Every viable candidate for the most competitive academic fellowships has a high GPA and stellar recommendations. What distinguishes the top candidates (the ones who are invited for interviews) 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. It should demonstrate your humanity as well as your destiny for greatness. Selection committees are looking for candidates who have already shown that they are capable of doing great things. They are also attracted to candidates who care about people, who want to “fight the good fight” and who can inspire others around them to join in those efforts. This can mean making important contributions in one's chosen field of endeavor, or making a difference in the world in some substantial way. Recent fellowship winners represent a wide variety of academic backgrounds and career interests.
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 will likely have to write multiple versions of your personal statement, since different organizations look for different qualities in their candidates. For most study and research awards, it helps to think of the statement as an intellectual autobiography that explains what drew you to your field of interest, what specific points in college shaped your intellectual trajectory, what you plan to do 5-10 years from now, and how this opportunity will help you get there. Your statement does not have to be entirely academic, however: some successful candidates talk extensively 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 mere list of accomplishments could not. Some people call this “filling out the picture,” or “adding another dimension,” or “warming up” the application.
Successful personal statements cannot be written in one sitting or even in one week. Starting early is essential, and early may means months in advance of the submission deadline. Some applicants write several very different draft versions of a personal statement before deciding which approach works best for them. Show drafts of your personal statement to as many people as you can. People who know you well should be able to read your personal statement and recognize that only you could have written it, that it doesn't sound at all generic.People who don't know you well should be able to read your personal statement and conclude that they have never met anyone exactly like you. Although a personal statement should not come across as bragging, many students need to overcome their modesty in order to write compelling personal statements
Getting started on a personal statement:
- Think of your characteristics or actions that make you distinctive. How would your friends describe what's important about you to someone who doesn't know you? Try writing a story about an incident from your life that illustrates one of these characteristics.
- Think of one of the most significant learning experiences in your life -- an Aha! moment -- when you finally understood something for the first time. Write about this experience and relate it to your development and your aspirations.
- What do you care about most deeply? What matters to you? How have you spent your time in the past few years toward working to further this passion or dream? What are your plans for fulfilling your dreams? Try writing about your current and future efforts, perhaps illustrating #1 or #2.
- Still stuck? Try these two Personal Statement Brainstorming Exercises [doc] .
Some excellent Web resources on writing personal statements:
Mary Hale Tolar's "Definition of a Personal Statement" [pdf]
Advice from Reed College on Marshall and Rhodes Personal Statements