Writing Scholarship Essays
Good personal statements are vital but tough to write. Here are three ideas with which to frame the task:
- Space constraints are often frustrating . . . but your competitors face them too.
- A good personal essay comes in handy. You can rework it for many settings.
- Many students find that writing the personal statement helps them clarify who they are and where they are going. This is inherently good.
In a Nutshell
Most good personal statements share three core elements. You need to:
- Share your goals. People are looking to invest in your potential so they need to know your plan. They need to see a sense of purpose.
- Build a tacit (or explicit in some cases) synergy between the opportunity for which you are applying and your goals.
- Share your story. The reader needs to know:
- About life experiences that inform and shape your direction.
- How you have pursued and prepared for your future goals thus far.
You need to present telling details in a pointed narrative order.
You should not rehash your resume. Strive to make you and your life experience vivid in ways that complement the resume instead. Provide details that reveal important things about you:
- When/how did you arrive at your future goals?
- What motivates you regarding those goals?
- What valuable personal traits or skills have you developed and how?
- What meaningful experiences are associated with items on your CV or transcript?
- What personal challenges you have faced.
- What has shaped your identity and/or outlook.
Organize those telling details to help you articulate the core elements sketched above. Develop a logical narrative thread that will tie the paragraphs together. Several samples to illustrate:
- I hope to do X in my career.
- A was my first encounter with X.
- B and C developed my curiosity about X.
- I am interested in your opportunity because . . .
- I feel that D and E have prepared me for this opportunity
- I experienced A recently.
- It convinced me to pursue goal Y.
- B and C confirmed that Y is right for me.
- I expect to reap benefits D and E from pursuing that goal.
- Your opportunity is the right next step because . . .
How to Generate Detail
Anecdotes help you share telling details. They are specific slices of personal experience that help the reader get a mental picture of you in your world. And they make the essay more memorable and more fun to read. Here are four examples to illustrate:
I interned in D.C.
I learned a lot about government working in D.C. last summer.
We stayed far into the night, drinking coffee every half hour and scouring budget amendments. I began to really understand the legislative process.
I like research.
I enjoyed working in a lab and getting experimental results.
I realized I was hooked when I caught myself dreaming about what I would do during my next lab shift to fix a problem I was having with a reaction rate.
I changed my mind about being PreVet.
I did not like working at the animal clinic and dropped PreVet.
After having to euthanize a healthy beagle, simply because the owner did not want it, I decided I could never run a veterinary clinic.
I really grew from my time abroad.
I became more independent by living alone in Hungary.
I knew my time in Budapest had changed me when I found myself helping others navigate the Berlin subway during a weekend trip.
Note that the Vivid column presents little scenes you could film. Good anecdotes help the reader see something in their head when they read.
You know what to do. How do you get the pen moving or the keyboard rattling? A few ideas:
- Scribble down a list of things that readers might be interested in.
- How do you spend your time?
- What accomplishments are you proud of?
- What are your favorite stories about your life?
- What fires your enthusiasm and/or curiosity?
- Use the writing process as a vehicle for discovery.
- Consider writing several different drafts. Experiment.
- Try outlining the points you intend to make and then brainstorming content for each.
- Try banging out whatever pops into your head for thirty minutes and then return later to see what seems promising.
- Consider the stories behind your resume.
- What do items on your resume mean? What did you learn? What were the highlights?
- Consider how these reflections might tie to anecdotes that will help the reader "see you" as a unique individual with an interesting point of view and interesting ambitions.
Cutting and Polishing
Good writing is a recursive process that requires revision and careful editing.
- Try not to fall madly in love with your first draft. It is probably not very good.
- Set your draft aside if time permits. Read it later with fresh eyes.
- Get input from critical readers. “Looks good” is not actually helpful. The Writing Center can be a good resource in this regard.
- Sweat over the editing. Worry about word choice and word economy (as well as grammar and spelling) once you are happy with the content overall. Style Tips for Scholarship Essays offer some pertinent suggestions.
- Avoid the temptation to use a lot of jargon or flowery prose in order to "sound smart" to the reader. Follow the words of Thornton Wilder: "If you write to impress it will always be bad, but if you write to express it will be good."
Advice from Others
Here are some additional articles and resources from cyberspace that might help you think about the writing task.
- Leave Dr. Seuss Out of It: Chronicle of Higher Education, January 2011
- Helping Students to Tell Their Stories: Chronicle of Higher Education, September 2012