May 122014

Earlier this year, my critical thinking class had the pleasure of hosting Professor Elizabeth Samet as a guest lecturer. Professor Samet’s lecture targeted the “personal statement,” a key component of post-graduate scholarship applications, often the most difficult component to complete. The personal statement helps a selection committee see an individual as more than a GPA, a list of extracurricular activities, or a major. As such, it requires careful thought and numerous drafts before its completion.

Professor Samet’s lecture helped us frame our attempts at writing a personal statement as lessons in self-discovery. The personal statement, she argued, was not a declaration of what we had already figured out, but what we wanted to figure out. There were various literary components we could included to aid in our efforts – participant observation, exact detail, and an element of surprise – but the journey was our own to undergo.

Rather than giving us concrete advice, Professor Samet left us with several carefully-selected examples of “good” writing. Some stood alone, and others she appended with a few thoughts to help us distill meaning from the various works:

  • Writing as Performance, by Stephen Greenblatt
    “Writing is a performance, but it can and must be revised.”
  • Memoirs, by Ulysses S. Grant
    “Grant is my hero. Learn from him when he says, ‘put your meaning so plainly that there can be no mistaking it.’”
  • Essays, by Michel de Montaigne
    “You have to work to gain peoples’ attention – they don’t care about our lives.”
  • The Patch, by John McPhee (published in The New Yorker)
    “The element of surprise is crucial in captivating the audience.”
  • Draft No. 4, by John McPhee (published in The New Yorker)
    “Good writing is rewriting.”

If you’re interested in more from Professor Samet, consider beginning by reading Our Troops Abroad: What Does a Soldier Need to Read?  It’s a short article outlining her reasons for selecting the pieces of literature she teaches to cadets. She includes a short reading list – her “House-on-Fire” list – that I’ve copied below: