Writing Effective Personal Statements
Personal statements are always a challenge, regardless of how talented and accomplished you may be. The statement is a concise, yet detailed, exploration of the intellectual and personal experiences that have motivated you to pursue the particular project or course of study you are proposing in your application. In addition, the personal statement outlines the ways in which your intellectual and personal experiences since entering college have informed your choices.
Things to consider while developing your personal statement
1. Know your audience. Who are the people likely to serve on the fellowship's selection committee: professors, scientific researchers, public servants, etc.? Carefully consider what kind of "tone" will be appropriate for this audience.
2. Provide a narrative. Stories help to capture a reader's interest, but make sure that the story you provide is absolutely relevant to the scholarship competition in question.
3. Establish a "thread" or theme that helps the essay to cohere. Essays that are choppy — i.e., ones that randomly jump from topic to topic — are difficult to read. This should be avoided when writing for any audience.
Questions to ask while drafting your personal statement
- Is your introductory paragraph interesting? How so?
- Is the direction of your essay clear from the first paragraph? (Hint: if your reader doesn’t know that your personal statement will eventually persuade him or her that YOU are a top candidate, then your essay’s direction is not clear from the beginning.)
- Do you establish a clear theme that will guide how the essay develops? What is it and why is it appropriate?
- 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 an appropriate tone: informative, persuasive, and engaging? How can you tell?—by checking your sense of "purpose" and "audience" within each paragraph.
- Is your conclusion interesting? How so? Does it pull everything together and remind your reader of the valuable work you are doing (and propose to do in the future)?
- Have you paid attention to the fundamentals of grammar, word choice, punctuation, etc.?
- Distance yourself from your writing; put a first draft away for a day or two before revising it, and use this process repeatedly. Scholarship candidates from the best colleges and universities always produce multiple drafts of personal statements.
- 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 does not serve your overall theme.
- Read your essay aloud so that you can feel how it "sounds." Even better, have someone else read it aloud to you (this is often embarrassing, but also very helpful).
(Compiled from a presentation given by a Truman Scholarship selection committee member at the 2007 National Association of Fellowship Advisors Conference)
- Be honest.
- Don't be afraid to emphasize details about yourself that appear elsewhere in your application, but also use the personal statement to provide some fresh perspective on you as a candidate.
- Don't feel that you need to include a quotation (in most cases don’t use one). If you do use one, make sure that it's absolutely appropriate.
- When applying for a Truman Scholarship, avoid comparing yourself to Harry S. Truman. (Note: this applies to any competition named for an historical figure.)
- Never make claims about yourself that you cannot support with specific details.
- Avoid clichéd phrases.
- Adhere strictly to word limits.
- Revise, revise, and revise some more.
- Avoid jargon and words or concepts which you do not fully understand. It is always better to be clear than to sound sophisticated.
- Avoid a tone that is overly-clever.
- Never overstate your accomplishments (and limit yourself to leadership examples from college).