Writing Effectively

Many applicants produce essays that are individually compelling, but they often struggle to produce an application that presents a cohesive picture of their accomplishments and goals. 

There are both practical approaches and thoughtful writing practices that can help with this issue.

How We Read the Application

Readers have very little time with your materials - between 12 and 15 minutes for each application. Successful applications do not make the readers do extra work and clearly convey not only the achievements of the applicant, but also something of their personality and goals.

The application is read, in order, beginning with the institutional nomination letter. From there we read the application, then the policy proposal, transcript and letters of recommendation.

We expect applications to start with a broad array of interests reflected in Questions 1 through 6. Questions 7 and 8 should be more detailed and refined. Question 9 is a turning point in the application. Once we read the response to Question 9, we use what we learned there to both understand your work to this point and frame our thoughts for what we expect your goals to be. Questions 11, 12 and 13 should expand on the issue you identified in Question 9 and articulate an ambitious path for being a leader in that area of public service.

Your application should be cohesive: Question 9 should relate to the path in Questions 11 to 13 and be similar to the issue discussed in the policy proposal. It is helpful, but not required, for either Question 7 or 8 to be a similar issue to Question 9. No answer in the application should come as a surprise to the reader.

The application is scored based on leadership, service and academic ability. Many of the top candidates score similarly. Distinctions often come down to how well an applicant is able to express their ideas and plans.

Writing the Application

by Jane Curlin

Jane Curlin is the former Senior Program Manager of the Morris K. Udall Foundation. She also served as the Director of Nationally Competitive Scholarships at the University of Tulsa. Dr. Curlin is a writer and consultant and has a Ph.D. in English.  

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 write 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.

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. 
  2. Begin writing as soon as you wake up in the morning. 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. But 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. 

Editing the Application

Once you start editing your application, it becomes very easy to lose the overall picture of who you are in favor of the details of the individual essays. This problem seems to plague otherwise excellent applications and is often the difference between an applicant being selected for an interview or not.

To avoid this issue, considering following these suggestions:

  • Give the application a rest, especially near the end. Plan ahead so that you can spend time putting the application out of your mind so you can return to it with fresh eyes. 
  • Try to view the application the way someone would if they didn't know you and weren't especially familiar with your school. Is there helpful context that is missing? Do you come through clearly and authentically? Is there a logical flow in the application?
  • Don't be afraid to sacrifice a phrase or sentence you like in pursuit of a clearer application.
  • Getting feedback on your writing can be challenging and frustrating. Try to be open to feedback and consider making suggested changes. But make sure that you don't change so much that your voice is lost. This line is a difficult one, so give yourself time to navigate it.
  • Have people review your application - not to edit, but to tell you what they learned from reading it. This can include Advisors and recommenders, but also professors, family friends, mentors. If the answer is not what you expected, that means something was lost in translation. When the person knows you well, they might also be able to point out things that you failed to highlight. When the person doesn't know you well, they might be the best indicator of how a Truman reader will interpret your application.
  • Remember that we read the application is a cohesive whole - you should too! Give your materials one last read and make sure everything hangs together. You may find that your linear journey became less so after 43 edits of Question 11.
  • Be kind to yourself and your writing. You will need to cut a lot to get within your character limits - everything but nouns and verbs has to go. It is very, very difficult to produce beautiful writing under these conditions - aim instead for writing that is concise and clear. Remember also that our readers approach your application excited to meet you and hear about your plans. 

Ready to start writing?

Review example responses to see what works and what doesn't for different types of applications.

Example Responses