Statement Season

 

At the writing center I help staff, we've just re-opened for summer, which means one thing: weeks upon weeks of personal statements and applications, mostly (so far) for med school. I think this may be my favorite genre, even though it is probably the most difficult and confounding genre of writing I can think of. After all, where else does a writer have to brag, be modest, and show professionalism and ability while gesturing modestly toward their relative lack of both, all while asking for something they desperately want?

Yesterday, for example, I worked with a writer who felt their statement was basically finished, but who was encountering resistance from the medium in the form of character counts. Now that applications are online, personal statements are uploaded onto web forms and schools can place a hard cap on length, so it is even more difficult than before to write a truly 'personal' personal statement, given that 3000 characters is a very small amount of writing. This hasn't changed the rhetorical situation facing the writer or the vague, rorschach-blot-like prompts ("Tell us about your motivation to enter medical school using experiences you've had to demonstrate that motivation. Start as close to birth as possible."), but it's certainly made things harder. This writer was resistant to changing the structure and level of detail they'd worked so hard for, but as I explained, it's a question of engineering: how can you use the tools you have at your disposal to build the structure as required, and how can you recognize and re-write when you realize you've overdesigned your essay by 300 characters? How can you shorten your personal statement without losing strategically important information?

But the resistance of the medium becomes more than a strategic challenge in some consultations. What about the writer that has to explain a semester's poor performance, something they know hurts them 'on paper,' in 300 words? How do you explain that you now know your brother was beheaded by a Tamaulipas gang for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but that you spent an entire semester unsure of his whereabouts and couldn't study after dark due to anxiety and depression? How do you explain that your parent's unexpected divorce freshman year meant that you've had to work to support your mom and pay your bills, and you could only complete assignments and study for tests on weekday nights after 10 pm? In 300 words? That takes more than strategy.

When that is the kind of 'artistic problem' we encounter in a personal statement, the conversation then becomes so much more complicated - trying to balance the emotional content of the encounter with the strategic aim of making a personal statement more rhetorically effective - and I often wonder what the eventual reception of that statement will be. In fact, I wonder far more about writers of personal statements after we work together than I do about writers completing an assigned piece of writing. Maybe because the personal statement is a chosen rather than a compelled piece of writing, it feels much less strategic and much more intrinsic, more revealing of the writer as a person, and frankly, more important, than a one-pager contrasting Lang's with Arnold's view of myth, or a take-home lab report on the fluid dynamics of a laminar flow with constant velocity in a uniform pipe. In some ways this is a false view. We are being strategic when we write and talk about personal statements, and I'm sure lab reports are important despite their lack of the emotional content so dear to me, so to treat personal statements as the ne plus ultra of writing center encounters is disingenuous. But it's also kinda true.

Personal statements are something students are doing for themselves, and they're a lot of work. By the time I enter the writing center encounter with a student they've worked incredibly hard for a very long time, and the fact that they're writing yet another personal statement means that they're requesting the favor of working very hard for a few more years. I find that incredibly admirable, and the sheer amount of effort students put into their higher education is a truth that's too often drowned out by other, more systems-level topics in our conversations about colleges and universities. Coming to the writing center in the first place is also something students are doing for themselves, and that's why the whole thing can work - if it was compelled, the encounter couldn't take place. Once in that encounter I always feel some connection with the writer, but when I work with a writer on their personal statement I'm not just encountering their history with writing and the ways that history expresses itself in an individual text. I'm encountering a possible future as well.

So yeah, I like the summer. It's statement season.