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.