One of the greatest challenges every candidate faces when applying for fellowship or residency training, graduate school or college is deciding what to write in their personal statements. The next greatest challenge is how to write it.
Everyone wants their personal statement to stand out from the thousands of other entries. There are 40,000 applicants for medical residency alone every year, for example.
Sometimes the candidates are so concerned about how to write their personal statements—how to start, what words to use, etc.—that they lose sight of the actual content.
What Is a Metaphor?
Merriam-Webster states that a "metaphor" is "a word or phrase for one thing that is used to refer to another thing in order to show or suggest that they are similar" or "an object, activity, or idea that is used as a symbol of something else."
An example would be comparing an orthopedic procedure to building a robot or working as a nurse to being a member of a field hockey team.
The Case Against Metaphors in a Personal Statement
Every year, I personally edit and critique hundreds of personal statements, and among those that stand out the most are the ones that use metaphors. However, the reason for this is most often not what the candidates have hoped.
A great example of this came last September from an outstanding candidate for medical residency. She had graduated from one of the top high schools in the nation, was attending one of the top medical schools in the nation, and had noteworthy research experience. As a medical student, she had even published a paper and presented a poster at a conference.
Knowing this from her CV, what I expected to find, when turning to her personal statement, was an exemplary, well-executed essay.
What I found instead was far short of the mark.
No matter what form the personal statement takes, it must convey the relevant aspects of the candidate’s path that have brought them to apply for the position being sought, it must convey how the position is the appropriate next step for their path, and it must convey where the candidate sees their path headed following the successful completion of the position.
What she had done was decide not to follow these principles and instead write an essay devoted to her experiences on her soccer team. She had not been an exemplary player, her team had not been an exemplary team, and there was nothing in particular that stood out about the experiences she described.
By contrast, they were ones anyone else on her team could have written.
While she believed focusing her personal statement on her soccer experiences would make it a shining point of her overall application, the result was the opposite.
There were two key aspects that she had failed to realize. First was that, among all the medical residents who use metaphors in their personal statements, playing on a sports team—and particularly a soccer team—is the most common.
Second is that, in light of her otherwise outstanding application, her failing to accomplish any of the fundamental goals of a personal statement communicated only that having to write a personal statement was a task she believed to be beneath her.
Instead of communicating the breadth of her personal experiences, her personal statement, taken together with her other experiences, ended up portraying her as merely arrogant and dismissive.
Why Do Candidates Use Metaphors in a Personal Statement?
The personal statement I have just described is a great example of why candidates use metaphors in a personal statement. They believe that by doing so their stories will be automatically more interesting to read.
From a technical point of view, though, it is difficult to craft a well-executed personal statement on the foundation of a metaphor.
When a candidate uses a metaphor, they do so out of the belief that the metaphor is unique and, by extension, that it will immediately demonstrate their creativity and ability to think at a higher level.
Because this concept is so attractive, and because candidates are often unaware of what everyone else is writing in their personal statements, they do not realize what a great challenge it is to think of a metaphor that is not already overused, let alone to incorporate a metaphor successfully so that it does not come across as simply a crutch.
Why Almost Every Personal Statement Is Better Without a Metaphor, But Also How Metaphors Can Make a Personal Statement Amazing
In a previous post, in which I detailed the reasons quotes should be avoided in a personal statement, I described that the key consideration for any personal statement is how “personal” it is and that the only way to do this is for the candidate to write about their own personal experience.
While there is a full range of personal experiences, and some are more interesting to read than others, the more specific the personal statement is to the candidate’s own personal experience, no matter the experience, the more engaging it will be to read.
Let us look at it another way by considering three types of personal statements.
The first is one that is not particularly “personal” but uses an interesting metaphor. The second is one that is particularly “personal” but does not use any metaphors. The third is one that is particularly “personal” and uses a particularly “personal” metaphor. As you might guess, the third type will certainly be the most outstanding, but the reason bears explanation.
No matter how interesting a metaphor is that is used in a personal statement, if the personal statement does not accomplish the fundamental goals of a personal statement, it will come across to the review committee or program director as being a failed opportunity by the candidate.
With that in mind, a personal statement will automatically be more successful the more directly related it is to the candidate’s personal experience, without using any metaphors. Simply doing that for most candidates will be a significant accomplishment and result in an engaging personal statement.
In rare cases (the rate is about 0.7% of the personal statements we have read), though, the candidate can enhance their personal statement with the successful use of a metaphor.
How to Decide Whether to Use a Metaphor
How then can a candidate know whether their use of a metaphor will be successful?
First, they should consider the personal statement without the metaphor. Is the personal statement “personal”? If not, the metaphor should not be included, since it will certainly not improve the essay and in most cases, by contrast, will serve to make it worse.
Second, if the personal statement is “personal,” they should ask whether the personal statement can stand on its own without the metaphor. Is the metaphor vital to the candidate’s story, such that it could not possibly be written without it?
If the answer to this last question is yes, then it is likely the metaphor will be successful, and the next step is to decide which metaphor to use.
How to Choose the Right Metaphor
If you have followed the guidelines above and believe using a metaphor is right for your personal statement, then you should already know beyond any doubt which metaphor you will use. Nevertheless, I will give you a couple of rules to follow.
First, the metaphor should come from your unique experience or personality. You should decide which of your experiences or which aspect of your personality will serve best as a metaphor.
Think of which one is most closely related to how you view your particular path.
Second, the metaphor should come from an experience or aspect of your personality that defines you particularly and therefore could not possibly be used by someone else.
Let us take as an example the personal statement I described earlier that used the metaphor of the soccer experience.
The reason that metaphor was unsuccessful was not that it was a soccer metaphor, but first that it failed to accomplish any of the key goals of a personal statement, and second that the aspects of playing soccer that were described were ones that could have been written by anyone else on the team.
To have made that metaphor successful, beyond making the personal statement more "personal," the candidate needed to choose an experience that was more “personal” and focus only on the aspects that made her experience unique.
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Editor’s Note: This article was originally published December 4, 2016, and last updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness May 19, 2022.