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Getting Started


"The best advice I received about writing the application was to 'freewrite.'  I just sat down at the computer and filled up the page.  This made it much easier to tell my story."  -  2001 Truman Scholar

1.  The easiest way to begin is simply to start writing.  Don't start with the object of "writing the personal statement," and don't worry about making it the right length--that can come later.  Just write honestly and truthfully about yourself and the significant moments and people in your life.

2.  Understand that you will write multiple drafts, and give yourself permission to write very, very badly.  Chances are the first, second, and even third drafts will be just awful, and that's OK.   Spill it out on the page, let your sentences romp, pretend you're Faulkner and you've never heard of commas and periods.  Don't worry that if tomorrow you are hit by a truck and friends read through your papers, that they will find your personal essay drafts and decide that you are a fraud.  The truth is, perfection is not lovable anyway.

3.  Only after you've written some really terrible drafts will you be ready to begin sifting, organizing, and re-visioning your life story.

4.  Keep some basic principles in mind as you go:


--There is no such thing as a model for a personal statement.

Samples of other applicant's personal statements can help you see how they tackled the problem of explaining themselves to the world, but your personal statement is yours alone.  Only you can write it, and it must be specific to you.  That doesn't mean it must be absolutely unique and the ideas you express must be totally original.  It does mean that it must be honest, sincere, and convey something about your ideas, your beliefs, and your experiences that lists of activities and the praise of recommenders cannot.  Capture the passion you feel, and don't worry about whether the committee has heard it before.

--Everybody has a story.
Maybe you didn't endure a traumatic childhood, or spend a year in Bosnia working with refugees, but you have had experiences that are interesting and have been formative to your development as a person and a scholar.  Don't worry about whose stories are most important or most interesting to committees--just tell yours.


--What's your line?

Telling your story chronologically may help you to remember key moments and turning points, but there are more compelling narrative techniques.  What are the threads that tie together the separate pieces of your life?  What questions about the world do you find yourself consistently attempting to explore?  Was there a moment where you just knew you had discovered what you want to do next?

--Think strategically.
You can't reveal everything about yourself in 1000 words, so you must decide what personal characteristics to emphasize in your statement.  What are the most important life experiences, service activities, values, and ambitions that define who you are?  What do you most want a committee to know about you?


Sections of the above are by Mary Hale Tolar, Associate Director for Educational Leadership at Kansas State University.  Mary Tolar is a 1988 Truman Scholar and 1990 Rhodes Scholar; served as scholarships advisor at four institutions, including Willamette; was Deputy Executive Secretary for the Truman Scholarship Foundation, and has served on national selection committees for Truman and Rhodes Scholarships.

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