Writing about Yourself

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The topic about which you may know most may be the hardest one about which to write: yourself. The biggest hurdle to overcome is the nagging, uncomfortable feeling that saying nice things about yourself somehow oversteps the bounds of humility. Despite that discomfort, there are times you’ll be obliged to write proudly and confidently about yourself. You’ve already had some experience in this regard if you were required to write a personal statement in your graduate school application. Your future professional advancement will require more of the same, in fellowship applications, self-appraisals, cover letters and job applications, grant proposals and bios. In all these cases, you’ll need to learn to blush and bear it and write about your accomplishments, experience and skills.These ten tips may help you overcome your reluctance to write about yourself.

1. Decide What You Want to Achieve
Why are you writing about yourself? Be honest butnot overly ambitious. Once you've clearly identified your objective, keep it in the front of your mind as you write –what you want to achieve should guidewhat you say.Also bear in mind that in some cases, your readers may not care as much about what you have done as they do about what you can do for them. Where possible, identify the readerswho will be seeing your text and tell them how you and your experience are relevant to their purpose.If you’re writing a cover letter or personal statement as part of a job application package, be careful that you don’t simply reiterate factual information about background and experience that appears in your CV or resume. Strive for depth, not breadth.

2. With Your Objective in Mind, List Your Relevant Strengths
What are you proud of in your work? What accomplishments give you joy? Often these things—mentoring students, working as part of team, solving problems, organizing projects—will help you identify your accomplishments.

3. Write a Short but Convincing Description of Each Strength, Skill or Accomplishment
Describe not just what you did, but how you did it and the outcome. Lynn Gaertner Johnson of Syntax Training suggests you use the STAR method. Briefly describe a situation (S) or task (T), the action (A) you took to accomplish it, and the results (R) you achieved.
Teaching example: In my first semester teaching basic composition, I quickly discovered that at least 75 percent of my students had trouble editing and proofreading their own work (S/T). I implemented a “writing partner” program, coached students in systematic strategies for editing and proofreading, and made time in class for 15-minute intensive proofing sessions (A). As a result of these efforts, by the end of the semester, almost all students had developed more effective proofreading skills (R).
Lab management example: The challenge was to train students in basic lab safety techniques within the first week of the semester (S/T). I designed, planned and managed an intensive lab safety training program that employed “drop-in” hands-on sessions in the lab taught by all lab RAs, an online learning module and targeted lab safety aids (A). By the beginning of the second week of lab work, 96 percent of students using the lab had been trained in basic lab safety (R).

4. Use Specifics to Enhance Credibility
Positive words like "outstanding," "dependable," and "creative" sound good, but they don’t paint a convincing picture. Flesh out those words with specific examples. Instead of saying that you “always have excellent rapport with students,” cite student evaluations, assessments from your supervising teacher or notes of appreciation students may have written to you.

5. Avoid Generalization
The worst generalizations are the ones that have been used so many times they have become meaningless clichés. Instead of “As a committee chair, I learned many valuable lessons about the importance of teamwork,” say instead: “In my first year as the Graduate Student Association legislative committee chairperson, I made an effort to engage all my colleagues as equal members of the team, soliciting their feedback and deferring to their expertise as needed.” The second version explains the team dynamic in more detail, showing specifically how you applied teamwork principles. You may wish to elaborate further, perhaps by identifying a particular colleague and discussing your interaction with that person or explaining an instance in which effective teamwork led to a desired outcome.

6. It’s OK to Say "I"
Put your high school business writing teacher’s voice out of your head: the first-person pronoun is not verboten, especially when you are writing about yourself. Much worse in this instance would be use of third person, as if describing a colleague who had asked you to writea letter of recommendation. If a statement is true, tell it like it is: “I designed a new course” or “I wrote the final draft of the collaborative report.” (If you think you have too many sentences beginning with I, change the sentence structure a bit. For example: “I won the
Outstanding Graduate Student of the Year Award in 2009” easily becomes “In 2009, I won the Outstanding Graduate Student of the Year Award.”)

7. When Appropriate, Use Short Clips of Testimonials from Students, Professors or Employers
Avoid the pleasantly banal bits, and use phrases and sentences that have some meaning and bite. For example, “One student commented that he ‘finally realized you aren’t teaching me to write, you’re teaching me to think.’”

8. Be Sure Your Grammar, Spelling and Punctuation Are Correct
Goofs in these areas make you and your text look amateurish. If you don’t trust your own proofing skills, ask for help from someone whose skills are stronger than yours. 

9. Do a Reality Check
Show your composition to friends and colleagues and ask not if they like it, but if they feel it represents you fairly—and if not, why not. Are your examples specific? Are all statements clear and believable? Have you missed any relevant strengths or accomplishments? Listen to other people's opinions, but don't lose sleep over them. At the end of the day you probably know yourself, and your market, better than anyone else. Don't be afraid to make final judgments.

10. Feel Good about Yourself
You need to believe you deserve that fellowship, that award or that job. If you don’t, why should anyone else? Just be sure you don’t exaggerate, embellish or invent. If you present yourself honestly and enthusiastically, there’s no need to be embarrassed for tooting your own horn. You have every reason to talk about your successes—you worked hard to achieve them!