Personal statements are the worst nightmare of even a confident writer. A mysterious amalgamation of ego and sycophantry, decisiveness and open-to-influenceness, personal statement writing often begins with wild listmaking and doesn’t get much further until a panicked, last-minute rewrite at 1AM, wracked by guilt and accompanied by a bottle of Chateau Ste. Michele.
As a writing consultant, coaxing a sophisticated personal statement from a writer is one of the most difficult challenges we face. It takes a certain level of interpersonal connection, which is often not possible in our time-constrained work environment. What are your childhood dreams? how do they connect to the program at [insert school name here]? what conflicts have you faced that specially equip you to research croaking grasshoppers in Malaysia/androgyny in Renaissance painting/Marxist revolution in Harry Potter?
My students know me well enough to know that I will always ask them to cut their work by at least a third. First-timers are always horrified, but returning students value my insistence on brevity, specific details, and illustrative examples.
Rarely, a productive session will leave a student invigorated to make revisions, and their engagement in the process of detailing their scholarly journey will thrill even the most jaded writing tutor.
More often, though, the student will resent the tutor’s suggestion to start from scratch through a thin veil of politesse, barely masking deep-seated panic. The tutor will notice the resentment and choose to ignore it, or acknowledge its presence and propose channeling that same energy into a stellar rewrite.
Recently, I met with a student outside of my formal tutoring space to go over what I was told was a personal statement. Actually, it was a 7 page letter petitioning the university that the student did not get accepted to the first time around. The student also sent me their detailed college and high school transcripts, their 5-page personal statement submitted with the original application, and various supplementary forms from admissions officers detailing the student’s graduation plan, course schedule, etc. Wow.
Without the auspices of the writing center to justify my non-directive pedagogy, I struggled to clarify what I could offer the student: comprehensive and supportive feedback, suggested edits, assistance in developing writing skills overall and not just for this assignment, blah blah blah. The student balked: couldn’t I just rewrite the letter for them?
In the writing center, I would have kindly explained that writing someone’s paper for them was unethical and wasn’t one of the services offered by the writing center staff. But I wasn’t in the writing center. People hire writers to edit work for them all the time, right? Why can’t I offer a variety of services for a variety of circumstances? The only thing holding me back was my deep-seated devotion to writing center pedagogy.
Further, while presuming competence is one of my primary ethics as a writing tutor/editor, this student was so riddled with what seemed like ADHD that I could hardly get them to answer a super precise question like, “why do you want to major in International Studies” without them going on a 10-minute diatribe about sports, the Korean military, and their favorite burrito place in North Seattle.
In the end, I elected to offer this student comprehensive edits, a full rewrite, and basically to remove them from the text except for their personal details. I wouldn’t offer this in every situation, but the extreme anxiety and lack of focus from the student forced me to choose an approach that worked best for my own wellbeing–once a student veers wildly from their own work, the amount of social & emotional labor that I have to put in directly affects the services that I will offer. When I can use writing center pedagogy to redirect, I will. And when the struggle is just too real, I will offer an alternative.
This realization is freeing as I continue to expand my freelance writing and editing responsibilities; I will continue developing my intuitive skills to accurately gauge which kind of writing help each client needs.