Writing Essays

Writing Fellowship Essays: A General Overview

  • 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, résumé, or transcripts).
  • The essay(s) 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.
  • Consider your audience; you may need to write for an intelligent, non-specialist or for the specialist. If you are writing for the non-specialist, make sure the terminology will be understandable to someone outside your field and that 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 are 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 about you, not a fabrication.
  • When writing, try completely different versions rather than fiddling with a variant of your first or second draft.
  • 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.
  • Keep revising until you feel you have written something that is an effective reflection of who you are and what you want to do.
  • Keep to word limits and all other guidelines.
  • Proofread. Proofread. Proofread.

Writing the Personal Statement: Overview

  • Because personal statements are usually short, you need to identify a few points (3-4) that you want to develop; let the other aspects of your application present other important information. Use your personal statement to say what your recommenders and résumé do not say.
  • Your personal statement should be a pleasure to read: it should start fast, quickly taking the reader into the heart of your “story”.
  • Maintain focus; establish a consistent story line. Consider one or two anecdotes that can help you focus and lend a human face to your story.
  • The story you present should be a compelling snapshot of who you are and what contributions you want to make, what your priorities are and the kinds of intelligence and passion you bring to your work.
  • Remember: A personal statement is NOT a résumé in narrative form. An essay that reads like a résumé of accomplishments and goals tells the reader nothing that they could not glean from the rest of the application. It reveals little about you and is, therefore, a wasted opportunity.

Writing the Personal Statement: Getting Started

The personal statement is an exercise in self-reflection. Below are some prompts to help you think about the “story” you want to convey.

  • 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?
  • 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?
  • When have you changed? Consider yourself before and after; what does this change mean?
  • What’s unusual, special, and distinctive about you? What events, people, or family history have shaped and influenced you? What would help the committee better understand you?
  • When did you first become interested in your field of study? What have you learned since then? What have you learned about yourself in the process?
  • What drives or motivates you? What are your passions? What makes you tick or gets your blood going? What are you going to do about it?

The Academic/Project or Program Proposal: Overview

  • Key questions to consider: where, when, who, what, how, why?
  • A description of your course of study or project; topic(s), research focus, degree goals, methodology, itinerary, (budget).
  • Why you want to undertake this particular project or course of study at this particular institution and/or country.
  • The proposal essay should provide evidence that your plans are consistent with your preparation, academic qualifications, and (long-range) goals.
  • Where applicable, discuss why you are choosing a new area of study, or what makes your project particularly timely.
  • Regardless of length or complexity, your study proposal should demonstrate the extent of your academic preparation and your grasp of scholarly material and how your proposed study plan complements your career goals, or enhances your potential for service and leadership.

Combined Statements–incorporating elements of the academic proposal within the framework of a personal reflection:

  • The two parts should flow together. It should balance and weave together both components into a compelling whole.

Writing Resources

  • Sample essays online from Worcester Polytechnic Institute:
  • Visit the Truman Scholarship website for more excellent writing advice on personal statements in general, and on the Truman application in particular.
  • Joe Schall’s Writing Personal Statements Online & Style for Students Online
  • Advice from students:
    • Free-write: just sit down and write without initial concern for grammar, style, or length. Find the nuggets later.
    • Just write honestly and truthfully about yourself and the significant moments and people in your life.
    • Understand that you will write multiple drafts, and give yourself permission to write very, very badly. Chances are the first, second, and even third drafts will be just awful, and that’s OK. Spill it out on the page, let your sentences romp, pretend you’re Faulkner and you’ve never heard of commas and periods. Don’t worry that if tomorrow you are hit by a truck and friends read through your papers they will find your personal essay drafts and decide that you are a fraud. The truth is, perfection is not lovable anyway.
    • Only after you’ve written some really terrible drafts will you be ready to begin sifting, organizing, and revision-ing your life story.
  • Advice from advisors:
    • There is no such thing as a model for a personal statement.
      Samples of other applicant’s personal statements can help you see how they tackled the problem of explaining themselves to the world, Your personal statement is yours alone. Only you can write it, and it must be specific to you. That doesn’t mean it must be absolutely unique and the ideas you express must be totally original. It does mean that it must be honest, sincere, and convey something about your ideas, your beliefs, and your experiences that lists of activities and the praise of recommenders cannot. Capture the passion you feel, and don’t worry about whether the committee has heard it before.
    • Everybody has a story. Maybe you didn’t endure a traumatic childhood, or spend a year in Bosnia working with refugees, but you have had experiences that are interesting and have been formative to your development as a person and a scholar. Don’t worry about whose stories are most important to or most interesting to committees—just tell yours.
    • What’s your line? Telling your story chronologically may help you to remember key moments and turning points, but there are more compelling narrative techniques. What are the threads that tie together the separate pieces of your life? What questions about the world do you find yourself consistently attempting to explore? Was there a moment where you just knew you had discovered what you want to do next?
    • Think strategically. You can’t reveal everything about yourself in 250, 500 or 1000 words, so you must decide what personal characteristics to emphasize in your statement. What are the most important life experiences, service activities, values, and ambitions that define who you are? What do you most want a committee to know about you?

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