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‘So, Tell Me About Yourself’: Winning the Bio Game

Overcoming the angst of what you think they want to hear.

April 8, 2018

Deidra is a Ph.D. candidate in Higher Education at the University of Mississippi. You can find her on Twitter at @DeidraJackson11.

“It’s not who you know, but who knows you.”

The most cynical graduate students among us – and within the demanding world of academia, there are more than a few – would have you believe that the written bios that we labor over in applications are mere window dressing. That committees in search of prospective faculty and post-docs and recruiters in pursuit of corporate researchers and alt-ac personnel, already know to whom they’ll extend acceptance offers without having read any applicants’ biographies – the same bios, short and long, that we agonize over in order to strike just the right tone and to captivate all the right reviewers.

If this newer take on an old adage holds true, then your bio, part of the package to win an exclusive spot on the team, may already have been “written” by your reputation. However, effective academic and professional bios still serve meaningful purposes for the administrators and recruiters who traditionally seek them out. If, on your application, you’re asked to craft a written response to that often-dreaded question – “So, tell me about yourself?” – you, of course, shouldn’t skip that part, no matter how few eyes you believe actually will read it.

You can write a great professional or academic bio, and good examples and tips abound. Here are five things to keep in mind as you draft your own:

1) Think “Rapper’s Delight.” This iconic chart-breaking 1979 rap by the Sugar Hill Gang featured “Big Bank-Hank,” “Master Gee,” and “Wonder Mike.” We knew the trio from the track, because not only did they clearly identify themselves, their lyrics revealed their personalities as they shot from the hip or used metaphors: “Big Bank-Hank” was the leader; “Master Gee” was the ladies’ man; and “Wonder Mike” was the crowd-pleaser. Does your audience know who you are by how you’re describing yourself? Whether your written bio needs to be an extended remix of your life story or the short radio version, include an authentic opening that leads into more revealing details about you and your credibility (i.e., accomplishments, awards, achievements). Whether you can write your academic or professional bio as a rap (!) depends on your audience (see no. 2).

2) Know your audience. Just as you would research an institution, company, or business before drafting an application for employment or grant funding, know who will read your bio. Applying to a prestigious law school? An entrepreneurial start-up? Federal arts fellowship? Post-doctoral research scholarship? Never assume how formal or avant-garde you must be when writing your life history for others; some entities welcome standout creativity, while others may not. If you opt to forego thinking outside the box and instead, think as if the box isn’t there, inquire as to whether the culture exists for your spectators to accept such unconventional or staid life accounts.

3) Be strong, sound strong, end strong. For some of us, writing our bio means having to answer the eternal question, “Who am I?” But not exactly, thank goodness. Rid your mind of having to deal with any potential existential psychic threats this may pose. Your application, of which your bio is a part, is for a purpose, so write with purpose. In actuality, no one knows you better than you. Angst usually comes into play when we attempt to proffer the “best” impression of ourselves that we think others will deem suitable and successful. Do your research, know your audience, and speak about yourself and your experiences assertively. People form opinions quickly, so make your story count.

4) Get maximum mileage on your short trip. Make the most of the time and space you’ve been given to share your story and to capture the attention of decision makers. Use words deliberately to convey the meanings you intend. Presenting trivial details and grandiose life events without meaningful context, for example, just isn’t interesting, and we know it. Conscientious writers of all stripes often are told to put themselves in the place of their readers to pre-appraise their own work before submitting it to the public; that applies here, too. Disassociate yourself from your profile to consider whether it captivates on some level. If it doesn’t, take a different route.

5) Know your limits. Stay within the designated biographical scope. Don’t exceed word limits. Although our lives comprise varied series’ of fits and starts that are bookended by triumphs and disappointments and a range of highs and lows in between, include only your Grade A material. Where applicable, clarifying your failures and how you overcame them may be more telling than expounding on your accomplishments alone.

The honors, awards, and recognition that you’ve earned are as important as the life you’ve lived, the goals you’ve achieved, and the lessons you’ve learned. You have the fundamental tools for an effective bio. Use them effectively with purpose and aim to positively sway a specific audience with your life story in progress.

How do you go about writing bios? Have you ever written an effective bio in a nontraditional way? Share your story in the comments below!

[Image from Flickr User, Grizzlybear.se, used under the Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication]


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