Writing the Personal Statement

The personal statement for fellowships should not be a recapitulation of your admissions essay for college. Rather, it should be a serious examination of the intellectual and personal experiences that have motivated you to participate in this process and to pursue the particular project you are proposing in your application, and the ways in which your intellectual and personal experiences since entering college have informed your choices.

In fact writing the personal statement might be one of the most difficult writing projects you tackle. Why? Because writing a successful and effective personal statement requires that you accomplish a variety of seemingly contradictory tasks: writing about yourself (you are the subject) without seeming "me" oriented; expressing confidence without sounding arrogant; being both informative and persuasive; and believing in your project without sounding self-important. Striking the right balance and keeping the attention of your reader for the right reasons is your aim, but doing so can be troublesome. Following are a few pointers that will be helpful to you in the process of working on this statement over time:

What is your personal reason for writing this statement and engaging in the fellowship application process? What do you hope to achieve and how do you hope to affect your reader? In what ways must the personal statement be both informative and persuasive?

Who is your audience? What do you know about the expectations and criteria of your audience? How can you make yourself interesting and unique to your audience? How can you write about yourself without being boring or sounding self-absorbed? What can you do to really engage your audience's interest?

What theme or over-arching idea can you use to hold your statement together and move the essay from paragraph one through the argument to the conclusion? Why is it important to have such a theme/thesis? How do you decide what it should be? In thinking about an over-arching theme, what can you say about yourself that makes you stand out in some way that distinguishes you from other applicants with the same high GPA, community service, and leadership experience? What is unusual and particularly interesting about you?

What kind of tone should you use for the personal statement? What do you need to do to create a certain kind of tone? How can thinking about creating a tone appropriate to your purpose, audience and theme help you? How might pretending to write as if your subject were someone else help you create the right tone?

How should you organize the argument of your personal statement? Why?

Other Considerations

Sentences--complexity, variety, appropriateness

Diction--appropriateness and effectiveness, avoiding slang, etc.

Coherence--flow and seamless transitions

Correctness--grammar, punctuation, and clarity

Revision, Revision, Revision

Distance yourself from your writing. Put a first draft away for a day or two before revising it. Use that process over and over.

Do not be afraid to delete a phrase, sentence, paragraph, or idea that does not fit. Even though you may be attached to it, let it go if it doesn't work. You can always use it another time in some other writing project.

Read your essay out loud so you can feel how it "sounds." Even better, have someone else read it out loud to you.

If you are having a problem with a particular aspect of the essay, try doing it in a completely different way; for example, if you don't think the "organization" is working quite right, reverse the order of your paragraphs to see what you can learn; if you are not quite pleased with the tone, take your first-person personal voice and cast it in third-person to see what you can learn.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is your introductory paragraph interesting? How so?
  • Is the direction of your essay clear from the first paragraph?
  • Do you establish a relationship with your audience that will compel them to become interested in what you have to say?
  • Does your statement have continuity, focus and a successful organization structure? How can you tell? Check your "theme" against each paragraph and against each sentence within each paragraph.
  • Does your statement have an appropriate tone--informative, persuasive, and engaging? How can you tell? Check your sense of "purpose" and "audience" against each paragraph and against each sentence within each paragraph.
  • Is your conclusion interesting? How so? Does it pull things together and at the same time bow to the future, to something just slightly beyond the scope of the essay?
  • Have you paid attention to diction, sentence flow, and correctness?

Follow instructions!!! Be sure to follow the specific instructions for the particular fellowship to which you are applying.