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ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

Turn Your Personal Statement Into Drama


One of my editing clients recently requested help with his SOP with the words, " I hate writing about myself." That remark was a challenge to me to help him create an SOP that would tell his personal story clearly and have it noticed by the admissions committee at the university where he was applying.

Many of us dislike writing for a lot of reasons. However, when the assignment is to talk about ourselves to anonymous readers who will use that discourse to judge our qualifications for college admission or a job application or a fellowship or grant, we can become absolutely terrified about the process. What can we possibly say that won't be boring and sound like something that everybody else would say too? We freeze and get a bad case of writer's block. Well, there is help.

The goal of an outstanding SOP is obviously to get it noticed and have it compare favorably with others in an application competition. How do you do that, especially when your essay may well be one of hundreds? When you have to answer a question that you may not relate to particularly well or you are writing your eighth or ninth admission essay of the week and they're all starting to sound alike, how DO you keep yours fresh and interesting? How do you raise the odds that your essay will be set aside as an outstanding essay that warrants reexamination and eventual acceptance of your application?

It's simple. Learn how to tell a story and do it the same way that good writers have for ages – a good narrative hook at the beginning, a compelling incident, and a final resolution that reflects a changed view of the world and the main character – in this case, YOU. As you write your SOP, think back to all the movies or television shows you've watched that enthralled you, the biography or memoir that had you turning page after page, or the novel that kept you reading late into the night to "find out what happened." Then apply those techniques to your SOP. Tell a story – your story-- in the same dramatic way. Include a beginning, a middle, and an end to narrate what happened to you that was unique, made you grow as a person and explains the direction you now want to go in your life.

Think scene first, and then decide how to express it as a picture. Think about an event that you can show your reader to illustrate the one important point you want to make about your life and the lessons you've learned. Then dramatize that event as a microcosm of your life, and make it as real as possible. Explain in story form how that event took place in your life and what it taught you. Think about the people you met and how they helped or didn't help you grow. Narrate the details of that important event as they happened. Think about place and event and why both are important. Use precise details to make your story "live" for your reader. Then decide on the precise last impression you want to leave with your reader and the one detail or phrase you can use to communicate that impression and state it.

So, what are some practical techniques you can use to create an intriguing SOP that will be read and remembered?

  1. Look for an incident to narrate that answers the essay question you've been asked or expands the topic with your special reaction. Most SOPs present discussion points to get you started. Review them, and decide what event in your life illustrates that point best. Then develop its details in narrative form as you write your essay. Use part of your essay to relate a scene that makes the event you've chosen real and personal. Tell the reader "what happened."
  2. Create an opening sentence that "hooks" the reader and attracts immediate interest. Make sure that sentence clearly ties into the discussion topic or question and opens the door to the special story you've chosen to tell. That opening sentence will let your essay start with a bang. Often that great first sentence will lie hidden quietly somewhere further on in your essay as an uncut jewel simply because you had to write the early text to "warm up" before you were ready to say what you really wanted to say. One of the keys to writing a good essay is to search for your "real" beginning in your first draft. That sentence may be in your third paragraph or near the end of your draft, but once you've spotted it, move it immediately to its rightful place at the beginning. Open with it and delete all the chaff from the wheat in between. Then your bit of gold will shine. Develop that sentence into your story, and you'll have found the focus you need to develop the piece you heard in your head before you first put pen to paper.
  3. Make effective use of imagery and figures of speech just like great writers do, especially poets and novelists. Similes that make memorable comparisons and metaphors that present unique images and active verbs and phrases that attract attention will strengthen your story and make it shine. Sometimes a single phrase or choice of word can paint the perfect picture that you want of how you are different or unusual and definitely exceptional.
  4. Don't be afraid to use a bit of dialogue if your story warrants it. Conversation can be a very effective tool to immediacy to your story. Just be careful not to overdo it. You're not writing a screenplay. You're writing an SOP, so go light. A brief interchange of dialogue or dialogue retold as memory, however, can communicate an immediate sense of an event much more quickly than saying, "she told me that or he believed this or he decided that. " In other words, to reiterate the classic writing mandate most writers struggle over when they learn to write, "Show! don't tell." Paint a picture. Show your story happening. Let the people who occupy your story really be there. Dialogue is one technique that can help you make a story feel immediate and impress.
  5. Develop a specific theme (writers often call it a thesis sentence.) Decide at the start what you want to say and put it in a condensed form. A list of phrases works well as an outline. Then show it in the story. Be passionate and be honest. Reflect on your life experience and communicate what you've learned through narration. Pick an event and a storyline that illustrates your personal evolution and talk passionately about it. Sit down and figure out how you can relate that event and keep the reader on the edge of her seat, waiting for your next word or phrase and revelation.

Telling any story is emotional. A good story needs to be honest and revealing, just as drama is in life or in a memorable movie or a magnificent poem, or a masterpiece novel. Don't be afraid to risk doing the same in your SOP. Say what you want to say. Be dramatic and be daring. You might just get admitted to the school of your dreams by doing so.

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