General Writing Tips

Write in First Person

  • Use "I." Your goal is to close the distance between you and the reader, to engage on a more personal level than you have been trained to in academic writing.
  • At the same time, if you use "I" constantly you seem inwardly focused, whereas you should focus more on the Big Ideas and Big Problems that you wish to confront in your life and career.

Write Simply

  • Write simply and conversationally, rather than trying to sound “impressive.”
  • Write for the layman.  Remember that all selection committee members may not know your field well. Avoid slang, technical jargon, and unusual abbreviations.

Write Like You Talk

  • Write like you talk, especially in early drafts. Don’t censor.
  • Having a distinctive “voice” is a huge plus.  Applications which convey a real sense of the person writing definitely stand out from the crowd.

Write with passion

  • Scholarship essays should not be passionless, objective, academic writing. Demonstrate your fascination with and love for your field. Clue us in on your motivation for choosing it.
  • If you are a scientist, isn’t this unscientific?  Even the National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship’s tips for applying say, “Display your passion, personal motivation, and excitement for research in the essays.”
  • But avoid saying "My passion is...."  As below, show us, don't tell us.

Show, don’t tell.  Be specific!

  • Show, don’t tell, drawing on your life experience and academic/volunteer/work record. Broad, general, abstract statements or claims can come across as meaningless or cliché.  Back up your statements with details, stories, examples, statistics, and specifics. Paint a picture. Put your reader in the scene.
  • In other words, be concrete and detailed and specific.
  • In other words, PROVE IT! 

Use their language

  • Research the funding organization's history, mission, and goals in great depth.  Relate the organization's mission and goals to your own goals and qualifications.

Unifying Theme

  • Find a unifying “theme” for your personal statement. It shouldn't be corny or simple or cliché, but you do need to think about the Synopsis of You: What is it that you want your reader to remember about you? What is your deal? What are you about? How would you categorize the sum total of your activities to date?

Hardships:  handle carefully

  • Some scholarships may ask to know about hardships and obstacles you have overcome. If discrimination, poverty, family breakdown, severe illness, or another problem beyond your control has been a major factor in your development, you can write about it. 
  • If there are no criteria or questions dealing with hardships or obstacles, and if these are not particularly pertinent to the essay topics, do not mention. You do not want to seem as if you are playing for sympathy – and it won’t work.
  • If you do need or decide to mention a hardship as very pertinent to an essay topic and your professional plans, tell your story honestly, simply, briefly, and without self-pity. Focus instead on how the hardships have impacted your values and motivated your career aspirations.
  • Personal statements are indeed personal, but they should not be confessional or read like a journal/diary entry.

Writing Resources

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. 

Style for Students Online

This is an all-purpose online handbook for college students, especially those in technical fields, covering everything from comma usage to resume writing. 


See information on citation formats and style guides for various disciplines at Citing SourcesWrite and Cite, and/or Research and Documentation Online.