personal statement tips: picking the right words for the job

Personal statement: the words conjure dread in some and excitement in others. For many, the personal statement is a first taste of something very common in business: selling. Whether it’s a CV or covering letter, a pitch to a client, or a job interview, knowing how to sell yourself, to pitch your skills and experience in the right way, can mean the difference between success and failure. How you view the challenge of writing a personal statement is defined, to a large extent, by your comfort with selling yourself. Some people are just naturally good at this kind of stuff; they have no problems talking about themselves or their accomplishments. But for most it’s a skill to be acquired through practice.

It’s not just what to say that’s a source of worry, it’s how to say it. You want to sound smart. You want to sound confident. You want to sound special. Ultimately, you want to stand out. But the anxiety of the process makes it hard to feel genuinely confident, or smart, or special.

Anxiety does funny things to the mind, and, if you let it, it will do funny things to your writing – like making you select a fancy word, when a simpler choice would a better job. If your first draft reads like the result of a drunken night with a thesaurus, then you may need the following reminder:

‘Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.’

In their famous and still very handy manual, The Elements of Style, Strunk and White warn against a common error of judgement: using a fancy word, when a simpler one is more appropriate. It’s easy to think that long or obscure words will impart a sense of your cleverness to the assessor. In fact, they will likely make your writing seem unintentionally amusing. Instead of communicating passion, purpose and a sense of identity, your words will seem hollow and not your own. Unless you are Stephen Fry, you do not use words like refulgent or perspicacious in your everyday speech and writing. Using them in your personal statement, even if you manage to do so in a grammatically correct way, will create a jarring disconnect between your words and the things – ideas, emotions, goals – to which those words are meant to refer.

Clarity is a fundamental principle of marketing, and you are trying to market yourself. Why put-up linguistic hurdles in your writing? Your assessor will have to read hundreds of personal statements; they will not have days to admire your high-falutin prose, but rather just minutes to get a sense of who you are and what you have to offer.

The best defence against this tendency is to rigorously edit your personal statement. Go through it line by line word by word, again and again. Justify every word to yourself. Then make sure it reads well to a third party, someone whose judgement you can trust.

There are many other stylistic pitfalls to avoid when writing your personal statement but all can be recognised and deleted if you leave yourself enough time – the more time, the better the result.