Boy, are personal statements tricky. I mean, sticky?
I was working on one last week, and remembered how confident they’re supposed to sound! Words feel so final once they’re written, let alone Saved As a non-editable PDF and then sent on their way. But maybe that’s the double-edged sword of writing. On one hand, it’s an outlet for our crazy thoughts and – what’s that word – cathartic. (Catharsis, right? I’m trying to figure that word out.) On the other hand, it’s literary bondage. For example, I write something about myself and am tempted to cocoon myself in it forever, i.e. recycle it in future statements, or repeat it to other people like it’s definitive. The words I write sometimes feel like decisions I’ve made. (Maybe that’s why publishing personal opinion can be scary.) There’s potentially long-term psychological effects to writing, and I feel this especially with personal statements.
That week I was writing the statement, NPR and The New York Times reported on a study that concluded how people generally believe an “end of history illusion” in which whoever we are now is who we will be in the future. According to the study, we of all ages assume we are now done changing, even if in retrospect we admit we’ve changed a lot. I thought the study was highly relevant. Add to it the plethora of self-defining personal statements my peers and I are constantly writing; add even our habit of believing what we read (including our own writing)… And voila – a formula for settling in to some supposed permanence. But what if “who I am” is mostly objective information? What if “knowing” it simply set us up for constant surprise? But maybe we do it for security. Maybe it’s that stubbornness to which “grown-ups” seem more vulnerable.
One of my favorite books as a child was “Northern Lights,” by Philip Pullman, which takes place in a world where everyone’s soul is manifested as an animal bound to their side. In that world, children’s souls are able to change their forms at any moment, to whatever they want; upon reaching adulthood, though, all souls “settle” into a single animal form for the rest of their life. It’s a creative interpretation of what we might do as we grow up, which is consciously settle into a fixed set of characteristics. Interestingly, much of the book and trilogy has to do with an alternate-universe Church fighting this reality of “settling,” believing it shows spiritual separation from God…
Anyway, personal statements are pretty ironic. They’re supposed to gauge who we were before the personal statement was assigned, and the irony is how it can affect who we are after. And it’s undeniably a part of growing up – all of these personal statements, cover letters and personality synopses. I can’t help but wonder how my peers and I have been affected long term by how much we’ve written about ourselves. The admissions officers and future employers may trust us, but how much do we trust ourselves? How much do we trust the things we set in written stone?