Writing Essays

Writing Essays, Personal Statements, and Proposals

The written portion of your application is of critical importance. An outstanding essay or personal statement (when supplemented with strong letters of recommendation) can help make up for less than stellar grades, but even a 4.0 student with great recommendations cannot overcome a poorly written essay. While guidelines vary by scholarship/fellowship, there are some things to keep in mind for all essays, personal statements, and research proposals.

  • Start early! Give yourself plenty of time to decide what to focus on, write multiple drafts, and have several people give you feedback. Do not expect to write a strong personal statement in two weeks. Plan on at least two months—more for research proposals.
  • Carefully read the guidelines. Make sure you address all of the questions listed and that you have the mission of the particular fellowship in mind.
  • Do your homework. Make sure you are well-informed about the country you propose to go to, the profession you aim to enter, or the area of study in which you wish to conduct research.
  • Get feedback. The Fellowships Office will provide general feedback on focus, style, and content of personal essays. For Goldwater essays and research proposals, it is a good idea to get feedback from one or more faculty in your discipline. For all essays, find someone to proofread–there should not be a single typo or grammatical error in your essay.
  • Take feedback seriously. If a reader tells you that your meaning is not clear, you need to find another way to say it. If he tells you you’re using a word incorrectly, choose another word. If you really disagree with the feedback, ask for the opinion of another trusted faculty member. (And if you hear the same thing twice, believe them!)
  • Keep essays clear and easy to read. Do not use extraneous “big” words, especially if you’re aren’t 100% sure of their meaning (do not use a thesaurus to write your essay!) Every word counts, so take out all unnecessary words, and don’t make sentences more complicated than they need to be. For research proposals, make sure that the content of your proposal is understandable to scholars who do not have expertise in your sub-specialty.
  • Perfect your first paragraph. Reviewers must read dozens of essays—make sure you’ve engaged them from the very beginning. Your first paragraph should be interesting and catch the reader’s attention.
  • Avoid platitudes and clichés such as “Ever since I was a little girl I knew I wanted to help people” or “Children are the world’s future.” Such statements don’t really tell readers anything about you. It is better to use your essay space to give one, specific example of a time when you demonstrated an important leadership skill and the impact of that experience than to fill your essay with statements about how important leaders are.
  • Be specific and back up any claims you make. Instead of saying “I’ve had a hard life,” give a specific example of what was difficult, how you overcame it, and how that experience is relevant to the scholarship or fellowship. With every sentence you write, imagine all the other students who are applying for this scholarship. What percentage of them might say the same thing? If it’s a lot, leave it out. You want to show what sets you apart.
  • Demonstrate gravitas. Explain the significance of your proposed research and how it will impact society. Explain how the fellowship opportunity will help you achieve your goals. If you will be conducting research, make sure it’s clear in your essay that you have the motivation and skills to do that kind of work.

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