The Basics: Your Personal Statement Introduction

by Ben Frederick MD

on June 19, 2013

Writing a good introduction can feel as intimidating as introducing yourself to a pack of rabid wolves, but never fear! Soon you will be sitting down to teatime with aforementioned wolves, inquiring after each other's elderly aunts.

The introduction is where you set the tone for the rest of your personal statement. You want to start things off right. That may go without saying, but what people don't think about is that boring your reader initially can be very difficult to recover from. Even if your essay gets better as it goes along, the reader will take time to recover from their first impression of it.

In This Guide:

Where to Start

5 Rules to Write By

  1. Avoid Cliches
  2. Use Active Voice
  3. Use Strong Verbs
  4. Paint an Image
  5. Keep the Story in the Intro

Where to Start

Here are two easy, surefire ways to begin your introduction:

  1. A story about yourself.
  2. A story about someone else who affected you.
After all a personal statement is, at its core, a story about you and the people and things that are related to you. If you feel weird about starting your statement with a story about yourself (Easy Introduction Idea #1), you could begin your statement by writing about someone who profoundly affected your life, like a grandparent or childhood hero (Easy Introduction Idea #2). There are other ways to start a personal statement: a broad issue or problem that is relevant to your course of study, a quotation, a joke. Those can be more difficult to attempt, however, because unlike a story, they don't automatically show relevance. A story is about you; a personal statement is about you. You could argue that even the weirdest story shows your development as a human being.


5 Rules to Write By

1. Avoid Cliches

In the Bulwer-Lytton contest, thousands of applicants submit enteries of sentences based on the most famous literary cliches of all time: "It was a dark and stormy night." Cliches are generally not a good idea. They lend an inauthentic and tired air to whatever it is you're writing. If you can say part of a phrase or sentence aloud to someone else and they can finish it without much thought, it's a cliche. For example, "To be or not to be..."  We all know the answer to that one.  However, Cliches can have their uses. You may find that using a cliche gives you a launching pad for your statement, but you should either put a really good twist on it, or ditch it later.

2. Use Active Voice

Beginning with active voice is a sure way to engage your reader. Consider the two sentences:

1. I poured the coffee down the drain for the sewer people.

2. The coffee was poured down the drain for the sewer people.

The first sentence gives the reader more information. In the second sentence, the reader is left wondering who poured the coffee down the drain, and the emphasis of the sentence is placed on the action (the coffee was poured) rather than the person engaging in the action (I). That's not to say writing sentences is passive is wrong. It can be very useful, especially when relaying information in which the subject of the sentence is not clear, but save it for later.

3. Use Strong Verbs (but appropriate verbs)

Picking the right verbs is an artform. You want verbs that catch the readers attention, but not completely obscure verbs that he or she will have to look up. You also want verbs that will give you the most bang for your buck. For example, if you say that someone is "sitting," that could mean anything. If you say they are "crouching" or "lounging," that tells the reader much more about the situation or the scene.

1. After Rhonda debellated the race, she palpebrated at George.

2. After Rhonda ran the race, she looked at George.

3. After Rhonda conquered the race, she winked at George.

Sentence #1 uses distracting verbs. If the reader doesn't know what they mean, they are going to be frustrated. If the reader does know what they mean, they will wonder why you used such odd words.

Sentence #2 is O.K. Nothing wrong with it, but not much that grabs me either.

Sentence #3 uses the strong verb "conquered". It tells me what sort of emotion Rhonda is feeling. I don't have to say she "felt victorious" in another sentence because the verb implies that. "Winked" is the same. I have more information about Rhonda and George's relationship and how Rhonda was feeling after the race.

4. Paint an Image

Thinking about the story you are trying to tell as a picture. If you were trying to describe a picture to someone, you wouldn't just call it "pretty." You would talk about the colors, the medium, the subject. Picking concrete details and describing how things looked, felt, or even smelt can help engage your reader and make them feel invested in the outcome of your story. A thesaurus is a great resource for this, but if you don't even know where to begin, check out this table of descriptive words. Looking at a big word list like this may also help you with your statement at large by jogging loose an important (and useful) memory that could be turned into a story.

If Raja the elephant can do it, so can you!

paint a picture

5. Keep the Story in the Introduction

Even though you may be starting off with a story, don't get carried away and continue a storybook-type narration throughout the rest of your statement. Remember to establish some factual information about yourself and your credentials.

If you can tie in the story at the end too, great! That usually makes your statement seem even more polished, like your bone china teapot your new wolf friends now are admiring.

This article is an excerpt from the Ultimate Guide to Writing Personal Statements.
Learn More

About the author:

Ben Frederick MD

My name is Ben. I'm a resident physician and I help future medical professionals write great personal statements. If you need help, check out our eBooks and editing services. Let me know if you have any questions.

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