Writing any application for a school can be difficult, and writing the Personal Statement can become the most challenging part of it. By the time you are preparing to submit an application, most of its elements are already fixed: your GPA, your MCAT or GRE scores, the activities you did (or didn’t do). The Personal Statement, however, is an open field of possibilities in self expression, and that sense of ambiguity lends itself to great liberty and/or great anxiety.
Admittedly, the title is somewhat misleading. A “Christian” personal statement shouldn’t technically be very different from any other personal statement. It still has to accomplish the same goals, which are fairly well defined in the context of applying for a graduate or professional school. As an example, an excellent source on the Medical School Personal Statement would advise you to focus on answering these questions:
- What have you done that supports your interest in becoming a doctor?
- Why do you want to be a doctor?
- How have your experiences influenced you?
Sounds simple? It’s not. Few people can easily articulate the reasons why they want to go into medicine (and this even includes those who have been working in medicine). As reflected on before, the most powerful reasons tend to be emotionally charged and heavily driven by personal experiences, desires, and ambitions. Sometimes these reasons spring from tangible and discrete moments that are relatively simple to describe: a father becomes ill, a friend becomes helpless, a tragedy unfolds in which the universal compulsion to heal and to comfort becomes central and even life-changing. But sometimes those reasons are harder to describe: a series of loosely connected jobs that led to an internal conviction, an affection for both the material and immaterial, a search for a career grounded in the authenticity of human experiences.
The more personal these experiences are, the more uncomfortable and self-conscious we become in describing them. We wonder if others will see things from our perspective, and as we struggle to describe them in nouns and adjectives and run-on sentences, we find it easy to become paralyzed by the fear that the reader/admission officer/judge will fail to understand … and in doing so, reject us as both applicants and as people. It is deeply unsettling because the process will require an act of introspection and then an act of public revelation.
So, like all other expressions of self-revelation, we are tempted to edit heavily. We want to be accepted for who we are but we also want to achieve a goal. We have an ideal that motivates us, but in order to achieve it we must submit it to the scrutiny of another … and in that process, we risk having it change.
What do I mean by this? I mean that I volunteered at a soup kitchen because I wanted to help people, but in writing the essay I wanted to make sure that the reader understood just how deeply I felt that emotion, so I overplayed the descriptions of how scraggly the hobo’s beard looked or how heart-melting that child’s eyes were. I mean that I did research because it sounded interesting and I enjoyed tinkering around in the lab, but I wanted my work to be respected so I added a gazillion extra adjectives about how triumphant or beatified I felt when gazing through the clear liquid in a test tube. I mean that I felt helpless when I sat by my friend’s bed as she lay dying or in watching my sister get bullied in speech therapy, but I wanted to do rightly by them in becoming a doctor so I wrote whatever bastardized piece of junk I felt needed to be written in order to get the job done. I mean I wanted to talk about Jesus and what he meant to me, but I couldn’t because it might get us both thrown out of school before we even started there.
And in doing these things, I couldn’t help but feel that I was betraying the very things I wanted to satisfy and represent. When I read my words, they weren’t my words any more. They were the words of the effigy I wanted to portray: someone who was far more intelligent, creative, compassionate, and secular than I honestly considered myself to be.
I realized that the real work of writing a Personal Statement was to stop myself from selling myself. I was not a product out on the marketplace to be distinguished only by my differences in merit and form, but a unique person whose path had already been determined by a loving and sovereign Lord. I was not applying to different schools out of a statistical strategy for maximizing the probability of admission, but because each institution’s strengths and weaknesses could cause me to grow and be shaped differently for the work of the Lord. It helped me understand myself better, realizing in some circumstances that some of my applications were actually not the best thing for me. And I found that though thinking in this way was far more difficult than simply optimizing a resume, it restored a sense of purpose and intentionality to an otherwise superficial and anxiety-provoking time. It made descriptions of myself more vulnerable but more honest, which inadvertently made things more confident and more peaceful.
It made them Christ-centered, and therefore Christian. In the words of the Psalmist:
O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.
To be continued …
[This is the fourth post in a series on pre-med advice/becoming a Christian physician, first published on the ESN blog.]