How to Apply

Writing a Personal Statement

The personal statements required as part of the application process for many of the nationally competitive fellowships are critical components. They provide an opportunity for candidates to distinguish themselves from other applicants. More important, these essays challenge students to think seriously about their own priorities and values as well as factors that have shaped who they are, what they want to do with their lives, why they have chosen a particular career, and how a fellowship might contribute to achievement of their goals.

Ranging in length from one to several pages, these essays require a great deal of thought and work. Be prepared to spend several weeks working on your draft and the many revisions that will be required to produce a strong, yet genuine statement.

Be clear on the assignment

Read the assignment carefully and be sure you understand what you are asked to write about.

Review your personal history.

Take into account:

  • Family and friends – those who influenced your values, ideas, interests, and goals
  • Education - special programs, influential classes and/or professors, and independent research projects; informal experiences, such as books or lectures that have had an impact on your thinking and/or career choices
  • Work experiences and internships – those that enabled you to develop/discover leadership abilities, introduced you to new ways of thinking about the world, taught you new skills
  • Travel – opportunities to learn new perspectives, new ways of doing things; experiences that have made you aware of challenges and/or problems that you would like to help solve
  • Community service – activities that put you in touch with people who are different from you, that enabled you to assume new responsibilities, that gave you a vision of what might be achieved
  • Political activities – experiences that instilled an appreciation of the democratic process or, conversely, alerted you to the problems our society faces
  • Talents – the importance of music, art, writing, sports, etc. to your life

Audience

Review the application materials carefully. They often provide information about who will be reading your application as well as guidance on how you should think about your audience. Committee members may or may not have in-depth knowledge of your field. If you are applying for a specialized fellowship, you can probably assume that readers will have some technical knowledge of your field. If, on the other hand, you are applying for a general scholarship – i.e. one that is open to students from a broad range of fields, you should explain briefly the points that would not necessarily be understood by a general audience.

Your personal statement will be read by members of a selection committee consisting of highly-educated individuals. Do not try to figure out what you think they want to hear. Your job is to present yourself in a way that will both set you apart from the hundreds of other students who are applying for the same fellowship, while enabling readers to make a thoughtful and honest appraisal of you as a person, your career goals, and whether the fellowship for which you are applying will enable you to achieve your goals.

Take time to think

Before you begin to write, take lots of time to think -

  • About who you are – your values, your priorities, your goals
  • About the individuals, experiences, and challenges that have influenced your thinking and your career goals
  • About what you hope to achieve and why you believe your goals are worth working toward

Unifying theme

As you explore these questions, look for a single concept that best defines who you are and/or where you are going. The theme you choose is important: It will help you organize your ideas, select supporting evidence for claims of what your have achieved, and provide a roadmap for your readers. It will also convey to the readers how you see and understand yourself.

You might begin by asking yourself: “What are the qualities, values, goals, experiences, and activities that best define who I am?”

Another good question to ask is: “What are the most important things for the committee to know?” Be sure to discuss:

  • Your choice of career
  • How the fellowship will enable you to achieve your goals
  • How well prepared you are to take maximum advantage of the opportunities provided by the fellowship

Organization

A personal statement should flow naturally. That does not mean, however, that it should, in its final form, lack any organizational structure. As one final step before you begin to write, you might sketch out a basic outline – i.e. a logical progression of ideas that you want to include. In the process of writing, you are likely to discover a better arrangement, and, as that happens, follow your instincts. The initial outline can serve as a check that important ideas and critical points are not lost in the creative process. It should not, however, undermine the creativity, originality, or inspiration that accompanies the writing process. Let your personality – including a sense of humor – emerge.

Writing the personal statement

Hopefully, the thinking and organizing that you have done will make the writing process flow more smoothly. As a practical matter:

  • Consider writing first thing in the morning, while your thought is fresh and less likely to be distracted.
  • When you decide to quit for the day, make a few notes on the draft as reminders of what you want to write next.
  • Recognize that you need to discipline yourself to write with full knowledge that re-writing is not only an option but a very real possibility – multiple times!

A few pointers to keep in mind as you write and, further down the line, as your re-write and revise your essay:

  • Be yourself. Speak with your own voice, sharing your own ideas about your own goals. Ask others to read your essay and give you feedback, but preserve your own voice.
  • Be passionate. Think in terms of telling a story: make your writing fresh and engaging.
  • Write clearly, simply, and concisely. Write clearly and honestly about yourself and your aspirations. Choose words that best convey your meaning. Avoid excessive modifiers and qualifiers. Avoid overly complex sentence structures. Pay attention to spelling and grammar. Consult Strunk and White, Elements of Style, when questions arise.
  • Open the essay with a strong paragraph that provides a framework and introduces critical elements that you intend to explore in the main body of the essay. Find a way to catch the readers’ attention. Keep in mind that committee members read many essays; you need to distinguish yourself at the outset!
  • In the main body of the essay:
      1. Describe your experience in your field of study and convey your knowledge of the field.
      2. Refer to classes, conversations with experts, books you have read, seminars you have attended, experiences you have had, and other sources that have contributed to your interest and knowledge.
      3. Make a convincing argument that you know something about the career you have chosen and that you are prepared to move forward in acquiring the education and skills necessary to succeed in that career.
  • Do not overstate your achievements. Be prepared to acknowledge your role as part of a team, but do not claim full credit if others contributed to the outcome. Define your accomplishments clearly and truthfully. If you are proposing a plan of study and/or research, be realistic in stating your objectives and how you intend to achieve them.
  • Focus on a few, well-chosen examples, and use these to develop your ideas. Depth is better than breadth. Select experiences that have been most important, those that have shaped your development and defined the direction you have chosen.
  • Be current. Concentrate on where you are now and where you are going.
  • Address weaknesses in your resume by providing honest explanations – for example, feel free to explain that you had financial responsibilities that prevented you from participating in community service or assuming leadership positions.
  • Avoid controversial subjects, especially religion and politics.
  • Avoid stating views that might be interpreted as strange or unconventional.
  • Avoid obvious clichés.
  • Minimize use of the pronoun “I.”
  • Proofread and ask others to proofread.
    • Check spelling and grammar.
  • Review the quality of the writing.
    • Is the writing clear? Concise?
    • Does the essay flow naturally? Is it organized? Logical?
    • Does the main theme come through clearly? Is it powerful? Convincing?
    • Have you provided relevant examples and explained them appropriately?
Page Updated 05.31.2012