The rhetoric of self-promotion in personal statements



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Rhetoricians have all but ignored what may be the single most important text that students write in their undergraduate careers, a personal statement for a postbaccalaureate degree program. Business school, medical school, law school, and graduate school all require one with an application, but nowhere in the curriculum are students taught how to write it—an irony, it would seem, for institutions to overlook the document demanded of any who wish to rise in their ranks. Filling this void, a plethora of popular guidebooks promise to lead applicants through the narrow rhetorical straits of writing a personal statement; unfortunately the advice therein suffers from an unsettling amount of inconsistency. The asymmetry between popular and scholarly literature on personal statements may owe to their being a “homely discourse” (Carolyn Miller)—too instrumental in function and limited in circulation to have attracted much scholarly notice. Since the time that Miller called upon researchers to regard workaday genres, many have taken heed, but comparable attention to the personal statement is long overdue. The genre deserves critical attention, not only for the sake of future applicants, but for the sake of elucidating the interplay of some abiding interests in rhetoric and composition— genre, identity, and professional socialization. This dissertation brings together a series of empirical studies on personal statements written for two different programs of study: doctoral study in clinical psychology and medical school. Methodologically these studies coordinate data from multiple sources: discourse analyses of original texts, interviews with applicant writers and expert readers, and observations of writing center consultations. Results show how a profession’s partisanship along the research/practice divide requires strikingly different self-identifications from its novitiates: apprentice scientists of psychology must craft identities as empirical problem-solvers in service to the scientific community; aspiring doctors must craft identities as altruistic healers in service to humanity. The writing center study proposes a method of conversation analysis based on politeness theory in sociolinguistics in order to analyze the co-invocation of absent audiences in tutorial. The project concludes with a defense of personal writing against the denigration it has suffered under the epithet of expressivism.