I’m currently working on a personal statement. It’s become increasingly complicated because I’m limited to four pages. That’s funny, I think to myself. I’m supposed to make a bold and memorable statement about who I am and what’s important to me, but I only have four pages? That seems fair enough. Something will be axed in order to make this work, but what?
In a way, personal statement seems to be the most dehumanizing writing task possible. Tell us all about you, but follow these three prompts, and make sure that you stay with in the page, spacing, and font requirements. No one really cares about you, after all, in this personal statement. We are looking for people conform to our goals and regulations.
Because I need to be certain I am doing things as expected, in an effort to better clarify the audience and purpose of this particular impersonal-personal statement, I spoke with someone who could give me some guidance. “Make sure you answer the questions,” she told me, sounding a bit like the scripted language we read for standardized testing. Laughing to myself, the teacher in me didn’t take this as an insult. Many people who don’t see themselves as writers probably gloss right over the intended prompts without even realizing it, highlighting aspects that they feel are poignant while missing the point.
“I wrote as a holistic narrative,” I told her.
“Oh,” she paused, “That’s fine too.”
This is how our students feel every day: robbed of the personal in their personal works. Many times, the writing tasks we give them don’t leave a lot of room for their identity. For example, I struggle with the whole response to literature genre. Inauthentic, it begs students to analyze text, usually those within a canon that also robs students of choice and identity (you know, the canon from which you also read as a student). Predetermined by other people, the characters and authors often look very little like the students assigned to read and respond to the works. Moreover, tasks and prompts are recycled, annually reused, hundreds of times over. When teachers wonder why the character analysis of Scout and To Kill a Mockingbird lacks depth and inspiration, it’s probably because they’ve just read 100+ papers on the same thing this year alone. The students probably spent the majority of their time reading the Cliff’s Notes (while watching Netflix), and searching for similar essays online (because they’re saavy) so they wouldn’t have to actually write their own.
We’ve academia-ized the student out of the student’s assignments.
Who says we have to take the I out of writing?
If there is no personal connection, I challenge you: why do we still do this? Sure, there are plenty of analytical skills in critical thinking that go into genres such as response to literature, but it, and I, I’m tired. Let’s freshen things up a bit.
A San Diego Area Writing Project colleague, who I admire dearly, teaches a course on the personal statement during the summer prior to its enrollees’ senior years. When I asked what the single most difficult thing for students is when writing a personal statement, she says something that now seems obvious, but should not at all be the case: “They have a hard time writing about themselves, or feeling like they have something genuine to say.” Elaborating she emphasized that most students are never asked to do anything like this in school. College is expecting the personal statement to not only be powerful and reveal something about the identity of its writer, but also exciting, written it in a way that makes its author stand out, a pop of color in a dull room.
All you need is one slice folks, maybe even just a pepperoni.
Tell me again why we claim to prepare students for universities when we beat the ability to make a personal statement out of the person?
Maybe I’m taking this personal statement thing a bit too personally, but shouldn’t I?