Competitive scholarship applications always require a personal statement, and some opportunities also require research proposals. Every viable candidate has a high GPA and stellar recommendations. What distinguishes the top candidates from the others is the quality of the personal statement. Your personal statement should tell a story about you that makes the selection committee members want to meet you. Keep in mind that there is no single formula for writing a successful personal statement, just as there is no single profile of a fellowship winner. If you apply for multiple awards, you should be submitting different versions of your personal statement to each, since different organizations look for different qualities in their candidates.
For most awards, it helps to think of the statement as an intellectual autobiography. The selection committee will want to see that the threads of your life – your academic and personal interests and experiences – have brought you to a place where your chosen opportunity is a clear next step for which you are prepared and qualified. They will also want to understand how the fellowship itself will help launch the next stages of your life and career. In order to write a compelling essay, you will need to think in depth about your life and goals. Your statement does not have to be entirely academic: some successful candidates talk about family members in their personal statements; others emphasize academic experiences or community service. All successful personal statements show a side of the candidate that a list of accomplishments could not.
Applicants for research opportunities should discuss their plans and their statements with their current research mentors. The Fellowships Office can help frame your essay but disciplinary faculty members provide necessary input on the technical approach, the feasibility of the research plan and the role that the award would play in your career. Successful personal statements cannot be written in one sitting or even in one week! Start your essay well in advance of the submission deadline. Show drafts of your personal statement to as many people as you can, including your professors, colleagues and advisers. Although a personal statement should not come across as bragging, many students need to overcome their modesty in order to write compelling personal statements. Don’t write to impress. (Scholarship selection committees have seen and heard it all!) Instead, let your credentials speak for themselves. Use your personal statement to talk to your readers about the things that motivate, inspire and shape you. Help them to understand what your specific accomplishments have meant to you, or how they have shaped you. Help them to understand why you care about the things you care about.
Here are some helpful tips:
- Define a central idea, impression or theme you hope to convey. The most memorable personal statements are ones that have a clear theme or purpose that unifies the ideas and information presented.
- Keep it simple. Use the words and language you would use naturally in writing a thoughtful, intelligent statement for a friend or trusted mentor.
- Use specifics. Help your readers remember you (and your application) by using specific names, references and illustrations.
- Avoid clichés. Make sure that each and every sentence in your draft reflects some thought, fact, reflection or experience of your own. Avoid stock phrases or expressions.
- Find the “story” in your history. Your life has been a journey, with planned and unexpected turns, with successful and frustrated goals, with hard-earned and accidental insights, with hoped-for but as-yet-unrealized achievements. Your basic challenge in writing a compelling personal statement is to tell the story that makes sense of your life.
Don’t be frustrated! Distilling your life into a compelling, informative personal statement is an extremely challenging task. Approach the process as an opportunity to reflect calmly and creatively on who you are, who you want to be, and what you hope to do with your life.