Personal statements are a major part of the applications for many awards, including Fulbright Grants, Charles Center Summer Scholarships, and Rhodes Scholarships. Personal statements play an important role in helping selection committees get to know you as an individual and give you an opportunity to show your background in ways much deeper than your transcripts or resume could. Every scholarship, fellowship, and internship will ask different questions for its personal statement, so you’ll have to keep those in mind, but here are a few general tips that can help you write any personal statement:
1. Reflect on Your Background
What unique experiences do you have that have led you to become who you are now? What challenges (academic, health, family) have you had to overcome in your life? How has your background driven you to apply for this specific program, and how does it make you qualified for this program? These are all questions that you will want to keep in mind while writing a personal statement, and answering them can make your writing and your application overall much stronger. Just saying that you’re interested in the research or other work that you’ll be doing in your program may not be enough; it is even better to show through your writing how your background and experiences have shaped your interests. You could discuss personal/family connections with your area of interest, classes that you’ve taken that made you interested in it, or anything in between. This will reflect even greater commitment to the purpose of your program.
2. Think about Your Future Plans
What do you plan to do immediately after you finish your program? What about your long-term career and life goals? It’s very important that you show in your personal statement how your future plans motivate you to complete your chosen program. If your life goal is to become a teacher or work in education policy, it will be easy to show your motivation in doing a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship, but if your future plans and the program you’re applying to aren’t as obviously connected, or if you’re not sure about your future plans, this can be a challenge. Either way, it will require some self-reflection, and talking to friends and mentors can help you make this connection.
3. Create a Narrative
When writing about your past, present and future, don’t fall into a trap of just listing off facts about what you’ve done or plan to do. A great personal statement builds off of the writers past experiences and future plans to construct an overall narrative. This cohesively shows to the selection committee how you became interested in your chosen program, what you will get out of the program, and how you will use that experience to achieve your future goals. Moreover, essays with a strong and unique narrative will be a lot more memorable for selection committees, and will help you stand out as a candidate.
4. Don’t Be Arrogant, but Don’t Be too Humble
Getting the tone right is an important part of any piece of writing, and the balance that you need to strike for a personal statement is especially challenging. You need to convey confidence that you are qualified for your chosen program, but if you overdo it you may be perceived as arrogant. Saying “I think that this project might help some people” is clearly underselling yourself, but a statement like “This project will forever change the process of diplomatic negotiations among countries in the Middle East” is will probably come off as overconfident. Something like “This project will provide a strong foundation for future studies into the diplomatic relationship between countries in the Middle East” sounds better and is likely more accurate than the two above. Simply state your qualifications and/or project plans honestly and without exaggeration.
5. Don’t Be too Colloquial, but Don’t Sound too Academic
You want your personal statement to sound like you, but not the most colloquial and informal version of you. Moreover, you want your personal statement to be easy to read, even for people who are not in your field of study, as selection committees are usually made up of people in many academic disciplines. This can be another challenging balance to strike, and often different people will find that different writing styles best suit them. Have someone who knows you well read it over to get their impressions on how well you’ve struck this balance.
6. Have a Strong Beginning
Having a strong opening sentence or paragraph can go a long way in making sure that the reader stays engaged and interested in what you’re writing throughout your personal statement. Many applicants like to open their personal statements with an anecdote; this can be a strong beginning hook, but it can be easy for an anecdote to get off topic. If you’re going to take this route, make sure that you find a clear way to connect your anecdote with the rest of the personal statement. Aside from anecdotes, there are many other ways to begin your personal statement. Some people will begin with a thesis statement-style summer of what is to come in the rest of the essay; this can be very concise and clear in showing what you will talk about in your personal statement, but might not grab the reader’s attention as much as an anecdote. There are advantages and disadvantages of all different kinds of openings, and you should try a few out and see which one works best for you.
7. Have a Strong Ending
As the final thing that the selection committees read, your conclusion will leave a lasting impression, so you need to make sure that it’s a good one. Many applicants like to end their personal statements with a short summary of what they talked about in the preceding paragraphs; this can be a good cohesive way to conclude, but it may seem dry and redundant. Others may use the conclusion as a space to talk about future plans if they don’t earlier on in the essay. The ending often feels like a natural place to discuss the future plans, but if those plans aren’t thoroughly described and connected to the program and your past experiences, this may read like an addition that is tacked on last-minute without much thought. If you open with an anecdote, you may want to reference the anecdote in your conclusion. This makes the essay feel more cohesive, but again it can be difficult to clearly connect your anecdote to the topic or purpose of the program. As with the beginning, try out different types of ending and works best with your writing.
8. Pick an Overall Structure that Works for You
Make sure that the flow of ideas from one sentence or paragraph to the next makes sense. For some people this will mean simply going in chronological order, but there are many other ways that you could connect your ideas coherently. You could also structure your essay based on your academic development or how you narrowed the scope of your research/academic interests. Some personal statements may start with a description of the present or recent past, and then go on to describe earlier events that led up to that. There are as many ways of structuring a personal statement as there are people in the world, but make sure that yours is cohesive and fits well with the content that you’re describing.
9. Edit, Revise, and Rewrite
Your personal statement won’t be perfect on your first try, but that’s ok! It will usually take multiple edits and rewrites for you to get to a final draft that you’re happy with. It’s also a good idea to have others read your essay and give you ideas for what could be improved in your writing. The PSAs are a great resource for this, and we’re happy to help with your personal statements for all kinds of awards!
On a related note, make sure that you edit and revise your personal statement to fit whatever specific program you’re applying to. It’s not a good idea to directly copy and paste your personal statement from one application to another without making some changes because each program has different requirements and will ask different questions for the personal statement. You can keep the big ideas the same, but make sure you modify it to fit whatever you’re applying to.
As always, if you have any questions about these or other opportunities, or you want someone to look over your application materials, don’t hesitate to come into the PSA office any time from 9 to 5 Monday through Friday! Thanks for reading!