There are two main types of essays you may be asked to write. One is a personal statement; the other is a proposal or statement of intent.
A personal statement should be a narrative giving a picture of you as an individual. It should deal with your personal history, family background, influences on intellectual development, the educational and cultural opportunities (or lack of them) to which you have been exposed, and the ways in which these experiences have affected you. Include your special interests and abilities, career plans, and life goals, etc. It should not be a recording of facts already listed on the application or an elaboration of your statement of proposed study.
A proposal or statement of intent (or study) can be a number of things. It could be an explanation of why you should receive a bunch of money to study or it could be a detailed account of what you plan to do with all of that money.
Some scholarships have you combine your academic proposal inside the framework of a personal reflection.
- Think of your application as a whole with each part supplementing and supporting every other part. The selection committee will be looking for clarity, conviction, clear and organized thinking, and effective communication.
- Consider your audience. Write for an intelligent non-specialist. Make sure the terminology will be understandable to someone outside your field. The tone should be neither too academic nor too personal. Aim for economy, enthusiasm, and directness; eloquence is welcome, but not at the expense of substance or honesty.
- Make sure all information is accurate and can discuss in some detail anything you mention.
- Do not pad, but do not be falsely modest either. Just be yourself and give the selections committee an opportunity to get to know you.
- Plan to experiment and try completely different versions.
- Show your work to a number of readers whose comments you respect. Consult especially your department advisor and ask your readers to tell you what questions your essays raise that you might not have considered.
- Revise until you are happy that you have made these highly restrictive forms into effective reflections of who you are and what you want to do.
- Keep to word limits and all other guidelines.
- Personal statements are short. Identify 3-4 points you want to develop and let other aspects of your application present the other important information. Use your personal statement to say what others could not say.
- Personal statements are read quickly and often in bulk. Yours should be a pleasure to read. It should start fast, quickly taking the reader into the heart of your discussion.
- Maintain focus. Establish a consistent story line. Consider one or two anecdotes that can help you focus and give a human face to your discussion.
- Use this discussion to present a compelling snapshot of who you are and what contributions you want to make, and to indicate what your priorities are and the kinds of intelligence and passion you bring to your work.
- You may also want to weave in some mention of any skills or resources that may particularly recommend you. Remember that this can be done through sharing an experience that shows a number of the qualities you want to convey rather than telling them.
- Start writing drafts. Experiment until you find a way for your paragraphs to flow together.
Questions to consider in getting started on your personal statement
- What ideas, books, courses, events have had a profound impact on you? How so?
- To what extent do your current commitments reflect your most strongly-held values?
- What errors or regrets have taught you something important about yourself?
- When does time disappear for you? What does this tell you about your passions, your values?
- When have you changed? Consider yourself before and after; what does this change mean?
Academic/Project Proposal-Common Elements
- A description of your course of study or project; topic(s), research focus, degree goals, methodology, itinerary, and budget.
- Why you have chosen this course of study (at this particular institution, in this particular country/location), or why you want to undertake this project in this particular setting.
- Evidence that your plans are consistent with your preparation, academic qualifications, and long-range goals.
- Perhaps why you are choosing a new area of study, or what makes your project particularly timely.
- This statement combines elements of the academic proposal within the framework of a personal reflection.
- It should not force an unrealistic unity.
- It should balance both components together effectively. The balance of these two aspects will vary according to what best represents you and your goals. (The Rhodes selection committee recommends no more than 1-2 paragraphs to present the academic proposal.)
On Writing Well, William Zinsser, Harper & Row
Manual of Style, University of Chicago
Elements of Style, Strunk and White, Macmillan
Graduate Admissions Essays: What Works, What Doesn't and Why, Donald Asher, Ten Speed Press