This is a question that came up during last week's live course. And, to be frank, there are many ways to talk about your challenges in your personal statement. But here are three good techniques:
1. With a little poetry
Here’s a professional writing example:
We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats, we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more. [...]
And when our Paps came home, we got spankings. Our little round butt cheeks were tore up: red, raw, leather-whipped. We knew there was something on the other side of pain, on the other side of the sting. Prickly heat radiated upward from our thighs and backsides, fire consumed our brains, but we knew that there was something more, some place our Paps was taking us with all this. We knew, because he was meticulous, because he was precise, because he took his time.
- Excerpt from “Lessons” by Justin Torres. For the rest, click here or “Google Justin Torres Lessons”
Here’s a personal statement example:
I can do this by myself. I held the blade, watched it slide across my flesh. The knife was just like Richard Selzer described: cold, gleaming, silent. Red drops of blood trailed the slightly serrated edge. I let out a long sigh.
I was at my most desperate. My friend had died in September of my junior year. Five AP classes, weekly volunteering, and a tutoring job had provided added stress. I needed reprieve. And I found it in the knife.
Two months later, my French teacher, Madame Deleuze, discovered my secret. That day in AP French while everyone else drilled vocabulary, she called me out to have a talk.
- Excerpt from the "Knife" essay, which may be found in College Essay Essentials
IMPORTANT: This is extremely difficult to do—like walking a high-wire—and, if done poorly, this can fail spectacularly. I’d only recommend this if 1) you have lots of time before your essay is due, 2) you consider yourself a moderately good writer and, 3) you are able to speak about your challenges with distance and objectivity (i.e. - you have mostly or completely come through the challenge(s) you’re describing). If you’re short on time, don’t have a lot of experience writing creative non-fiction, or are still very much “in it,” I’d recommend not choosing this method.
But, if you are interested in doing this, and want to learn more about how, check out my analysis in my book College Essay Essentials. (Not trying to sell a book here, it’s just too much to print here and I wanted you know more where you could learn more. That’s where.)
Many applications, especially those for law school and business school, ask students to explain some challenge they’ve overcome or even to discuss a failure in their lives. The best writers tend to handle this issue directly but creatively, discussing a challenge that doesn’t undermine their abilities or character and emphasizing positive lessons learned from the experience. An excellent example of how one writer handled this issue is in Chapter 4 of this handbook, within two essays written by a student in business. The writer frames his challenges within ultimately positive experiences—the completion of a 3500-mile bike trip and a successful team business project—so that he both answers the questions but keeps favorable attention on his accomplishments.
Even unprompted, many students—especially if they had a bad semester of grades, a prolonged illness, a personal crisis, a switch of majors, or took some time off from school—feel compelled to provide an explanation in their personal statement or elsewhere in their application. This can be risky, of course, because it may draw a disproportional amount of attention to something negative, and it may be unnecessary anyway. Consider whether an explanation is already taken care of by the circumstances (such as one poor semester during sophomore year followed by two years of high grades in your major) or whether the matter might be best handled by a sympathetic advisor writing you a letter of recommendation (who can be encouraged to explain the issue for you if privy to the necessary information). Weigh carefully the decision to reveal anything negative unprompted, and discuss it with a trusted advisor.
An interesting window into the kinds of challenges students discuss in writing is provided in examples from Donald Asher’s popular book Graduate Admissions Essays. Here, students reveal the following tales in their personal essays:
- Working 35 hours per week for five years to finance community college without taking out a student loan.
- Taking a job as a court interpreter before applying to law school to gain some relevant experience.
- Working in a West African village and experiencing language barriers, distrust, and cross-cultural embarrassment.
- Juggling the simultaneous experiences of being a student athlete, a resident assistant, and a class president.
- Starting a service program for disadvantaged high school students only to find that some of those students didn’t show up for their appointed meetings.
- An acknowledgment of good study skills lacking in the first two years of college study, followed by a gradually rising GPA.
In all these cases, of course, the writers focused on the value of these experiences and stressed eventual success even among some admitted mishaps. Such willingness to discuss one’s personal challenges—and in the process admit a propensity to take on too much, or confess a naiveté about the world, or realize that lofty goals must sometimes be adjusted to reality—can go a long way in gaining a selection committee’s trust.