While writing your personal statement is usually the most challenging part of your application, it presents you with an opportunity to distinguish yourself from other candidates. It gives the selection committee a glimpse of your thoughts, priorities, dreams, fears, and inner voice that a transcript just can't convey. For that reason, you have to make your personal statement exactly what the name implies: personal. Your personal statement should not be your resume in paragraph form; it should be a compelling and intriguing invitation for a selection committee to get to know you better.
Ask Yourself Questions
Before you start writing, do some thinking. Who you are and and who you want to be? Where have you been and where you are going? Why and how do you want to get there? This is naturally going to involve thinking about your academic and career experiences. While you shouldn't shy away from them, you do want to place them in the broader context of you as a person. It's wonderful if you can articulate your goals to study medieval literature at Princeton with Dr. X; it's more wonderful if you can articulate which particular aspects of your personality and life experience draw you to medieval literature, Princeton, or Dr. X. Some intriguing prompts for this kind of thinking include the Willamette University website and the Proust Questionnaire. If you keep a journal, you might want to review it to glean some insights and ideas. If you don't keep a journal, consider starting one.
Give Yourself Time
Give yourself plenty of time to write. No matter how well it may work for you in some of your classes, a personal statement is not something to dash off a few days before deadline. As Ernest Hemingway famously noted, "The first draft of anything is **%#." Assuming this is true, you probably do not want to hand a selection committee your first draft. You shouldn't even hand them a second or third draft for that matter. The longer you let yourself write and revise, the more compelling and revealing your personal statement will become. Write early and often.
That said, don't be hard on yourself as you first set down to write. Even Hemmingway didn't get it perfect the first time around. Since it's only your first draft, you don't need to worry about making mistakes, sounding stupid, or even spelling correctly. Let your thoughts roam and shut that imposing childhood grammar teacher's voice out of your head for the moment. Just write.
Have Someone Read Your Paper
Once you've got your ideas down on paper, run it by some trusted readers. Professors (particularly those who are writing your recommendation letters), advisors, and Jane Morris are all excellent resources. Try to solicit feedback about the ideas, structure, and coherency of your essay rather than simple proofreading. Having other people rewrite and rethink for you is not the idea; having other people ask you questions that push you to think more broadly is. If you're going to do this, however, be ready act upon such questioning and thinking. At this stage in the game revising often means more than inserting commas and adding a paragraph here and there; it sometimes means rethinking and revising an entire essay. You may have to give your personal statement a complete overhaul because you suddenly discover a better structure, focal point, or slant. This is normal. Do not despair.
Polish Your Writing
As your thoughts become more and more polished, your writing should too. Check out a writing manual for guidance. Strunk and White's eminently readable The Elements of Style is an excellent (and concise) starting point. Kurt Vonnegut's short essay "How to Write with Style" frankly and humorously speaks to what he sees as the essential components of good writing. Call that imposing childhood grammar teacher if you need help with the mechanics of your essay, or find a friend with a particularly good grasp of the English language. However you accomplish it, your final draft must be free of grammatical and spelling errors, and should be as compelling and insightful as you can make it. It sounds like a tall order, but you are more than capable of doing it. Give yourself plenty of time, plenty of reflection, plenty of revisions, and plenty of help from trusted advisors, and your personal essay will do its job: present an intriguing glimpse into your mind and person.
The following links provide further guidelines for brainstorming, drafting, revising, and completing a magnificent personal statement. Also be sure to check out the website of the individual scholarships to which you apply; many have tips more specific to their competitions.
- Lynne Curry's Essay Tips (1993 Villanova grad and Rhodes Scholarship Finalist)
- Mary Tolar's Definition of a Personal Statement (Executive Secretary, Truman Scholarship Foundation)
- Kansas State University Scholarship Advising Essay Content
- Kansas State University Scholarship Advising Essay Style
- Willamette University Student Academic Grants & Awards Personal Statements
- Ohio State University's Sample Fulbright Research Proposals
- Ohio State University's Sample Fulbright Curriculum Vitae (Personal Statements)
- University Writing Center of the University of Central Florida (Personal Statements)