How to Write a Successful Personal Statement for Art School
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If an art school offers the option of submitting a personal statement, it may be tempting for forgo the opportunity. However, it could actually work to your advantage! In addition to showcasing your personality and thought process, submitting an application essay allows the admissions team to see that you are so much more than just your transcripts. Whether you were a top student or perhaps received lower than average test scores, an art school application essay allows you to showcase your direction as an artist, as well as highlight any additional accomplishments, making you further stand out as an applicant.
When it comes to an art college essay, you may be asked about your art philosophy, your artistic influences, maybe even how you have evolved as an artist. Although the content of the essay itself is subjective, it is a potentially powerful piece that may make the difference between admission and rejection. Needless to say, you need to showcase the very best of you, especially if it may not have come out in the other parts of the application package.
What Should Be in My Personal Essay for Art School?
Some applications may require a lengthier autobiographical essay while others, such as Hussian College, simply request a succinct couple of paragraphs. Either way, there are a few crucial elements to consider to help your artist statement stand out for the right reason.
Although there are no “rules” (unless they are outlined in the requirements), you should remember that it is an essay to be written with care. Ideas should flow together in a way that makes sense and attention should be paid to grammar and verbiage. By showing that you are able to craft a professional piece of content that is mindful of proper grammar and verbiage while speaking to who you are as an individual, your personal statement will truly stand out.
Structuring Your Art School Application Essay
Just like the essays you were taught to write in school, your personal statement should have a discernible introduction, body, and conclusion.
- The Introduction: Ideally, your introduction should frame the question being asked of you in the context of how you envision yourself as an artist. It is a good place to set out the parameters of your essay so the reader knows what is to come. You could also use the introduction to provide the reader a basic roadmap so that they can understand how your statement is intended to flow.
- The Body: The body will contain your arguments and explanations. Where applicable, make sure you provide concrete examples that can paint a vivid picture for the reader. For example, if you say that abstract modern art has influenced your aesthetic style, you may identify a particular painting, artist, or group of works, that embody what you love. If you pick something like Picasso’s Guernica, speak to the individual visual elements that make the work stand out to you. Is it the use of color? The way the artist has interpreted the historical bombing? What is it that you see in this work or art that may not have been evident to others?
- The Conclusion: Though you may be relieved to finally be writing the conclusion, don’t let your personal statement end abruptly! The conclusion, after all, is your last chance to leave a final great first impression. It should reiterate the theme of your statement without introducing any new ideas. Essentially, the reader should be left feeling as though they have a better understanding of who you are as an artist. Think of it this way: if the rest of the essay was the journey, the conclusion is the destination.
Some institutions, like Hussian College, ask for a short statement of 200-500 words. Despite its short length, you should still approach it in a methodical way, with an engaging introduction, clear conclusion, and body that supports the conclusion. Treat it no differently than you would a lengthier essay!
Personal Statement Essay Do’s and Don’ts
While many schools encourage creativity when it comes to crafting your personal statement, it is important to incorporate best writing practices to ensure a piece that is easy to read, thorough, and engaging. Here are a few art school essay writing tips you may wish to adopt to ensure that you put your best foot forward.
Personal Essay Do’s
- Answer all the parts of the question. A common mistake that students make when writing a personal statement is to simply list all the positive things about themselves. Make sure that you understand what the question is asking. Sometimes the college wants to see your creativity; other times, they are looking for more fact-based responses. It can be helpful to make an outline or map out the question on a sheet of paper prior to actually writing. This helps to ensure you are touching upon every part of the question(s).
- Focus on your strengths. You are, after all, trying to persuade the reader that you are the candidate they want to admit. You want them to understand that you have much to offer their program. Unless you are being specifically asked about a weakness, concentrate your writing on your best facets.
- Use specific, personal examples. Not only do these allow the reader to really get to know you, but it will give you a bit more credibility. Instead of vague claims, you will be better able to explain why you think you deserve to be part of their program. You can demonstrate the impact something has had on you, and how you were shaped by it. You may even be showing some out-of-the-box, innovative thinking, which is usually a sought-after trait in an artist.
- Make your essay easy to read and follow. Use line breaks to break up paragraphs. Where appropriate, use headings and subheadings. Members of an art school admissions staff often have to read dozens, even hundreds, of personal statements and art essays. Ideally, you want reading your essay to be a pleasant experience, one that is easy to follow and to the point.
Personal Essay Don’ts
- Don’t recycle personal statements. If you are applying to multiple art schools, it may be tempting to use the same application or personal essay. However, it’s a good idea to refrain from doing this. What you think of for your graphic design personal statement ideas could be quite different from what you would include in a fine art essay sample, for example. It’s best to treat each personal statement as a separate essay with different focuses.
- Don’t lie or embellish. Personal statements are just that… personal! Embellishments or lies can often be sensed by the reader, especially if you are not entirely familiar with a particular topic. Keeping your writing personal and true only adds to the passion, something that admissions teams often look for in an art student. In addition, some colleges conduct interviews. They are free to ask you about the statements you have made in your essay, and if it is full of embellishments, you may find yourself stuck when responding.
- Don’t speak in generalities. Very general phrases about what you like or dislike do nothing to actually convey what inspires or influences you. Instead, explain the why. Rather than simply state, “I like bold colors,” you might say: “I prefer the attention that is drawn to bold and saturated colors, often utilized to emphasize a contrast between objects and subject matter.” Ideally, a personal statement is your opportunity to really differentiate yourself as an applicant, not blend into a sea of overly general, unengaging essays.
- Don’t get too “avant-garde”, political, or humorous. Even though the essay is an excellent opportunity to give the admissions team a glimpse of your personality, do it strategically. Overdoing the bubbliness may make you appear to not be taking the statement seriously while going overboard with political themes may come off as uninviting to opposing viewpoints. Incorporate your personality, but do so mindfully.
- Don’t rely on lists. Unless you are specifically asked to list technical qualifications, lists can be awkward within an application essay and don’t really add to the narrative of your personal statement. As important as the content is, the admissions team is trying to get a sense of how you communicate and what your thought process is. A bullet-style list of art class experience or your favorite artists doesn’t necessarily give them any such insight.
- Don’t make excuses. Just as you should be focusing on your strengths, try not to bring up the negative. Why your grade in a certain class was low, for example, may not have been a question in the mind of the reader. If anything, this will only draw attention to this anomaly. The admissions team are only interested in your life events to the extent that they are relevant to what they have asked you to write.
Personal Statement Prompts
Often, a school will provide very broad guidelines for their requested personal statement or application essay. If your forte isn’t writing, very general requirements may be challenging to handle. Where do you start? In these instances, it may be helpful to practice with personal statement writing prompts, which can offer some guidance. There are a few directions that writing prompts may put you in…
Information About Yourself as a Person and Artist
If you’d like to focus on highlighting who you are as a person and as an artist, consider the following writing prompts. Not only do they provide a way to prepare for writing your personal statement, but they allow you to include all the important information about yourself in one place, which could make plotting out your essay much smoother.
- Why is this school or program right for you and what you hope to gain from it?
- Why are you right for this school or program and what will you offer?
- How have you pursued your artistic interest outside of school – hobbies, extra-curricular activities, volunteering, etc.?
- How are your personal and life experiences relevant to this program and to your desired career?
- What transferable skills do you have?
- What leadership opportunities have you had – leading a project, for example – and what lessons were learned from these experiences?
- What are your short, medium, and long-term goals?
- Which artists have influenced your work – for better or for worse?
- How would you describe your artistic style?
- What sorts of media do you use and why – or what your favorite medium is and why?
- What motivates or inspires you to create art? What are you trying to achieve through art?
- What makes you and/or your art unique?
Rhetorical, Creative Thinking Type Questions
Some may prefer to take a more philosophical approach to their art college essay. These types of essays may be quirky or humorous, but don’t be fooled – they are sometimes harder to answer than the more personal, factual questions! Here are some prompts for those who may be looking to get creative:
- Can art be simultaneously appealing AND morally corrupt?
- Does the amount of freedom in society have an effect on the artwork produced in that society? Explain.
- Does art play a greater role in influencing a society or reflecting a society?
- Describe the importance of painting in a world with digital photography.
- Which is more important in a work of art: technical quality or emotion? Why?
- Define “art” based on your personal experience.
- How is the creative process in art similar to or different from the creative process in science?
- Do artists have an obligation to tell the “truth”? Why or why not?
Making a Great First Impression with Your Personal Artist Statement
Your artist statement really is your chance to make a great first impression, especially if your high school transcripts or standardized test scores are less than impressive. Let the readers—the admissions team—know that you truly do want to attend their school by ensuring a high-quality essay that speaks to who you are as an artist.
With that said, after drafting your personal statement, you may be inclined to submit it right away, especially if you are working on multiple applications at the same time. Given its importance and its function in the application package though, go the extra mile by:
- Spell checking your statement. Twice.
- Reviewing your grammar and making sure your verb tenses match and your sentences are structured cleanly.
- Tinkering with wording to improve the flow. Read your draft out loud to yourself – you’d be surprised how many little errors you can catch when actually hearing the words.
- Alternatively, have a friend, family member, or even a previous teacher or art instructor proofread your essay and provide feedback. Let them know if there’s something in particular you’re concerned about, such as the flow of the ideas, or whether your explanations are compelling.
Most Importantly, Don’t Sweat It
It’s easy for students to become overwhelmed at the thought of writing a personal statement for their art school application, especially if they are applying to multiple schools. Don’t stress yourself out! If you’re in a bind, free write on a sheet of paper and get the ideas flowing. Remember to stay true to who you are—that’s what the admissions teams are looking for, after all!
Put these tips to the test when crafting a personal artist statement for your application to Hussian College! We can’t wait to see all that you have to offer as a student. You may also review our course curriculum to find just the right program for you.
Without question, the most common place for writers to exercise their freedom in personal statements, as well as the most common place where writers feel uncertain about what they’ve done, is in their beginnings. Even personal statements that are scientific in tone and content might have creative beginnings. Although there’s nothing wrong with a straightforward opening simply stating your purpose, especially if you have just one page for your essay, most writers take a bolder tack. Readers of personal statements are used to openings that tell stories or borrow quotations, essays that discuss relevant current events, and even daring writers who risk a bit of well-conceived humor or surprise.
As the most common creative beginning, a personal story tells a tale by briefly setting a scene, often capturing some formative moment of your past when your interest in your course of study blossomed. Whether setting the scene in a classroom or on a mountaintop, remember that your goal is make readers feel they are there with you, and remember that the setting itself can be a character in your “short story”—influencing both the action and a response to that action.
Here is a perfect example of a lengthy creative beginning that winds its way into a formal thesis statement, excerpted from a Rhodes Scholarship essay in Chapter 5:
Soaked in sweat, I sat deep in thought on the small mound of sand and broken rocks in northern Kenya, where 1.7 million years ago a desperately ill Homo erectus woman had died. Her death had entranced me for years. KNM-ER 1808 had died of Hypervitaminosis A, wherein an overdose of Vitamin A causes extensive hemorrhaging throughout the skeleton and excruciating pain. Yet a thick rind of diseased bone all over her skeleton—ossified blood clots—tells that 1808 lived for weeks, even months, immobilized by pain and in the middle of the African bush. As noted in The Wisdom of the Bones, by Walker and Shipman, that means that someone had cared for her, brought her water, food, and kept away predators. At 1.7 million years of age, 1808’s mere pile of bones is a breathtaking, poignant glimpse of how people have struggled with disease over the ages. Since that moment two summers ago, I’ve been fascinated by humans’ relationship with disease. I want to research paleopathology, the study of ancient diseases, in relation to human culture, specifically sex and gender.
Note how this opening confidently integrates technical detail and even slips in an informal citation on the journey to the thesis. Here, setting acts as a character, moving our story’s protagonist to imagine a woman’s long-ago death, and we also recognize the writer’s seriousness of purpose about her work as she (as a character in the tale) contemplates the woman’s fate from a “small mound of sand and broken rocks in northern Kenya.” Just as she was taken to this important place and moment in her life, we are taken there with her as well through narrative.
Here is another example from an introduction to a student's application to medical school:
When I was little my grandfather gave me piggyback rides, brought me donuts every day when he came home from work, and taught me about nature. A simple farmer who survived World War II and lived most of his life under Russian occupation, he told me why trees grow so high, why I should not pull a cow by its ear, and why I should not chase chickens across the back yard. As fond as I was of him, as I grew and became more educated I also saw how this great man made bad choices about his health. I constantly nagged him about his smoking and poor diet. He loved bacon with eggs and milk straight from the cow. In response to my nagging he would simply say, "Eh, you are so young, what do you know?" One morning after breakfast when I was sixteen, he had a heart attack and died in the kitchen while waiting for an ambulance to arrive.
Here we find a writer who simultaneously evokes the memory of his beloved grandfather and also introduces us to his own sensibility. Simple details about his simple upbringing make up a brief but vivid tale with a tragic end, and thus we understand a very personal motivation behind this writer's choice of career.
Other essays open with much briefer and less narrative personal stories, sometimes relying on just one line to set the context, with the writer heading to a purpose statement shortly thereafter. Here are some straightforward but artful beginnings to personal statements from Donald Asher’s book Graduate Admissions Essays:
I attended seventeen different schools before high school.
I spent the morning of my eighteenth birthday in an auditorium with two hundred strangers.
Radio has been my passion for as long as I can remember.
Clearly, the style of an opening that shares a personal story can range from the flashy to the plain—what matters most is that the opening truly is personal.
Like many writers and readers, I’m a sucker for a good meaty quotable quote, which is part of why quotations are used to open each chapter of this handbook. We tape handwritten quotes on our bathroom mirrors, clip them onto the visors in our cars, and paste them into our e-mail signature lines. In a personal essay, not only do quotes set context for the reader, they also allow you to ride on the broad shoulders of another who actually managed to say or write something that was worth quoting. Quotations might be used at the start of the essay, in the closing, or they might appear at a key moment within the body as a way to set context or emphasize a point. In Chapter 5 of this handbook, a quotation is used as an opening to a science-related essay by an applicant for a National Science Foundation Fellowship. In the same chapter, another writer uses a narrative opening in her essay to repeat a favorite quote that her mother used to say: “To find out where you’re going, you need to know where home is.”
Keep in mind that some quotations are highly overused and that quotations can also come off as merely trite and silly, depending on the taste of the reader. Some find Forrest Gump’s “Life is like a box of chocolates” hilarious; others just groan when they hear it. If using a quotation, be sure that you’re not just propping yourself up on it as an apology for a lack of substance to your text. Comment on the quotation’s relevance to your life rather than just let it sit there, and choose the most meaningful quote for the circumstances rather than one that simply tickles your fancy.
The Use of Surprise or Humor
Indeed, the weapon of surprise is a key ingredient in a Monty Python skit about the Spanish Inquisition (no one expects it, just in case you forgot). But in a personal statement humor and surprise can fall flat in the hands of a fumbling writer. Nevertheless, some writers take these calculated risks, and do so with style. Witness this passage from a sample essay in Chapter 4, as a film student explains how he spent his freshman year in a different major:
With a high school education grounded rigorously in math and science, I entered Mythic University on an academic scholarship with Polymer Science and Engineering as my intended major. I like to joke that, after seeing Mike Nichols’ film The Graduate and hearing that terrific line, “plastics,” delivered poolside to a wayward Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), I was inadvertently led into the hands of the great polymer Satan. But, by sophomore year, I quickly escaped the plastic devil’s clasp and found a new home in the film department.
Here, this student uses self-deprecating humor as many do in the personal statement: to explain what might otherwise look like a curiosity in his background. Readers need not question his devotion to film despite his beginning in the sciences—he even blends the two interests together by being influenced into his initial major by a film, aligning himself briefly and humorously with the hapless character of Benjamin Braddock.
Others use humor or surprise less expansively, but again with the purpose of revealing something personal and using intentional self-commentary. In Mark Allen Stewart’s How to Write the Perfect Personal Statement, one writer quips that his high school classmates voted him “Most likely to have a publishable resume,” which shows that this writer can simultaneously poke fun at and uplift himself. In Donald Asher’s Graduate Admissions Essays. Another writer opens her essay unconventionally with a surprising admission—“Skeletons. Like everyone else I have some hanging in my closet”—then later reveals herself as a “survivor of sexual assault.” Here, the writer’s tone is surprisingly frank, which under the circumstances could help her be viewed as mature and courageous, despite the risk she takes.
Part of what unifies these disparate approaches above is that the writers clearly know they are taking a risk with their rhetoric—there’s nothing accidental or highly cutesy about it. All of them reveal a passion for their chosen fields, and the humor and surprise are attention-getting without being too distracting.
Perhaps a good rule of thumb, then, is this: If using humor or surprise, aim it squarely at yourself without making yourself look silly or undermining your character, and dispense with it quickly rather than push it over the top. No matter how well you tell a joke, some readers may not care for it. And remember that not everyone likes, or even "gets," Monty Python.
It’s often said that one of the best ways to prepare for an interview for a national scholarship is to read The New York Times and be ready to discuss current events. If you make it to the interview selection stage, it’s already clear that you have an excellent academic record and look good on paper. What’s unclear is how you will present in person. By showing yourself to be not just committed to your field but also knowledgeable about the world, you paint yourself as a mature thinker, an informed citizen, a responsible student of life.
In a personal statement, writers typically create topical context by narrating a recent event of some consequence, citing a respected source, or simply establishing an arena for discussion. “Martial arts and medicine,” opens one personal essay from Richard Stelzer’s How to Write a Winning Personal Statement for Graduate and Professional School, using an intentional sentence fragment to grab our attention and to crisply define two intertwined themes in the writer’s life. Other essays—the first from the Asher book and the second from the Stelzer book cited above—lend a sense of importance to their subject matter through topical references:
As I write this statement, Governor Mario Cuomo makes preparations to vacate the Executive Mansion in Albany, New York, after New Yorkers rejected his appeal for another term.
As the United States launched yet another small war in a distant corner of the globe, Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen returned to life and captivated a hometown audience in Pekin, Illinois, with the folksy eloquence that made him nationally famous.
As these politically savvy allusions show, writers who use topical references impress upon their readers that they are both informed and concerned. Here, the color of one’s political stripes is irrelevant—what matters is that they are painted clearly. Whether employing a political reference or citing a current event, when you create topical context you represent yourself as a keen observer of the world.