What can rhetoric, defined by Cicero as “speech designed to persuade,” teach us about crafting a compelling personal statement? Rhetoric gives words power, maximizing the impact of our arguments, and our ability to communicate and connect (so much so, that Plato called it “the art of ruling the minds of men”).
Rather than delving into the myriad rhetorical devices, this article is going to look at how the cannons of rhetoric, the divisions of a speech, and the three forms of persuasive appeal (ethos, pathos, and logos) can provide inspiration when drafting a personal statement.
The first three of the five canons of rhetoric – invention, arrangement, and style – offer a way in:
- Invention: Brainstorm all there is to say about your personal journey (or the specific topic you have decided to write about, be it a single pivotal event, a person who inspired you, etc.).
- Arrangement: Take some time to think about the order of your material; ideally it will all be connected by an underlying theme, one that reflects your desire to pursue a certain course of study and direction in life.
- Style: Your narrative voice; in my experience, the best essays have a simple, personable, and very human narrative voice – one that resonates with honesty, humility and warmth but is (I promise) no less dynamic for these qualities. This sounds clichéd, but be yourself, keep it real.
The division of a speech according to classical rhetoric offers further inspiration for structuring your essay:
Introduction/exordium: This is typically when a speaker would draw on “ethos” – an appeal rooted in one’s character or credibility. We as readers/audience want to believe and trust the writer/speaker – so the introduction is where you might seek to establish an immediate connection by sharing a pivotal experience or moment that helps reveal who you are. Ideally, this moment or event might be what set you on the path that has led to where you are now. (I know this sounds like a tall order, but trust me, keep it simple and write from your heart and you will be surprised at how easily this paragraph can snap together and radiate with magic!)
Narration/statement of fact: Once you have written the opening paragraph, you can step back, and ground the essay by stating the obvious: you are keen to earn a given degree to achieve your future goal/s. Following on this sentence, you might acknowledge what is required to succeed in the program, which will set you up nicely to discuss in the paragraphs that follow all the events and experiences that have prepared you in this regard.
Ethos, pathos & logos appeals: As you discuss your journey in the body of the essay, consider the ways you can appeal to your reader: by revealing aspects of your character and credibility (ethos); by impressing them with quantitative and qualitative accomplishments (logos); and by making an emotional connection through honest reflection (pathos).
Refutation: Perhaps take a moment to address the areas where you have gaps and/or plan to improve.
Conclusion: Here, the traditional call to action in a formal speech might translate into a declaration of the action you plan to take, armed with your degree, to benefit your field and/or society at-large.
It goes without saying, the above is intended merely as a loose guide, a framework drawn from classical rhetoric to get the juices flowing. When it comes to understanding the intricacies of rhetoric and its role in equipping both the powerful and powerless with a proficiency for words that often changed the course of history, I highly recommend Sam Leith’s Words Like Loaded Pistols, Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama.
Nina-Marie Gardner is an editor at Gurufi, an admissions consultancy service that focuses exclusively on the writing portions of your application. Over the last 18 years, she has worked with thousands of clients, helping them gain admission into programs in the US and abroad."