Personal Statement Feedback: What to do with it ?

January 20, 2020

Personal Statement Feedback What to do with it
Georgia Tindale
Posted on January 20, 2020

Georgia Tindale

When writing your personal statement, perspective is key. Your first draft may feel perfect to you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’ll feel perfect to the admissions officers at the universities you apply to. After all, they’re the ones you’re trying to impress.

So it’s a good idea to get a few other people to read your personal statement. Not because they know better, but because different points of view can help you to craft a moderate, safe and balanced piece of writing to present yourself in the best possible way.

This article will explore the process of revising and rewriting your personal statement in the early, iterative stages. And, yes, how to deal with all the advice that you really, really don’t agree with.

Why Get Feedback?

Imagine that overused image of the dartboard. No, I’m not going to explain precision vs accuracy – you’re probably sick of that by now.

Instead, imagine you’ve got a favourite way of throwing your dart. Doesn’t matter where it lands, you just like throwing your dart in a particular way. Maybe your arm flexes nicer this way, or your grip is easier. Whatever the specifics, the way you chuck your dart is very personal to you.

Now imagine a situation where you actually do need a bullseye. You’re playing Phil Taylor in the final and you need to prize money to pay off the crime syndicate you nicked that submarine from. I don’t know, I don’t play darts.

If you remain committed to your way of throwing that dart, you’re not very likely to hit the bullseye. But, if you listen to your coach and alter your technique a bit, you can come up with a hybrid technique that represents a compromise between the way you’re most comfortable with, and your pressing need for accuracy.

Those admissions officers at those universities? That’s a handful of people in the population of the world that you need to impress. They’re the bullseye. You need to adapt your style and content to hit all those criteria that they’re thinking of as they read your personal statement. If you stay rigidly committed to your unique way of expressing yourself, you do risk deviating from that tiny red dot in the middle of the board.

That’s where feedback comes in. Think of it as a normalising force, trying to shift your style and content towards a sort of ‘mean’ or happy middle ground between being true to you, and being palatable to an admissions officer.

Where to Get Feedback From

Where to Get Feedback From

The ideal people to ask for feedback, at first, are those close to you. Mainly because they’re less likely to be mean or brutal about it! If some of your friends and family have written personal statements for their own university applications, that’s even better because they’ll know what to look for.

Just ask them to give it a read and see if it sounds alright. Now is definitely the time to be quibbling over grammar and language and tone. If they think a phrase or sentence sounds clunky, read it aloud to yourself to check if it could be phrased better.

You’re aiming for a middling level of formality. Too formal, and you’ll sound pompous or like a plagiarist. Too informal, and nobody will take you seriously. This bit can be annoying for those of you who write at a pretty high level naturally, because it can feel like you’re ‘dumbing down’ your writing.

You’ll have the final say on how formal you want to be, because a good level of English can come across well. But it’s a fine balance since, as I’ve mentioned, you could risk sounding like you swallowed a thesaurus or got someone else to write it.

Once you’re happy with the formality and how the piece flows and feels, you can start consulting people who definitely know what a good personal statement should look like. This can include the aforementioned friends and family who applied to uni, but also teachers.

Include evidences to back up your claims

At this point, you’re interested in content and structure. If this is your first draft, you may be missing some evidence to back up your claims. For example, it’s not enough to simply say you are passionate about your subject; it’s far more powerful to show your passion through, say, a long-term commitment to volunteering, etc.

The advice you might get here will generally be about emphasis. Since you have a 4,000 character limit, you really have to emphasise your impressive subject-related attributes as strongly (with evidence) and as economically (with few characters) as possible. This may involve cutting out fluff and filler, in favour of more substantial sections which convey important facts about you and what you’ve done to prove them.

You may even get some advice on how and where to include some evidence. This might involve racking your brains for stuff you’ve done in the past, or planning to do some more extracurricular activities between now and your application deadline. If you frame it convincingly enough, even the most mundane of hobbies can seem relevant. I once used my amateur pursuit of refurbishing old computers as evidence that I had an inquiring, scientific mind.

As you acquire more and more feedback, you can begin to polish your draft into a more refined, stronger version. But don’t stop there – get every version read by as many people as you can. I know it’s tedious and time-consuming. Sometimes it’s demoralising, depending on the feedback you get, but it will honestly pay off when the time comes to apply and you’ve got a tight, punchy personal statement that you’re happy with.

Feedback You Disagree With

Unfortunately, the feedback you receive on your personal statement won’t always be golden and helpful. Some of the criticism levelled at your writing might seem plain wrong at first. And it’ll be down to you to sift through it all and decide which pieces you’re going to follow. While this may sound difficult, it’s a very useful skill to have at this early stage in your career.

The key, in my opinion, is to initially take each bit of feedback as a valid opinion with a reason. The person feeding back to you might not actually give you their reasons, so it might take a degree of empathy to see your work through their eyes.

Consider their reasoning, be it voiced or inferred, and decide whether it’s a fair reason, whether it’s relevant to what you’re trying to say, and whether it’s more important than the effect of your personal statement were you not to heed this advice.

You don’t have to follow every piece of feedback you get

An example might illustrate this a bit more clearly. The first draft of my personal statement was filled with flowery, pretty prose. I liked writing, I enjoyed expressing myself in that way, so I wanted to convey that. Through several rounds of feedback and rewrites, I had removed most of the metaphors and poncey adjectives, leaving just a couple of flamboyant sentences in the first and last paragraphs.

Because I was applying to read medicine at university, my biology teacher was of the opinion that I needed to remove all traces of literary flair. What I think she was trying to say was that it may come across as obfuscation, as though I was trying to disguise a lack of substance with an abundance of style.

While a valid point and a distinct possibility, I disagreed with her. I didn’t want to sacrifice the one modicum of personality I’d included, in favour of a dry list of my achievements and attributes. Indeed, the fact that there was a list buried in there would, to my mind, be enough evidence that I wasn’t trying to hide anything. So I kept my grandiose opening and closing.

Basically, you don’t have to follow every piece of feedback you get during this process, but you do have to listen to it all. It’s okay to disagree with whoever is criticising your work, no matter how senior or experienced they are. As long as you can justify that position to yourself, you’ll be fine.

Final Thoughts

Feedback is a necessary part in the writing of your personal statement and, in exposing yourself to lots of it, you have the chance to craft a very strong, very attractive personal statement. Remember, this piece is an advertisement for you as a person as well as a student and it needs to efficiently portray the best of you.

And while the feedback you’ll get may not always be valid, working out which pieces to heed and which to discard will improve your ability to defend your own opinions and arguments in higher education. It’s an important skill, trust me!

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Georgia Tindale

graduated with a Masters Degree in Renaissance Literature from Girton College, Cambridge, July 2016.

graduated with a Masters Degree in Renaissance Literature from Girton College, Cambridge, July 2016.