certain degree of authenticity needed in a good personal statement. It's very easy when writing many personal statements to try and write what you think the target audience wants to hear. But going back to music, if everyone wrote what they thought audience wanted to hear, music would all start to sound rather alike (see: late 90's pop).

One possible writing exercise would be to have students write a statement of what they think the reader wants to see, and then try reading it aloud. It will probably sound clunky and unnatural, like a song with too much auto-tune. Personal statements are supposed to convey a voice, so reading them out loud can be particularly helpful.