You’ve completed most of your application. Now it’s time to write your personal statement. You want your statement to stand out from the rest, and the way to do this is to tell a compelling story – the tale of your greatest achievements, dreams, and challenges.
You can tell a compelling story by tying together the following key elements:
Storytelling element #1: Create a killer opening
Start with something that will grab the reader’s attention from the get-go. This will ensure that they keep reading enthusiastically. Usually this is something in a scene or moment in the middle of the action. Starting an essay by saying “One day I decided to watch TV” will probably leave your reader not really caring what happened next, even if that leads to the most important part of the essay. However, starting your essay with “The moment I found the lump, I suspected that my life was about to change forever” will surely draw your reader in.
Storytelling element #2: Set context
‘“It was mid-July 2011. I was a busy consultant at McKinsey’s Chicago office, the proud father of a boy about to turn one, and a generally happy guy in his mid-20s.”
Context (person, place, time) is important because readers want to understand the story’s circumstances; it helps them relate to the story, even if they’ve never been in that situation.
Storytelling element #3: Introduce the stakes
The above also shows the reader what’s at stake. Stakes further help the reader relate to a story – if there’s little for the main character to lose, then the reader won’t care much about what happens next. If you never figured out the source of the lump and treated it (if necessary), then you wouldn’t have been able to continue your life as a busy consultant, proud father, and generally happy guy. You don’t need huge stakes for people to relate to your story; but effective stakes are something most of us would fight for, like health, a job, our community’s welfare, and the like.
Storytelling elements #4 and #5: Outline the obstacles AND Demonstrate strength of character
“It was tempting to wish the lump would just go away, and for a few days that was my strategy. I didn’t even tell my wife. But soon I recognized that knowledge is power, and made an appointment with my doctor. Within a week I had a diagnosis: cancer.”
This keeps the reader interested because it brings in two new elements: an obstacle (cancer) and character (your personality traits).
By this point in the story, your readers will know that you are the main character – you’re the consultant, father, etc. But the text above shows your reader what kind of character you are: one who is human (tempted to wish something bad away) but also one who takes action in adverse circumstances (going to the doctor).
Character isn’t only about positive traits. Many essay questions ask you to discuss a time you failed or made a mistake. For those, you need to highlight negative traits upfront (e.g., keeping the lump a secret), but in the context of how you gained insights and ultimately more positive attributes from dealing with their consequences.
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Storytelling element #6: Add a twist
So, what happens next in our tale? (Incidentally, a well-told story uses these elements to make readers ask this question again and again, pulling them through the story.)
“Once I got past the initial shock, I discovered an unexpected challenge: choosing among major surgery, two rounds of chemotherapy, and ‘surveillance’ (i.e. regular testing to see if the cancer was spreading). The options had the exact same survival rate (very high), but very different side-effect profiles. For example, the surgery was associated with potential nerve damage, while the chemo could have resulted in lower lung capacity.”
This part of our story includes a twist and further obstacles. Twists, or surprise turns in stories – in this case, the challenge of choosing treatment – aren’t essential to grad school essays, but they certainly make them more engaging: a teammate with a secret, a client’s abrupt shift in expectations, etc. In this story, the twist also represented an obstacle, in that our courageous subject had to choose from three very different treatments with similar levels of effectiveness.
Storytelling element #7: Detail the process
Here’s what happened next:
“It was time for some deep research: with my wife’s help and inputs from my oncologist and other doctors, I pored over journal articles and other materials to understand my treatment options and their risks. For example, we learned that the surveillance course could take over five years before one could consider themselves cancer-free.”
Here we can see the process – the exact steps he took to approach the obstacle. Too many applicants leave out their process. You need to tell the adcom what you did, how you did it, and ideally how you engaged others to overcome the challenge as well. Even our cancer story here includes a team element (the wife and doctors).
Storytelling elements #8 and #9: Share the outcome AND Talk about lessons learned
“After weeks of research and deliberation, I opted for two rounds of outpatient chemotherapy. I said goodbye to my hair and hello to needles and nausea. The first week went well. But as I neared the second, my doctor called: the chemo had pushed my white blood cell count too low, compromising my immune system. I would have to wait. For two weeks I avoided raw fruits and vegetables and stayed inside as much as possible. My white blood cell count rose, and I completed the second week of chemo.
“Now, over eight years later, I’m considered cured, a survivor. The only physical residue of my treatment is slightly wavier hair. But the experience reinforced the importance of a proactive approach (I found out most men wait over six months to get lumps checked), of careful due diligence in health and other matters, and of never giving up. I carry those lessons into everything I do. So, I was right: the lump changed my life in a big way; but I never could have guessed how positive those changes would be.”
The last part of our story brings more process (how our survivor made a decision) and another twist (his low white blood cell count), along with the outcome and lessons learned. These last two elements typically tie together: the outcome (surviving cancer) reinforced multiple lessons, as noted above. It’s easy to spend too little (i.e. none) or too much (i.e. paragraphs) time on lessons learned; generally, 1-3 lines gets the job done.
It’s always recommended to wrap up your story by returning to your opening, to end with a killer ending with a broader theme or key realization or glimpse of the future.
Our story has just over 400 words, but it has all the important elements.
Do you need help writing your attention-grabbing story? Check out our 1-on-1 services for more information on how we can help you use story elements to write essays that will draw in the adcom and get you ACCEPTED.
- 5 Fatal Flaws to Avoid in Your Grad School Statement of Purpose, a free guide
- How Personal is Too Personal?
- How to Write a Great Statement of Purpose, a podcast episode