Monday, October 11, 2010


Today I fulfilled a McNair program requirement to meet with one of the program's coordinators (code name: Lady Goo Goo) to review my personal statement.

For those of you who don't know, a personal statement, sometimes called a "letter of intent" or a "statement of purpose," is part of your grad school application--apparently THE pivotal part of your grad school application. 

Some weeks ago, the McNair program offered a weekend retreat for us 11 McNair scholars to go halfway across the state to a resort (!) to work on these personal statements.  Like many of the other scholars, I was unable to attend this retreat, although I hear the resort was quite lavish, with views of Lake Geneva and hot tubs in the rooms and such.

So even though I was unable to attend this retreat, over the summer and fall I received numerous conflicting pieces of advice on how to write a personal statement.  The secretary for the anthropology department at one of the grad schools I visited this summer told me to avoid childhood stories about how much I love whatever subject I'll be studying.  However, the samples I viewed on writing-advice websites were all childhood story-types and were formatted to look like essays, not actual letters to specific people.  The other advice I got from various educational institutions was to be unique, to have an attention-grabbing first sentence, and to describe my career goals and explain how such-and-such school is a perfect fit in helping me achieve such goals.  Several months ago, Goo Goo herself told me that, in order to show I can deftly switch from political science to physical anthropology, I should emphasize how many classroom hours I'll have in physical anthropology when I graduate.

So when I whipped up this personal statement of mine, I didn't write a childhood story, but instead tried to show how I moved from wanting a political science career to an anthropology one, then outlined my long-term career objectives, mentioned my inspirations (Deborah Tannen, Desmond Morris, and Jared Diamond), named some professors at the school I'd be interested in working with and the subjects I wish to study.  As suggested, I listed how many classrooom hours of physical anthropology I'll have completed when I graduate, and, as requested, I emailed this document to Goo Goo before the appointment.

When I got there I immediately knew from her tone that I had somehow made a huge mistake, and from the moment I peeked my head around the door I wanted to turn and leave.  You know that sarcastic tone that people use when they're being dismissive about something and they raise their eyebrows and say a very flat and drawn-out "Oooohhhh-kay-y-y-y" and then look off to the side as if they can't believe how stupid you are?  That was her tone even as she greeted me.

So we sat across from each other, each holding a copy of my personal statement.  Goo Goo had a smirk on her face and scratched her temple with her pen, looking amused.  "So, you tell me what you were trying to do with this letter," she said.  "'Cause I wasn't gettin' it, and I had another person read this, and they didn't know what you were trying to do either."  She made a little puckering motion with her lips, and I didn't know if she was satisfied with her superiority or was simply trying not to laugh.  In any case, she seemed very interested in sitting there gossipping to ME about how stupid and nonsensical my letter was.  She explained that my first sentence was garbage and would make any grad school committee toss my application in the trash, since I "can't even get past the very first sentence." 

I tried to redirect her energy by focusing on the solution.  "How should the first sentence look?" I said.  "How should I explain [this thing]?  Where does [that part] go?"

The rest of the meeting was, I felt, a battle between her wanting to relish in my idiocy and my wanting to focus on the facts and just get this fixed and done and over with.  Apparently, every paragraph I had written was a disaster, every sentence I had written would offend the graduate committee, and the part about the classroom hours?  Horrible.  "You don't want to say 'I'm a weak candidate, don't pick me!'" Goo Goo sang in a sniveling cartoon character voice.  "Oh, and get rid of this part about what you want to do in the future," she added.  "You're not Deborah Tannen, you're not Desmond Morris, and you're not Jared Diamond."  

You know, instead of having a weekend retreat at a resort over 100 miles away that only half of us could attend, Goo Goo and the other McNair coordinator could have saved a lot of time and money by just emailing us a link with some good personal statement samples or templates.  That way even the scholars who didn't get to go to the retreat would have had some idea of what they were supposed to be doing, especially since the personal statement is soooo important.  Furthermore, even if I did do it totally wrong, I thought it extremely unprofessional for Goo Goo to speak to me that way.  She could have conveyed all that information to me in a much more civil manner.  I had wasted several hours writing my statement the completely wrong way, despite my honest efforts to do it right, and she was acting like I had done it wrong on purpose, as if I had had malicious intentions, like trying to be "demeaning" to the graduate committee or to other groups of people.  I assure you that is not AT ALL what I was doing. 

Although I did feel better when I looked her up on and saw that there are nearly 7 pages' worth of student comments saying she's the "worst professor ever!"

Anyway, it turns out a personal statement is just supposed to be a very sober and boring letter, like "Dear [graduate committee], I am applying for your [such-and-such] program...I have won [such-and-such] awards...please see my attached CV...Thank you for your time and consideration, Sincerely, [so-and-so]."  I don't know why they don't just call it a cover letter.  'Cause that's really all it is, according to Goo Goo.  Just a cover letter that briefly summarizes all the other materials you've attached--the application, the CV, the letter of recommendation, the GRE scores. 

Though I did my best to keep a poker face, I think Goo Goo could tell I was irritated and pissed off, because she then tried to convince me to apply to Harvard, even though another professor told me last week that it would be a waste of time and money to apply to a school I know I won't get into.  The whole thing was just very bizarre and quite upsetting, and after it was over I couldn't help but practically claw my way out her office and run away.

It didn't help that earlier in the afternoon I had taken a test in my Studies on War and Peace class, and even though I raced through the test, I still arrived at the last essay question with exactly one minute left of class.  The question was to explain what a "war-free" world would look like an explain inter-state organizations and distributions of power, and since I knew I wouldn't have time to carefully think through a nice academic answer anyway, I figured, why not voice my real opinion on the subject?  So I scribbled a short answer about how war is all men's fault because testosterone makes them aggressive and fewer men in the world would lead to fewer wars.  But then about an hour later, I wondered if the professor would take it personally and think I was being disrespectful to him and his course material.  Because that's how my off-the-cuff humor is almost always taken.  I should have just left it blank. 

And that was my double-failure day.