In my opinion, writing personal statements is about on par with evisceration. They are painful and embarrassing to write, since you have to toot your own horn, without sounding like you are doing so. What follows are my Art History Rules for Writing Personal Statements!
The Painful Process
- Staying up all night right before the deadline is not a process.
- Accept that research will take a long time
- Accept that you will edit it many times
- Show it to as many people as will look at it, regardless of embarrassment. Remember: when you finally send it off to a selection committee, they will be the ones to decide your fate! Do you really want them to be the first to read it?
- You need concrete steps to get you from here to the finish line.
- Know when to ask for help
Where (Not) To Start
If you open your essay with these sorts of platitudes, cut that paragraph! And rap yourself on the knuckles for good measure:
- “I have always loved art.” (Of course you have! You are applying to study it in grad school. Did you think they would assume that you hate art?)
- “Art is the greatest expression of human creativity the world has ever known.” (This is how 90% of freshman art history essays either being or end.)
- “Since the dawn of civilization, …” (Never. Under any circumstances. Ever.)
Where To Start
- Specifics, specifics, specifics. The selection committee may have read a lot of these, so talk in precise terms about what you want to study, how you plan to approach that material, and why you are different (read: better) than everyone else.
- What are your ultimate goals? But bear in mind that some readers might be biased toward one sort of career or another.
Know Your Audience
- You are applying to a person, not just a program. Know a lot about that person before you write this essay.
- You are looking for someone in your general field, who works in similar approaches to those that interest you. You don’t need to find someone who works on exactly the same artist or church or whatever that you want to study, but you do need someone familiar with that territory, and who is likely to be amenable to the methods you prefer.
What To Cover
- Your interests
- Your field and methodological approach
- How you are a good fit with professor X.
Personalize It (For Real)
This does not mean writing “I wold love to attend _____ to work with Prof. _____.”
- Show that you know something about the program.
- What are the teaching opportunities?
- What is the library like? Does it have special collections of relevance?
- What museums or other resources are in the area that would facilitate your work?
- Try statements like:
- “I feel that a small/large program would be best for me because ____.”
- “Professor ____’s research interests strongly correlate with my own in that ____.”
- “The library at ____ is particularly strong in my field, with the So-and-So Collection of ____.”
- “Being near the ____ Museum would be of great help to me, since they have a superb collection of ____ and a ____ program for local graduate students.”
In short, convince them that A) you care enough about the program, university, and city to have really learned about it, and B) you really are someone who could take full advantage of all they have to offer.
In the center of his Tabletop of the Seven Deadly Sins, Hieronymus Bosch painted Christ in the pupil of a giant golden eye, gesturing to his wounds. On the iris of the eye is written, “Beware, beware! God sees!” Remember, the people reading your application have the power of judgement over your future! This is worth extra time and care! They will notice careless errors. They will see if you didn’t really research their program and personalize your statement They will see if you just don’t sound like you are ready for their program. Beware, beware! And therefore plan accordingly, and edit, edit, edit! You can do this, but only if you bring your a-game, and put as much care and polishing into is as you can.