The Personal Statement
This is perhaps the best single thing ever written on crafting the personal statement. Writer Mary Hale Tolar was a Truman and a Rhodes scholar, later the deputy executive secretary for the Truman Foundation, and currently is the director of Kansas State University's School of Leadership Studies.
Definition of a Personal Statement
by Mary Hale Tolar
you are applying for nationally competitive scholarships, for graduate school,
or for a number of post-graduate service or employment opportunities, you have
seen the vaguely phrased request; in one form or another, it comes down to
"tell us something about yourself."
Rhodes and Marshall competitions require a 1,000-word personal essay.... You are asked to share your
"academic and other interests." A clearer charge might be: compose an
essay that reveals who you are, what you care about, and what you intend to do
in this life. Tell this story in a compelling manner, and do so in less than a
thousand words. What's so hard about that? Simply make sense of your life
(right.) But what does that mean? What will it look like?
personal statements are personal, there is no one type or style of writing that
is set out as a model. That can be liberating; it can also be maddening. But
while every personal statement is unique in style, its purpose is the same. A
personal statement is your introduction to a selection committee. It determines
whether you are invited to interview; and if selected as a finalist, interview
questions will be based on this material. It is the heart of your application.
A personal statement is:
- A picture. Your
personal essay should produce a picture of you as a person, a student, a
potential scholarship winner, and (looking into the future) a former
- An invitation.
The reader must be invited to get to know you, personally. Bridge the
assumed distance of strangers. Make your reader welcome.
- An indication of
your priorities and judgment. What you choose to say in your statement
tells the committee what your priorities are. What you say, and how you
say it, is crucial.
- A story, or more
precisely, your story. Everyone has a story to tell, but we are not all
natural storytellers. If you are like most people, your life lacks
inherent drama. This is when serious self-reflection; conversation with
friends, family, and mentors; and permission to be creative come in handy.
A personal statement is not:
- An academic
paper with you as the subject. The papers you write for class are
typically designed to interpret data, reflect research, analyze events or
readings—all at some distance. We are taught to eliminate the
"I" from our academic writing. In a personal statement your goal
is to close the distance between you and the reader. You must engage on a
different, more personal level than you have been trained to in college.
- A resume in narrative form. An essay that
reads like a resume of accomplishments and goals tells the reader nothing
that they could not glean from the rest of the application. It reveals
little about the candidate, and is a wasted opportunity.
- A journal entry.
While you may well draw on experiences or observations captured in your personal
journal, your essay should not read like a diary. Share what is relevant,
using these experiences to give a helpful context for your story. And
include only what you are comfortable sharing--be prepared to discuss at
an interview what you include.
- A plea or
justification for the scholarship. This is not an invitation to "make
your case." Defending an assertion that you are more deserving of the
scholarship than other candidates is a wasted effort—you've likely just
accomplished the opposite.
- Most importantly,
a personal statement is authentic. Don't make the mistake of trying to
guess what the committee is looking for, and don't write what you think
they want to hear. They want to know you.
what must you include in the personal statement?
An effective personal statement will answer the following
- Who am I?
- Who do I want to
- What kind of
contribution do I want to make, and how?
- Why does it make
sense for me to study at Oxford (or York, LSE, Cambridge, Sussex)? For the
Rhodes, you will want to include a proposal of study, one or two
paragraphs devoted to why Oxford makes sense for you. (For the Marshall
and Fulbright, your "proposed academic programme" is presented
- Why is this the
right place and program? Is it consistent with your studies and activities
to date? Draw connections.
the goal: grab the readers' interest, and make them want to meet you for an
Get a sense of the experiences and dreams you wish to share, then examine them for a helpful means of making sense of it all. You will find your story; and if you share it honestly, you will have written a personal statement.
Finally, know that writing a personal essay is hard and will take many drafts and much reflection. Don't wait until you have it right to share it with others; their input will likely make it stronger, clearer, and tighter. Don't put it off
until you have it right . . . just write!
Tips for Preparing an Effective Personal Statement
See "General Guidelines" and "Do's and Don'ts"
Getting Creative with the Personal Statement
Writing Personal Statements Online
This five-chapter online handbook provides students with detailed advice on weighing the grad school decision, generating detail for personal essays, and writing style. The final chapter discusses specific scholarships and includes sample personal essays. The book also includes an internal search engine and plenty of “Self-Study” boxes with recommended links where students can go for further instruction on particular topics.
Advice for applying for graduate science fellowships: NSF, NDSEG, and Hertz by Philip Guo
Tips for Applying: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF GRFP)
Funding Tips (for grants and fellowships) from former NAU
doctoral student and DOE Graduate Fellow Lucy Mullin Kerhoulas
Elements of Style by Strunk and White. A nuts and bolts classic.
How to Write with Style by Kurt Vonnegut. (or see here)
On Writing Well by William Zinnser. An "everything" classic. "The life-changing message of On Writing Well is to simplify your language and thereby find your humanity."
"How to Punctuate" and "How to Write Clearly" are other topics to search.