How to tell a story with your personal statement

Telling a story with your personal statement can a very effective strategy. It would be nice if you could just list your achievements and have them speak for themselves. But a list of bullet points won’t sell 'you' as a candidate. A list of discrete facts would, in fact, be a disaster, no matter how successful you have been in your academic career. Universities want to know why you are doing the subjects you are doing. They also want to get an idea of you as a person. And bear in mind that your assessor will have seen applications from other, equally exceptional, students who possess similar grades and achievements.

A personal statement is like an interview – but an interview at which you won’t be present. An element left unexplained will remain so – and you may not get a second chance.

You have to anticipate the questions that the assessor will bring to your personal statement but you must also frame your answers in a way that connects the facts of academic and extra-curricular career to a sense of intention and ambition.

A great way to do this is to tell a story. Stories can make facts memorable. Stories can create a chain of cause and effect, with you as the locus of action. But what makes a good story? And how do I make a story out of my academic career? An expert eye can make all the difference, but here are some basics to get you started.

There are many elements to a good story, but not all are relevant to a good personal statement. For the purposes of a personal statement, the following elements are the most important: 1) character 2) cause and effect.

Look again at that bullet point list of what you to want to mention in your personal statement. Think about how each item might be reframed into a story that will be structured in terms of cause and effect and have something to say about your character. Say, for example, you are the captain of the basketball team. There are many, many ways you might present this fact. Perhaps a situation came up in which you demonstrated leadership or a capacity for teamwork. Alternatively, explain how basketball was, for you, an important part of maintaining a balance between the academic and the social. In this way a single fact can speak to multiple aspects of your personality – your leadership, your ability to work with others, your desire to contribute to the institution of which you a member.

Try to surround each fact with something personal and anecdotal. You want to humanize the abstract – the abstract being a grade or accomplishment. And try to think of each fact in terms of cause and effect – your time playing basketball (the cause) made you realize the importance of maintaining a healthy balance between the academic and the social (the effect).

There are, however, many ways to go wrong. Framing your academic career as a story does not mean fictionalizing that career. Nor do you want to employ a wealth of unnecessary detail or characterization – is writing about what you had for breakfast necessary to establish a particular attribute or selling point? (The answer is no.)

A personal statement is a hugely important opportunity to communicate or “sell” your qualities. A storytelling structure that frames facts in terms of cause and effect and relates them to your personality will go a long way to persuading your assessor.