Employment Guide: Brown: Personal statements should not replace applicant evaluations

By Simon Brown / Columnist

I remember developing my love for writing editorials at an early age. My father and mother would take me to the nursing home to see my aging grandmother, and we would finger through her prized collection of dusty newspaper clippings. I absorbed each word passionately — and I knew my calling.

And that is why I believe you should take the time to read my column.

If you applied to any selective universities at the end of high school, or if you’re currently ruminating on your scholarship, fellowship, law school or medical school application, you’ve probably written something very similar to the introduction above. It’s the definitive format of that most-frustrating genre of writing: the personal statement.

Most students are confounded when they first encounter the personal statement in the required components section of their application packets. It defies the conventions of more familiar media: It lacks the technicality of the academic paper, the directness of the cover letter and the self-doubt of the essay.

Its ambiguity is even evident in its name — no description beyond the most basic unit of communication, the “statement,” could accurately confine it.

Students, then, are right to be frustrated. For all this talk of “holistic evaluation,” universities and professional programs still accept applicants as they conform to established standards, just as all institutions do. So students are left to submit their textual personas to a competition, with a job application masquerading as a memoir. 

Any piece of writing designed specifically to pass a test or impress an admissions board is bound to be stilted. If universities were explicit about their expectations, they would tarnish their lofty claims to pluralism. So we are left with the unwritten rules of the personal statement, which every admissions officer abides by — at least that’s what the mountains of “Sure Ways to Get to Grad-Law-Medical School” books say on the back cover. 

You should be confident, but only at the end. There should be no doubt that you’re going to become a cardiovascular surgeon and any sign of tentativeness will be met with rejection. Save all that doubt and self-questioning for the story of your personal development, when a moment of self-examination lends an air of sincerity. Doubt at 12 is admirable, at 21 it’s inexcusable.

When recounting that personal upbringing, discuss episodes that establish your humanitarian intentions — but don’t sound “privileged” doing it, as one former admission officer at University of California-Berkeley described in an article for The New York Times. And it’s helpful if you can find something in your development that genuinely inhibited you from your aspiration — whether it be poverty, tragedy or disability — but not if it sounds forced. Even if your parents’ divorce did pose a significant obstacle, don’t think you can explain that along with your career goals, work experience and fabulous grades, in less than 1,000 words.

Ultimately, you should recount your life — but only the parts in the admission officer’s rubric. 

The rubric is nothing for a university or employer to be ashamed of. It is only when they try to squeeze in something far grander than the template can hold — like someone’s persona — that both become contrived.

No one criticizes an employer who asks its applicants for a resumé and cover letter. No one thinks that this employer is being too narrow when it focuses on applicants’ work experiences and how they can explain that experience — regardless of the moment they first heard their respective callings. Even many graduate programs instead require a statement of purpose, which outlines only the concrete research interests and scholarly experience of the candidate.

So why do many colleges, law schools and medical schools expect an articulation of an entire person? 

Until recently, law school and medical school classes have not closely represented the population their future students are obligated to serve. Knowing that the all-important MCATs and LSATs had returned racially and socioeconomically biased results, law and medical programs turned to the holistic approach — with the personal statement at its center. 

Minimizing such outdated and discriminatory evaluations is a commendable move on the part of these schools. Schools are justified — even obligated — to consider inhibiting factors such as family income and racial and sexual identity when opening the gates to the legal and medical professions.

But judging applicants on their knowledge of the obscure conventions of a contrived genre of writing is not a viable alternative. Sure, it sells a lot of books for Kaplan and The Princeton Review and it bestows on successful applicants the validation that the cosmos aligned at their birth to destine them for an M.D., but it won’t say much about an applicant’s suitability.

So considering this article and my lifelong passion for having opinions about things, I am confident that you will not regret accepting my column.

Write to Simon at [email protected].