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Stressed Personal Statement

I was walking to my 9:00 a.m. lecture on a brisk fall morning in Ann Arbor. However, I had stopped at a bench outside of South Quad and was unable to join the throngs of students headed to their classes. I couldn’t walk because I was cripplingly nauseated. While nausea is normal for me (particularly in the morning) this was far more intense than my normal levels. I had already blown through the normal remedies that get me through these episodes — pepto bismol and nearly a sleeve of saltine crackers — in an attempt to get to class without throwing up.  

My mind wandered to the joint in the small pocket of my backpack.  

Nothing else would fix my nausea enough to allow me to walk. I pulled the joint out of its container and smelled the familiar, calming smell. I lit it and inhaled deeply, and a smile began to creep onto my face. I was able to put down the now near-empty sleeve of saltines and hold my head high without fear of throwing up. The constant negative force my stomach normally exerts onto me faded away and I was able to get to class (on “Michigan Time”) with a smile on my face.  

***

In fifth grade I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. My symptoms started manifesting in the third grade, which is when my parents began having me tested for various diseases that cause constant nausea. I was nauseated at school, while exercising, after eating, and a lot of times in between. After two MRIs and two colonoscopies, my gastroenterologist finally determined that it was Crohn’s, a disease that affects the lining of a person’s digestive tract and can cause nausea, abdominal pain, and other symptoms.

I was given a prescription for the biggest pills I’d ever seen and told the disease would be with me for the rest of my life, but that symptoms could be managed through medication, diet, and exercise.  Crohn’s is chronic, and manifests in each patient differently. Some experience flare-ups: periods (spanning hours to days) of intense nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. My version of the disease is less intense, with the primary symptom being constant nausea.

In high school, my disease took a turn. My intestine, when stressed, began blocking food from passing through my colon at a point known as a stricture. This caused intense radiating pain to my back and stomach, and sent me into bouts of writhing pain that could last for hours or an entire day. I went to the emergency room too many times in attempts to understand what was causing the pain. During the summer after my sophomore year of high school I had surgery to unclog three strictures.

While the surgery alleviated the episodes for about a year, they eventually returned. This time, the pain was not caused by blocked food, but instead by stress. My gastroenterologist told me that my mind had associated the feeling of high stress with the pain that I felt during those painful episodes, and was now causing me to feel that pain when high stress occurred. The advice I received was to stay as stress-free as possible. Not easy, or realistic for a high schooler applying to college. In addition to the pills I took every day, I was put on a bi-monthly infusion, a dialysis-like procedure in which an anti-inflammatory drug was pumped into my system over several hours. My current medication was re-evaluated. But not much seemed to help the nausea or my stress. It was entirely up to me to stay healthy and pain free.  

****

Growing up in San Francisco, I saw plenty of drugs and alcohol. Kids in my high school grew facial hair as fast as they could to get fake IDs for parties on the weekends. Looking back, it makes me recall the song “Super Rich Kids” by Frank Ocean. However, my friends and I were never around these kids. We were always in other parts of the city, playing video games or Ultimate Frisbee. As such, I hadn’t ever had drugs or alcohol before my first semester at Michigan, living on the backside of Markley.

Freshman year, as I was exposed to various mind-altering chemicals, I began finally understanding why people in San Francisco were so determined to get me to try marijuana because of my stomach. Marijuana makes my stomach disappear, and makes my constant nausea dissipate, even if it’s only for a few hours. However, I didn’t start really using marijuana to help my stomach until the summer after freshman year.

The summer after freshman year, my dad went with me to get a medical marijuana card in California. Above Amoeba Records in the Haight — San Francisco’s hippie district — sits an office that helps anyone (with a legitimate reason) obtain a medical card. The doctor (incidentally, a graduate of the University of Michigan Medical School) discussed my Crohn’s symptoms and told us that I was “the quintessential patient” for medical marijuana. Later that week, I purchased gummies from a dispensary that had a high amount of Cannabidiol (CBD), the chemical in marijuana that helps abate migraines and other types of pain. I didn’t try them right away. I was nervous, because my only experience with edibles had been seeing my hall mates from Markley couch-stuck for hours on end.

On a trip to Boston that summer though, I desperately needed help. I awoke for a morning flight with extreme nausea. I finished packing for the flight, but could not even stomach a slice of toast: the only thing I could eat was saltines. My dad came up to me and told me to take one of the gummies. I obliged. I had to do something. It tasted horrible, still cold from the fridge, and took several minutes to choke down.  And like all edibles, it took about forty-five minutes to kick in. I barely made it through the Uber ride and through airport security, and I continued to eat saltines and Pepto Bismol just to keep myself from throwing up. I was slouched while walking, disheveled, and clearly in pain. Finally, we were in line to get our tickets scanned to get onto the plane.

But then, in the middle of checking in, something incredible happened: I straightened my posture, looked up at my dad, and for the first time all day, I smiled.

“It’s working,” I said.

He smiled back at me and I started laughing; I couldn’t help myself. I found my seat and fell into a contented sleep because my stomach had finally disappeared.

***

Most people use marijuana to feel good and have fun. It’s fun for me too, but much more importantly, it is the most effective drug for me in my fight against Crohn’s. I honestly don’t know if all the prescription drugs I take really help prevent serious Crohn’s flare-ups. But I do know that medical marijuana lets me participate in any activity I want without fear of my stomach preventing me from enjoying my college experience.

What is a personal statement?

A personal statement is a narrative that describes aspects of yourself that have not been illuminated in your application.  Writing a great personal statement can be challenging!  A strong personal statement does not just reiterate the achievements on your résumé or curriculum vitae; rather, it should detail your academic and professional development alongside a compelling narrative of what inspired you to apply for a particular program.  Pay close attention to any particular questions asked by the program or word limits.

Pre-Writing and Self-Reflection

  • What is special, unique, distinct, or important about your academic and professional journey?  Use specific examples.  Ground your essay in specific experiences rather than just facts.  Be wary of vague explanations.
  • Who has influenced you greatly (thinkers, critics, mentors, professors, writers, scientists, etc.)? 
  • What personal details might help the committee better understand you and help set you apart from the other applicants? 
  • What experiences and/or education have made you want to pursue this degree program? 
  • How are you pursuing your interest (e.g., education, volunteer work, professional experience)? 
  • What are the most compelling reasons you can give for the admissions committee to be interested in you? 
  • Under what conditions do you do your most creative work? 
  • When have you been so immersed in what you were doing that time seemed to fly by while you were actively absorbed? 
  • What appeals to you most about this program in general (i.e., the field of study) and more specifically
    (i.e., the particular department or program)? What makes you and your interests a good fit? 
  • What has further stimulated your interest and reinforced your conviction that you are well-suited to this field? 
  • Always talk to a professor or mentor about the larger stakes of your project or your professional development.  Seek out sound advice about the intellectual questions you plan to ask in advanced study.

The two most important things to consider: 1) define your "Ah ha!" moment-the point when you knew you wanted to pursue further research or study in a given area or field.  Think about questions that you want to answer in your future research and the larger contribution you think you will make to the field and community.  2) Read as many sample personal statements as possible. A poet would NEVER sit down to write a poem without having read and studied numerous others.  The same goes for a personal statement!  You need to master the genre before you can craft a successful statement.

Rules to Write By

  • Concentrate on your opening paragraph; make sure you stress compelling reasons for the admissions committee to be interested in you.
  • Treat your statement like a job interview. You have 5 minutes to impress.
  • Set yourself apart from other applicants.
  • Balance personal and analytical thought in your statement. Catch the reader's attention in your first paragraph with personal information, and remember to sell yourself throughout your statement.
  • Be selective. Write clearly and concisely. Adhere to word limits.
  • Consider the past but look to the future.  Show the committee where you have come from (undergraduate institution, awards, honors, research, volunteer) but also stress your future goals.  You want to show how important the program, internship, or fellowship is to your continued development-and show them where you plan to go!
  • Use active first person when you write: "I am eager to" "I am interested in" "I would like to pursue."
    • Use positive language:
      DO: I am productive with my time.
      DON'T: I do not waste my time.
  • Try to write with verbs rather than adjectives.  Think, "Show, don't tell."  For example, rather than saying, "I am a great leader and very dependable and experienced," say, "Not only my coursework, but also my research roles, departmental involvement, and professional development during this past year have prepared me to start doctoral studies with a strong academic focus." Then explain.  Use evidence!
  • AVOID: clichés or overly sentimental stories, high school accomplishments, slang or informal writing, an arrogant tone, or being overly general!  Use specific examples to support your application.

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