Writing a Personal Statement

The personal statement is the single most important component of many scholarship applications. It is your opportunity to speak to the selection committee in your own voice, to tell them who you are, why you study X, what you would like to do with your life, and why you need to complete a particular graduate program or academic experience along the way. A personal statement is challenging to write, but it is also a useful learning experience. You will ask yourself, and begin to answer, important questions about what matters most to you, and why. You will dare yourself to think large about what you are capable of, and perhaps come to some important conclusions about the contribution you would like to make to the world, whether you win the scholarship or not. Writing a personal statement can also be the occasion for substantive conversations with your faculty mentors and advisors.

There is no single right way to write a personal statement, but we hope the following tips will help you.

  • Read the instructions for the specific scholarship, and follow them. Most scholarship instructions are open-ended enough to give you some leeway as to how to structure your statement and what to include. However, a personal statement that fails to address the requested topics is unlikely to succeed, no matter how well-written.
  • Expect to write several drafts. Early in the writing process, allow yourself the freedom to try a variety of approaches and to write expansively, without worrying about length limits. It’s better to start with too much than not enough.
  • Seek feedback on your drafts from faculty mentors, the campus scholarship advisor, etc., if the scholarship program permits (the American Rhodes does not). Ask several people for advice (if this is allowed), but expect that their recommendations will differ. It’s your essay, and you are in charge of weighing the advice and deciding what is useful.
  • Write like the intelligent person you are in clear, straightforward language. It’s not necessary to embellish your essay with poetic metaphors or obscure or highly specialized terms. If you must use a specialized term, be sure to define it so that selection judges outside of your field will know what you’re talking about.
  • Use a style guide. We highly recommend The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. It's cheap, short, and sweet!
  • Most personal statements are brief and must be concise. It is not necessary to write formal introductory and concluding paragraphs—these tend to be repetitive and can waste space.
  • Don’t be boring. A personal statement should not be a narrative version of your resume. Vague generalities, clichés, and statements that most scholarship applicants could make will not help you. Details make writing come alive.
  • Be forward-looking. Focus mostly on the present and future; be selective and deliberate about including past experiences and make them part of the story of who you are now and where you’re headed. Don’t imply that you "deserve" a scholarship because of what you’ve done in the past.
  • Non-academics are very important and may be included, but keep the main focus your academic interests and plans.
  • Say what you really think. The selection committee wants to get to know you, not the imaginary person you think they are looking for.
  • Do your homework. Know the graduate program you’re proposing; make sure you’re qualified for it. Don’t rely on touting the international reputation of a university like Cambridge to explain your interest in studying there.
  • Show, don't tell, what a great candidate you are. Avoid describing yourself as "the ideal candidate," "best candidate," "perfect fit," etc. This is for others to judge.
  • Keep it positive. Express your eagerness to learn something new rather than deplore your ignorance for not knowing it already.
  • Make it perfect. Your personal statement should be grammatically flawless and free of typos. The words should be carefully chosen, and the essay should flow naturally. Make sure that you are within the prescribed length limit.