Personal Statement Writing Tips

Nearly all fellowship applications involve writing a personal statement. Sometimes this is the only piece of original writing required of applicants, other times there are additional short statements or project proposals to write. Though the wording of the personal statement requirement may vary from fellowship to fellowship, here are some important things to remember.

Do...

  1. Think of the personal statement as an "intellectual autobiography." The statement should convey to your readers a clear, thoughtful picture or impression of you as a person who has distinct interests, motivations, accomplishments, aims and ideas.
  2. Aim to 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. Sometimes you'll know what this theme should be in advance; sometimes it will emerge as you begin drafting your statement.
  3. Keep it simple. It's easy to over-write a one-page personal statement. Use the words and language you would naturally use in writing a thoughtful, intelligent letter to a friend or trusted mentor. 
  4. 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 as it has been, is, and could be.
  5. Welcome the reader into your life. Fellowships are looking for promising people, not high-powered profiles. Write to engage your reader, write in a way that invites him or her to want to meet and get to know you.

Don't...

  1. Write to impress. Fellowship selection committees have seen and heard it all. Let your credentials and awards 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 accomplishments have meant to you, or how they have shaped you. Help them to understand why you care about the things you care about.
  2. Write in cliches. Ask yourself if each and every sentence in your draft reflects some thought, fact, reflection or experience of your own. Avoid sentences that could have been written by absolutely anyone. Avoid stock phrases or expressions.
  3. Re-write your resume in prose. Again, selection committees are looking for the person behind the credentials.Avoid laundry lists of activities, etc., and focus on the select few experiences that have meant the most to you, or have had the greatest influence on your development and aims.
  4. Get too frustrated! Distilling your life into a compelling, informative one-thousand word or one-page personal statement is a challenging task. Think of this as an opportunity, all-too-rare in life, to reflect calmly and creatively on who you are, who you want to be, and what you hope to do with your life.

Checklist for Evaluating your Personal Statement Drafts

  • Does your opening paragraph quickly engage the reader? Does it convey a distinct picture or impression of you as a person? 
  • Is your guiding theme or idea clearly expressed? Is there a thread that runs through the essay, unifying it?
  • Are your principal intellectual interests and aims clearly elaborated? Is there evidence of your intellectual engagement and of the ideas that motivate you in your work or studies?
  • Are your leading commitments to community service, campus or off-campus organizations, or leadership roles effectively addressed? 
  • Is the closing paragraph effective? Does it leave the reader with a sense of completeness? Does it suggest to the reader something of the spirit with which you are going forward in life?

Recommended Resources:

Joe Schall, Writing Personal Statements

James M. Lang, "Helping Students to Tell Their Stories"