Getting creative with the Truman personal statement

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by Jane Curlin

Jane Curlin is the former Truman Faculty Representative and Director of Nationally Competitive Scholarships at the University of Tulsa, 1994-1998. Dr. Curlin is a writer and consultant and has a Ph.D. in English.  She is a currently a Senior Program Manager with the Morris K. Udall Foundation

Writing the personal statement is hard. It is, in fact, the most difficult part of the Truman (or any scholarship) application. At first my students don't believe this. Several weeks later, they sit shamefacedly looking at the few tepid sentences they have managed to compose about themselves, and say: "I had no idea!"

Your biggest obstacle to writing an effective personal statement (responses to Items 7, 8, and 14 in particular) is the way you think. Not what you think; how you think.  When you write your policy analysis, you will sift through journal articles and statistics; you arrange, collate, and analyze.You construct an argument with objective, verifiable data.  The personal statement comes from inside you, passionate and gutsy. Its composition is organic, a natural growth dictated by an obscure, internal logic. You don't "make it up"; instead, you listen. You "get it down."

Writer Julia Cameron believes we have two brains: logic brain and artist brain. Logic brain writes term papers; artist brain writes poetry. To write an effective personal statement, you need color and passion. You need to use the artist inside you. If the personal statement is giving you writer's block, use the following techniques to jump-start your creative flow.

First, you must trick your logic brain into letting you play. It wants everything nice and tidy, arranged in neat labeled cubbyholes. Your artist brain is messy; like playing with finger paints. Lull your logic brain to sleep:

  1. Engage in a mindless, repetitive activity. Turn off the TV and stereo; go for a run, do dishes, dig holes. Do anything that keeps you busy but allows your mind to wander. Be sure to keep a microcassette recorder handy! Ideas may come thick and fast.
  2. Begin writing as soon as you wake up in the morning. Don't shower, don't eat (OK, you can have coffee), just turn on the computer. So you're not fully awake; that's good. Neither is your logic brain
  3. Now do this everyday. Well, maybe not every single day; make appointments with yourself. You won't have brilliant ideas each time. Some days you sit and stare at the computer screen. Nothing happens. You develop imaginary rashes that need immediate medical attention. You suddenly remember a test you should be studying for. But you sit there; you focus; eventually, an idea bubbles to the surface. You start writing.

In these ways you also outwit the "censor": that nasty voice in your head that reminds you, before you've even written a word, that you can't spell, that you never got A's in English. Sometimes the censor waits until you get a sentence or two down, and then sneers: "You call that interesting?" The censor is a perfectionist. To writer Anne Lamott, "perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor." The censor insists, "I just want it to be right!" Instead, you can't write at all.  

So write, write anything. And yes, it will be terrible. You're afraid that someone will read it and discover you are a fraud. So you do it again. Don't revise; rewrite.   Revision comes later, when you're dressing it up. First you have to get it down. You'll probably throw out at least half of what you write. Don't think of it as wasted time and effort. I call this process "writing through." You write through the thick layers of fat, slowly trimming it away to get to the meat. Finally you get there: grade A Prime.