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Careers Clinic: How do I write a personal statement for a drama school application?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
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I did a summer performing arts course last year, then started auditioning for small shows, independent films and any other kind of acting job I could find. I surprised myself by getting several auditions, two of which turned into actual jobs.

That boost has made me want to up my game, both in terms of my skills and the level of work I can get, so I have decided to go to drama school full-time. I’m confident that I’ll do okay at the auditions, but the stage of the process I’m really struggling with is the initial application forms, particularly the personal statement.

If I was already in the room with the audition panel, I know I wouldn’t have a problem grabbing their attention and communicating how passionate I am. Instead, I’m staring at my laptop screen, having deleted my fifteenth killer opening line and wondering if I’ll ever get to the second paragraph, let alone get a decent statement finished before the deadline.

John Byrne’s advice

Based on my own, completely unscientific, survey of people I have met in the arts since I started out, it seems the number of people in our industry who are more comfortable communicating via visuals, sounds and movement, rather than via the written word is quite high.

This being the case, it has always struck me as ironic that so many gateways to moving an arts career forward, whether by connecting with agents and casting directors, or producing funding proposals or a personal statement like the one you are currently wrestling with, are based on writing ability.

If you have ever seen an inexperienced actor at work, you will know that they are often either too tentative to have any stage presence, or too loud to create any sense of intimacy. It can take all of us a while to realise that focus, modulation and a ‘less is more’ approach are usually better ways to engage with our audience.

The same applies to writing. Personal statements can be one of the most important elements of an application, but don’t let that sense of importance either block you to the point where your writing becomes stilted and unreflective of you as a person, or, alternatively, overly focused on gimmicks in an attempt to stand out. Just be sincere. Striving for that mythical ‘attention-grabbing first paragraph’ can often send us so far down the rabbit hole of writing and rewriting that it can be better to make it the last part of the statement we work on.

Instead, get going on the part of your statement which sets out why you want to study the course in the first place. Once you get into the flow of writing and tap into what your actual motivations are, you will often find that ideas for how to open your statement in a way that sounds like you rather than a self-help guru will come more easily.

Quotations from classic plays and successful actors are all well and good, but it is you who is applying for the course, so what motivates you is of more interest to the admissions team than whether Shakespeare viewed the world as a stage. That said, if you really are more comfortable improvising on stage than on paper, there is no reason why you can’t create your personal statement that way.

If you have dyslexia or another condition that makes writing challenging, don’t be afraid to get in contact with the admissions department to see if they will accept the statement in some other form. But, even if your finished product is conveyed as written words, they may flow more freely if you speak them out on camera or tape and then transcribe them afterwards.

Contact careers adviser John Byrne at dearjohn@thestage.co.uk or @dearjohnbyrne

John Byrne is also a writer, cartoonist, performer and broadcaster. Read his advice columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/john-byrne

Drama school – how to apply and audition

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