Emotion and the essay

It is remarkably common for applicants to burst into tears in their personal statement.

A personal statement can feel like a therapy session. You may be writing about an important event or activity that you’ve never really written about before. Expressing its importance to you is paramount, but the expression of this moment in time—its devastation, heartbreak, weight—can be genuinely overwhelming.

You are the hero of your essay, and when the hero cries, it is typically a shortcut to sympathy. It shows openness, vulnerability. So, why not employ this in your writing? Why not show the adcomms that your experience resulted in real, powerful emotion?

There are two main reasons, one of which I referenced above: it is a shortcut. Often, writers cram some tears into a draft as quick emotional gratification, and do not take the time to justify the tears. Even if the tears were real, in your writing, they can feel unearned.

The second reason is one applicants may not know to take into account: because many applicants employ emotional shortcuts, adcomms can read essay after essay that are metaphorically damp with tears. If you read ten essays in a row where the writer was weeping about their chosen topic, would you start to weary of the tactic? (Yes.) For this reason, tears in your personal statement can start to feel manipulative to the reader. Even if they were real and true, those tears can work against you in the applicant pool.

There are other big emotions that commonly appear in personal statements—sadness, extreme happiness and anger are the most common—and all of these emotions need to be handled with care. It is more work to learn to tell your story in such a way that the reader can see that you were truly transformed by the experience. Getting your essay to that point will probably require an eye for detail, editing, and many drafts. So: if you are gung-ho about writing your personal statement on an emotional topic, get ready to dig deep and do some real work. Otherwise, you risk being perceived as one of the weepy masses.