Personal statements are incredibly absurd

By Justin Doran

The season of inevitable change is upon us. Our turbulent weather is a fateful reminder of the uncertainty that awaits us on the other side of our college careers. For those of you not in your last semester, look at us seniors and dread! Some day you too will be thrown to the wolves of the economic machine; to be ravaged by your debt and inexperience! Kiss your beer bongs goodbye! Now you have casual Friday and gift certificates to Home Depot!

If you’re not a sucker, however, you’ll discover the same reprieve that I did. Graduate school. That’s right, for the pittance of three to six years of your life, more debt, and an obnoxious round of test taking and applications, you too can delay the inevitable! Depending on how seriously you want to avoid getting a job, you’ll probably find yourself filling out a large amount of the same basic paperwork over and over again. This tedious process will undoubtedly include the fillet of awkward essays: the personal statement.

Now that I’ve written more than half a dozen of these unwieldy compositions, I think I’m ready to give an informed account of just how absurd they are. Before I get angry letters, I am well aware of the justifications for personal statements. They allow you to provide a narrative of your academic career, and add a qualitative touch to your otherwise quantitative application. This doesn’t make them any less bizarre.

Let’s begin with the unusual tension this essay has with standard etiquette. I’m great. We all know it. However, I am not supposed to tell you how great I am or I might reveal some of my throbbing ego. Standing contrary to this well-established social rule is the personal statement, which requires that we forgo modesty in favor of bullet-pointed bragging about our past accomplishments. It’s embarrassing.

As a side effect of eliciting this faux pas, personal statements basically force us to bend the truth. You know why your GPA was a buck and change your first semester: You drastically underestimated the efficacy of tequila. But unless you want to come off like a morally bereft dunce, you had better weave a heart-wrenching tale of familial commitment and an ailing grandmother. Just pretend that you’re selling a used car. If you’re going to convince someone to buy it, you need to focus more on the new paint job and less on the failing transmission. I’m pretty sure this is what they mean when they remind you to stay positive. And unlike selling used cars, lying in this circumstance is basically legal!

Another barrage of inanity comes when you are asked to describe why you want to attend their “prestigious” institution. Um, because they had an online application? To be fair, there are probably going to be some schools you have legitimate interest in attending. Here are some of the reasons you can’t mention: the weather, that girl you had a thing for in high school goes there, you can get in, it is far away from your undergraduate college, the student population is 60 percent female, they have a good football team.

Even if you have legitimate scholarly interests you would like to pursue there, it is an open secret that graduate students only do grunt research for professors. And if you’re pursuing a professional degree, just look through their recruitment pamphlets and regurgitate liberally. We all know the real answer is that they’re accredited.

All of this adds up to one simple contradiction: A personal statement does not actually describe anyone. At best it represents carefully constructed spin of raw academic data. At worst it is a way of ranking applicants by how effective they are at tailoring lies to specific admissions committees.

My voice and potential can’t be captured by 650 words, and if someone reading my essays thinks that they can find me there: keep looking. The only saving grace of this whole process is that there is a good chance they won’t even read your personal statement. And if it’s used as a tie breaker, just cross your fingers and hope that you came up with a better story.

Justin is a senior in religious studies. That’s it.