Writing Personal Statements

General advice

  • Start earlier than you think you need to.
  • Set up an appointment with Laura Farmer, or Shawn Doyle in the Writing Studio when you are ready to begin the process.
  • Think of your application essay(s) as a part of a larger whole (including the letters from your recommenders, and any other supporting documents such as a list of activities and awards, resume, or transcripts).
  • 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 that you will be prepared to discuss in some detail anything you mention.
  • Do not pad, but do not be falsely modest either.
  • Do not try to guess what the selection committee might be seeking; they want to know you, not a fabrication.
  • These documents are writing samples; all the rules of good writing (clarity, conviction, and correctness) apply.  They are read as indications of clear and organized thinking and effective communication.
  • Plan to experiment and try completely different versions.
  • Show your work to a number of readers whose comments you respect.  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.
  • Proofread.

Writing a personal statement

The personal statement is a vital part of your application, and is often the most difficult to write.  What follows is a set of guidelines and suggestions to help you as you begin crafting your document. 

Where does it fit into the application? 

It’s not a resume; you are not simply listing your achievements as evidence of your qualifications.  Nor is it quite a project proposal, as your narrative should extend beyond the planned logistics of your fellowship year.  Rather, the personal statement provides a narrative of who you are, your interests and goals for the future—and even more importantly, it convinces your reader that winning this particular fellowship would be a critical, even necessary opportunity for you and your personal and intellectual development.

Personal statement components

Most personal statements contain four components, which answer the following questions:

  1. Who are you now?  What interests you and is important to you?  What personal qualities (skills, abilities, attributes) do you want to convey as your strong points?
  2. What experiences have been important in your development?  These could be classes, internships, work experience, personal episodes—moments that contributed to and illuminate who you are now.
  3. What are your future goals, and what is your larger mission or purpose in pursuing these goals?  To your best understanding, of course; it’s not a contract.
  4. Why do you want this particular fellowship opportunity?  This is where it all comes together, the bridge between your personal narrative and the fellowship.

Of course, a personal statement is just that—personal—and you need not write according to this order.  You want to strike a balance between what feels authentic and compelling to you with the structure suggested or implied by the application. 

A few more points to consider before you begin writing:

  • Develop a strong and specific sense of where you are now, which will help to determine what you include in the essay.  You need not discuss every course you’ve ever taken, nor that you switched majors in sophomore year (unless that’s a crucial part of your narrative.)
  • Know your audience and particular fellowship, as each has a different vision in mind and can offer you a different set of experiences. Get a sense of this by browsing their websites and blogs.  Speak with the members of the Writing Studio.  Read others’ essays; contact past winners. 
  • Show as you tell.  Qualify your interests and personal qualities by performing them in your text.  Show us your love of biology through a description of your research, why you chose your thesis topic, an anecdote recounting your first time in a lab.  Your intellectual curiosity will be much more convincing if we see you exercising it.
  • Finally, remember that like all writing, crafting a personal statement is a process.  Write more than you need, then trim.  Make multiple drafts.  Have others read your essay.  It usually takes several versions before you’re content with your text, but the result is well worth it.   

Writing an Academic/Project Proposal—Common Elements:

  • Key questions to consider (where, when, what, who, how, why).
  • A description of your course of study or project; topic(s), research focus, degree goals, methodology, itinerary, (budget).
  • Why you have chosen this course of study (at this particular institution, in this particular country).
  • 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.
  • Evidence of project feasibility: knowledge of programs, courses, and facilities; cooperation of host institutions and individuals (professors with whom you wish to study; have they sent or are they willing to send a confirmation of their support?).
  • Perhaps why you are choosing a new area of study, or what makes your project particularly timely.

Combined Statements (Rhodes, Mitchell):

  • This statement combines elements of the academic proposal within the framework of a personal reflection.
  • It should not force an unrealistic unity; you are not a totally unified person.
  • It should balance both components together effectively.
  • The balance of these two aspects will vary according to what best represents you and your goals.

(Rhodes recommends no more than 1-2 paragraphs to present the academic proposal.)

These guidelines have been adapted from materials from the National Association of Fellowship Advisors and the Office of Fellowships, Amherst College.