Writing a compelling life story in 500 words or less
From college applications to CEO cover letters, how to nail the personal essay
Posted Jan 11, 2011
Relax and take a deep breath. By the time you learn about what psychology can do to make your job easier, you'll be raring to get going on telling your story. When you're done, your personal qualifications will leap off the page.
Step #1: Don't start at the beginning. Opening sentences are notoriously difficult to write. So don't write it, just yet. You do need to fill the page with something, and if you don't put added pressure on yourself to come up with the opening your writer's block will quickly and quietly fade. If you have a previous essay or cover letter to start with, by all means, shoot it up there on screen. You may not even use it on this occasion, but at least you're not staring at complete and utter blankness!
Step #2: Read through your resume or CV. Most applications require you to provide a detailed statement of your education, work history, and any special accomplishments. You eventually need to review this to make sure it's up to date and accurate, but for our purposes now, you should read it to help stimulate to tell the story you want to tell about yourself. Given that the people you're applying to work or study with are also looking at this, it's important that what you say in your letter or essay both matches these details and fleshes them out. We know from psychological research that memory is faulty and subject to distortion. There are probably many worthwhile bragging points about you that have slipped your mind over time, so remind yourself of them now.
Step #3: Tell your story in chronological order. I do not recommend that the final essay follows a timeline, but I think that working your way through your professional history from start to finish has value. You will at least get some sentences on the page. You will also be prompted to think about your experiences in a way that ultimately may make its way to the final version. Don't worry about typos, spelling or grammar. Those edits will come later. However, make sure that every date or fact about you is correct at this point, because such errors are harder to spot later.
Step #4: Organize the essay by themes. Now that you've got all the facts in order, go back and turn your work into a living, breathing, document. Find the major themes that define who you are. Psychology tells us that our identities are tied in with our life stories. Use psychology to give your life story the unique brand of your own personal identity. For example, look back at what you said about what you were studied or were like in high school or college, and connect that to what you did in your first job. Then show how these connections relate to the job or position for which you are applying. Showing thematic consistency is one of the sure ways to get the reader's attention. Even if you feel that your education and/or career have been somewhat random, it's up to you do connect the dots and make them come together in as coherent a way as possible. This step will probably take you the longest, and it is the most important, so give it some time.
Step #5: Work on your ending. You've organized your essay by relevant themes that characterize you, your life history, your skills, and your hopes for the future. Now you have to give it an ending that has some pizzazz. My recommendation is that you do not end by saying "I am honored to be considered for this...," or "I look forward to hearing from you," or anything else that simply ends it to end it. The very last word should be strong and positive. Avoid "hopefully" or "possibly" or "future" anything else that is indefinite or obvious. I can't give you a magic formula for this last sentence but you'll know it when you've found the one that works for you. You hit it with a good strong tap on the keyboard, punching out that final period with satisfaction and pride. A good ending will also leave the reader feeling satisfied and excited to meet you.
Step #6: Work on your beginning. You want to tell a complete story in this letter or essay, so your beginning should open the circle that your ending will close. Many people think the opening statement should be an eye-catching phrase, a quote, or some cute play on words. If you feel that way, write your opening statement like that-- and then delete it. Good. You've got that out of your system. Your essay, and your reader, will thank you. Now, getting serious, think about what question you are trying to answer. If it is an essay or short-answer question, and you are asked to describe why you want whatever you're trying to get, then state this clearly and directly. If you're writing a cover letter, you're also responding to a question- perhaps one that is implicit: "Why should we hire you?" Answer that question, and your reader will want to learn more. Then, when you end the essay, reinforce that initial point by restating it in somewhat different words. Psychology is very useful in this stage of the game. There's ample research showing that first impressions are essential in framing how other people judge your competence. Your opening sentence is your chance to mold that impression. If you're writing a letter, incidentally, try as much as possible to address it to a particular individual. This will personalize the letter and get the reader involved with you right away.
Step #8: Go back and read what you've written. Read what you've written with a critical eye; in fact, you might read it out loud just to give yourself additional cues to how it will sound to others. Use empathy and try to imagine how this is coming across to your reader (another psychological tool). Pull out individual sentences and see if they state facts that are obvious, trite, or banal. My favorite example of this type of sentence, which I have read probably thousands of times in essays and letters, is something as follows: "I struggled during my first year in college, feeling overwhelmed by the many new experiences and people." This is a bad sentence because it states an obvious fact that is true about most people and does not distinguish you as unique. Who didn't struggle in the first year of college? Who didn't feel overwhelmed? Eliminate sentences that you could read back sarcastically in this manner and substitute others that provide unique insights about you. Shorten long sentences (see what I mean?). Modify sentences that were written in the passive voice (like this one). Work to vary your sentence structure, particularly to avoid starting too many sentences with "I." It may hurt to change what you've worked so hard to write, but it hurts less now to make those changes than it will if you don't get what you're applying for.
Step #9: Double check for errors. I wish I could tell you how many essays I've read from job, scholarship, and college applicants in which an important fact is misstated. I don't know if the errors were intentional, but I do know that they were irritating. Depending on how severe the error (such as claiming an overly high grade point average), such mistakes may lead you to be rejected out of hand. No one wants to knowingly hire a liar. You should also make sure that the letter or essay is the right one for this position. If you're applying to multiple places at once, this is an especially important step.
Step #10: Hand the essay over to a colleague or friend for comments. You probably saw this one coming. Everyone can benefit from critical feedback. Assuming that this is not an eleventh-hour enterprise (I hope it isn't) there should be time for you to get help from people who are in a position to evaluate your work and help you fix any problems. Be ready, once you've done this, to accept their feedback (no tears, please), and incorporate their suggestions, as appropriate, to your document. If you've given yourself a long enough timeline, then you may be able to go through a few rounds. If it was a last minute affair, perhaps due to a suddenly available opportunity, then even one round is better than none.
Following these steps will help you write an essay or cover letter worth your time investment. Here are five final, practical, points:
1. Keep it professional. If, in telling your story, you wondered whether to share personal details about yourself or your family, think twice. Only rarely should you use this statement as a chance to divulge information about your own or other people's illnesses, relationship problems, or behavior that is less than appropriate.
3. Show, don't tell. Be sure that you don't sound overly confident or self-important. Talking about what you've done gets the point across more effectively than saying, in your own words, how capable, hard-working, wondeful, etc. you are.
4. Give credit where credit is due. If other people have helped you or worked on projects with you in specific ways, you should acknowledge this. People like hiring employees who can serve well on a team.
5. Save your work. Make sure that you keep progressive drafts of your document. If you are completing an online application, cut and paste into it so that you have the actual version in your own files. You never know when you're going to want to use this essay again in future applications.
Knowing a little about the psychology of cover letters and personal statements can go a long way to making yours easier to write, more interesting to read, and more effective in getting you to the next step in the application process. As somone once told me, the essay or letter is your request for an invitation to the "party." You want this piece of writing to lead to the next, logical step, which is usually an interview.
For more career advice check out these related posts:
Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2011