My essay for admission to medical school was brutally honest. I talked about my low GPA, my relationship with my parents, my obsession with the problem of suffering, quotes from my personal journal, and how it was all driven by a radical faith in Jesus Christ (and images in my head of suffering children). It was my attempt at being really, really honest and was the product of many careful hours of meticulous revision. Note: Click here for Writing a Christian Personal Statement: Part 1.
It was also really, really bad. By this I mean that I was still admitted to medical school, but that the essay was so memorably bad that the Dean of Admissions actually mentioned it to me. During one of our individualized preparatory meetings he said, “When you write your personal statement for residency, you might want to consider making it less . . . religious than your last one.” I knew exactly what he meant.
I think a lot of my mistakes sprang from a sense of insecurity, both in terms of what I believed as well a vague sense of “calling.” Some of the anxiety and frustration in writing Christian personal statements came from the assumed notion that the degree to which I explicitly described my faith was the degree to which I had intensity, passion, and authenticity in my beliefs. And yet by definition, the process of applying to graduate school meant that I was contemplating major lifestyle changes. In my statement I wanted to communicate the intentionality, confidence, and idealism that I aspired to in anticipation of success, but in reality I was also writing from a place of insecurity and uncertainty. In the midst of this ambiguity in future planning and the imagining of myself in a variety of different futures, I had this desire to express my faith at the same time that I struggled with it on many different levels. I wanted to describe how important it was to me, but like any public demonstration of faith it became the imperfect expression of many conflicting and evolving emotions.
In such a setting, the decision to talk about faith and how it impacts decision-making seems like a natural virtue. However, not all thoughtful processes should or need to be heard. Though the love of Christ compels us, it should not be expressed compulsively and I realized that perhaps I did not need to feel guilty about that. My point of failure came from allowing my insecurity over faith to dictate its expression. Though I struggled internally to make sense of “everything”, I should not have been tricked into believing that the quality of my faith was to be determined or evaluated by anyone else than Christ alone. I was under no obligation to explain the inner mechanics of my decisions or my faith to an external arbiter. As Christians, we have already counted the cost and committed ourselves to the Savior. We have already thought Him worthy of worship through vocation, and that is why we struggle so much: because we love and cherish Him.
It was also unfair to believe that the emotional impact of my faith should viscerally affect our application judges in the same way that it did for me. Did I want them to be wowed by my piety and my humility? Did I want to impress them with my sense of self-sacrifice and duty? How can someone who does not know or treasure Christ consider my valuation of his worthiness similarly? The calculus is different, and to them our math may not add up fully and for that we should make no apology. However, we still seek to make Christ known, and these are valid outside of an individual’s conversion to faith. In the comprehensive Christian worldview in which Christ is Lord and sovereign over all, there are values that those who are agnostic to Christ can still share with us. If we truly believe that the call of Christ and His kingdom is to work out the redemption of this Creation, and that such work is rich and plentiful enough to perpetuate into eternity, then there will be room and space enough for resonance.
The problem then was not an overzealous declaration of belief but the underdeveloped description of how it truly undergirded and transformed everything. Our desire to pursue Christian discipleship through the lens of academia requires a thoughtful and meticulous framing of everything: finances, specialized interests, professorial mentorship, post-graduate intentions, community involvement and resurrection, and the relentless pursuit of truth and beauty. Somewhere in that exploration and shaping of intent is an opportunity to witness to the beauty of the Gospel in a way that anyone can understand, even if it only in part.
The work of the Christian Personal Statement, therefore, is not to explain a “unified theory” of our souls, but to construct a message that honors the sovereignty of Christ through the thoughtful alignment of secular goals with our personal beliefs. We intentionally and specifically describe that intersection to the best of our capacity, being careful to not overcompensate through emotional hyperbole and thereby undermine the thoroughness and thoughtfulness of its examination. More often than not, the problem with our personal statements is the same as the problem with modern evangelism: there is too superficial a treatment of the Gospel, speaking of it in terms that have not been “translated” into the language of academia and a form that is comprehensible to the reader. We have taken the easy way out, speaking only in terms that make sense to us and not in something accessible in a “heart language” other than our own. We assume people will understand us when we talk about Jesus even though He is still a stranger to them, and then when our efforts are regarded with suspicion or disinterest, we wear it as a badge of martyrdom.
There are times in work, faith, and life when our decisions to follow Christ will incur a cost. However, we must be careful to ensure that we have made every effort in full faith to bring Christ to others in a way they can understand, even if only in part.
[This was originally written for the Emerging Scholars Network blog.]