Personal Statements

Some General Observations on Writing Personal Statements


Some General Observations on Writing Personal Statements

  • You deviate from the application's specifications at your peril. Almost every fellowship and scholarship you will apply to asks for a personal statement of some kind.  Each agency may have specific guiding questions and formats for the statement, thus it is essential that you check the information on the application carefully for all particular guidelines. Note that the Rhodes, for example, prohibits you from seeking external feedback on your statement, in an effort to solicit a statement which is entirely and uniquely "you". Take the time to understand your specific fellowship requirements and abide by them.
  • The statement plays an essential role in helping you to stand out from the crowd. The general purpose of these statements is to capture who you are as an individual--beyond someone with good grades, an impressive resume, and lots of ambition.   So it's not the place to repeat information that is conveyed by your transcript, for instance.
  • Most personal statements are usually short (between 500-1000 words).  To the average college student, the brevity of the assignment may create a false sense of security that you can wait until the last minute and then quickly write those two pages (just as you might if you had a two-page writing assignment for a class). Nothing could be farther from the truth.
  • You will do a lot of work to prepare this document, but the payoff for such an investment of time is potentially huge. These few pages have to be the most perfect pages you have ever written.  They have to be rich in content, completely free of error, and beautifully polished in style.  Thus you will need to devote a good deal of time and effort and get extensive feedback before your statement is ready to send in. Where this is not possible (for example, in the case of the Rhodes), prepare yourself for multiple drafts of the essay. Preparing early will give you the time and space to prepare independently a final product you can be proud of. 
  • Unfortunately, there are no easy formulas to composing a personal statement.  Because it is meant to represent who you are as a person, each statement will be unique--just like each applicant is unique.  To demonstrate your uniqueness, however, does not mean that you should emphasize what is odd or quirky about you.  You will want first and foremost to demonstrate that your particular abilities, achievements, and ambitions make you a good match for the fellowship program.  Thus, again, be sure to fully familiarize yourself with the fellowship, its history, its goals, and its philosophy to ensure you can present yourself as a well-qualified candidate.
  • Write separate statements for each application you make.  Some of the websites linked below include models of statements.  But remember: models are not formulas.  Don't simply "cut and paste" your information into someone else's essay structure.  Likewise, you will need to write separate versions for each scholarship; while sections may overlap, you will need to treat each application separately.  Again, this will help to demonstrate that you are a good match for the particular scholarship program.
  • See the list of links below for additional tips and hints.  Especially useful is the PDF by Mary Tolar.

A Few Rules of Thumb

  • Consider your audience.  This is the first rule of good writing.  In most instances you should expect that audience to be intelligent professionals, who may not be specialists in your field (although if you are applying to a graduate program, you may consider the audience to be specialists in your discipline).
  • Show, don't just tell.  Preachy generalizations about how you plan to save the world will not prove convincing.  Detailed illustrations of what you've already done to help the community are.  Use concrete examples wherever possible. 
  • Know the "Words to Avoid:" Vague language suggests vague plans.  The University of California, Berkeley website has a great list of words to avoid.  "Interesting" and "Useful" are among them.  As is "I like helping people."
  • Find your voice: This is the most difficult but most critical part of the writing process.  If you find yourself trying to "sound intellectual," chances are your style will become bloated or stilted.  Read your essay aloud.  Does it sound like you?  Or does it sound like you trying to sound like someone you aren't?  Big fancy words, especially when included for their bigness or fanciness sometimes have the opposite of their intended effect.  Often, when trying to convey complex ideas, more precise language is called for.
  • Proofread meticulously.  Remember that the fellowship evaluators will be reading hundreds of these statements.  Make sure yours is a pleasure to read, even as it conveys information about you.  Make sure it is clear and well-organized.  And remember that even a single typo could land your application in "the circular file."  These applications will likely be copied and distributed to many readers.  Thus the gravity of a single typo is multiplied exponentially.
  • Get extensive feedback on your statement.  Have the individual fellowship faculty advisor look it over.  Have your major advisor or other professors you trust look it over.  Have the Fellowships Coordinator look it over.
  • Expect to do many, many drafts.  Again, the payoff for such effort could be enormous.
  • Honesty is the best policy.  Needless to say, don't make things up about yourself to sound impressive.  Just as importantly, don't think you should claim goals or ambitions that you aren't sincere about.  Such a lack of investment will come through in your writing.