The first thing you should do is verse yourself thoroughly in the requirements of the personal essay. Every fellowship will be looking for different aspects and criteria. You may want to make a list so that you can check-off each criteria.
Remember, this essay should be self-reflective. A good essay will be showing the work of many drafts, revisions, and edits. Because personal statements are personal, there is no universal or formal approach. Depending on the fellowship, the personal essay will be about 1000 words and should have a clear theme with 3 or 4 points connected to that theme.
The personal statement is an opportunity to present information about you that cannot be gleaned from the application itself. That is, use your personal statement to explain what is unique and important about you – show something that they cannot see by simply reading the application.
Every fellowship or scholarship application requires an essay in which the candidate describes his or her academic and other interests. The personal essay, personal statement, autobiographical essay, or personal narrative, allows you to introduce yourself to the selection committee. An outstanding personal essay will not win you a scholarship, but a poorly prepared one can deny you the chance to be considered a finalist.
The essay, often the most important part of the application, allows you to demonstrate how your goals, interests, and experience match with the program for which you are applying. A poorly written essay can show your lack of effort and ability. Conversely, a well-written essay can make you noticeable or help compensate for some other weakness in your application.
Typically, readers of personal statements will want you to answer the following questions:
- What is special, unique, distinctive, or impressive about you or your life story?
- What details of your life (personal, family, history, events) might help the committee better understand you or help set you apart from the other candidates?
- What makes you interesting? Remember that the majority of candidates will be smart and accomplished. You need to stand out by being more committed than they are and that can be demonstrated by sharing a vivid anecdote or presenting a special individual quality.
- What are your long-term goals? Career plans? What types of contributions would you like to make? What personal characteristics do you possess that would increase your likelihood of success in your field? Avoid clichés here. Planning to do graduate studies shows that you have purpose and drive.
- What are your personal and professional interests? Did you acquire them in a unique or memorable way? What defining person or experience has shaped your interests? Be positive. Explain when and why you became interested in the field.
- How does your proposal connect to your long-term goals? The fellowship is investing in you so be sure you show them that their investment is a sound one.
- Answer the questions that are asked – while you may be able to use the same essay for all applications, be sure that your answers fit the questions being asked.
- Tell a story – demonstrate, with specificity, your character, strengths, vision, and experience.
- Be specific – do not make claims about what kind of lawyer or doctor you would be without specifics. Your desire should be a result of a specific experience that is outlined in your statement.
- Find a theme – you may think that your life lacks drama, so figuring out how to make yourself appear interesting becomes a challenge. Try and find an angle, hook, or use a metaphor.
- Have a strong opening paragraph – the opening paragraph is vital. It is here that you grab or lose your reader’s attention. This paragraph should be the framework for the rest of the essay.
- Explain what you know – the middle section of your statement might detail your interests and experience as well as your knowledge in the field. Be sure you can show your understand the key aspects of your field. Refer to specific experiences, courses, research, books, seminars, research projects, or any other source that addresses the career you want and why you are suited for it.
- Don’t include some subjects – there are certain things that should be left out of the personal statement. Some examples include references to politics, religion, questionable humor, accomplishments from high school, and other “immature” references.
- Do research – if a school wants to know why you are applying to their school over others, do some research to determine what sets that school apart from others.
- Write well – proofread, proofread, and proofread. Be meticulous. Express yourself clearly. Adhere to any word limit or page limit.
- Avoid clichés – stay away from common terms or tired statements. Express an original thought.
Hints to Improve Your Essay
Your personal essay for different fellowships or different schools will vary because an effective personal statement addresses the definitive criteria of each specific organization. The personal essay is not a narrative résumé. Rather, it should tell a quick and meaningful story about you that the reader cannot glean from your transcripts and any relevant admission examination.
A good personal essay conveys your individuality through concrete examples, details, and personal anecdotes. Be sure that the opening sentence and paragraph grab the reader and intrigue them to read further. Be honest about your achievements and strengths while staying modest and realistic about your weaknesses. Avoid being gimmicky, cute, arrogant, or self-deprecating. Try to be clear and graceful and focus more on your positive attributes.
A Few Style Tips
- Find a thread that binds the paragraphs – for example, in your autobiographical narrative, start with your background and an experience/person that had a formative influence on your interest. You can then move to subsequent events/undertakings that honed your specific interest and discuss your academic growth. Then, discuss your future ambitions or long-term objectives. Finish with how the scholarship or graduate studies will contribute to your goals.
- Persuasive writing relies on strong verbs – nouns and adjectives are not as powerful. Verbs signify action and can show evidence of past performance rather than merely piling up nouns and adjectives.
- Use the active voice – the passive voice projects weakness.
- Choose precise words – use clear words and phrases rather than abstract ones. Don’t turn to the thesaurus in all instances. Avoid using etc. as it can show that you don’t know how to finish your sentence.
- Too many metaphors may confuse – ensure that your metaphors are precise. Avoid either putting more than one metaphor in a sentence or overextending the metaphor.
- Cut unnecessary preliminaries and inflated phrases – don’t explain what you are about to say, just say it. Phrases like, let me add, the fact that, on the whole, etc., should not be used.
- Use elegant sentence variations – be sure to vary your sentences. Vary structure: simple and complex, long and short, exclamations. Vary beginnings: start each sentence with a different noun, preposition, participle, or adjective. Vary sentence lengths: avoid overly long and complex sentences. What worked for Faulkner may not work you for you here. Vary words: do not use the same words if not used deliberately for effect.
- Use consistent verb tenses – if using background influences that are still with you, use present tense. For past experiences, use the past tense. You would be surprised what a difference this makes.
- No clichés – clichés are lazy expressions, sometimes.
- Do not use “very” – this is a crutch. You usually do not need to use the word.
Useful Links on Sample Statements/Essays