A good essay must have this permanent quality about it; it must draw its
curtain around us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in not out.
Nowhere does a student’s ability to communicate well about personal attitudes and accomplishments become more important than in applications for national scholarships. With a mostly even playing field among scholars when it comes to GPA, personal statements and answers to application questions truly do help selectors winnow out the best choices, seeking a tidy match between individual candidates and available opportunities. A Marshall Scholar might not be right for an NSF Fellowship, and vice versa; a student activist might be a poor fit for many scholarships but perfect for the Truman Scholarship.
This chapter summarizes nine of the nation’s most coveted scholarships, with samples of personal statements and essays following each scholarship description. All of the samples here are strong, and about half of them come from scholarship winners and finalists, culled from about 100 students representing about 20 states.
Using the material in this chapter, educate yourself on your target scholarship and study its samples thoroughly, recognizing the rhetorical strategies employed as well as how carefully writers match their backgrounds to the scholarship criteria. Visit the scholarship websites and read the profiles of past winners when available, envisioning yourself as a featured student on the website in the following year. Most importantly, be prepared to spend 50+ hours studying, reflecting, and writing as part of the scholarship application process, as winners typically report they do. Whether you win or not, the time will be well spent.
In addition to the national scholarships discussed in this chapter, there are numerous other "prestige" scholarships available to ambitious and deserving students. The guidebook, "Prestige Scholarships for College," lists and explains the various prestige scholarships available, discusses how to make them a realistic option, and includes expert advice on increasing your changes of landing one.
Visit the "Prestige Scholarships for College" Website.
Advice: Do's and Don't for Writing Personal Statements
Nearly all scholarship applications involve writing a personal statement. Sometimes this is the only piece of original writing required of applicants, other times there are additional short statements or project proposals to write.
The staff of the National Scholarships Office will be happy to assist UMD students and alumni with the personal statement. We will discuss ideas for the statement, and read and give feedback on drafts. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Though the wording of the personal statement requirement may vary from scholarship to scholarship, here are some important things to remember.
1. Think of the personal statement as an "intellectual autobiography." The statement should convey to your readers a clear, thoughtful picture or impression of you as a person who has distinct interests, motivations, accomplishments, aims and ideas.
2. Aim to define a central idea, impression or theme you hope to convey. The most memorable personal statements are ones that have a clear theme or purpose that unifies the ideas and information presented. Sometimes you'll know what this theme should be in advance; sometimes it will emerge as you begin drafting your statement.
3. Keep it simple. It's easy to over-write a one-page personal statement. Use the words and language you would naturally use in writing a thoughtful, intelligent letter to a friend or trusted mentor.
4. Use specifics. Help your readers remember you (and your application) by using specific names, references and illustrations. For example, always say “my internship with the Sierra Club’s bald eagle project” rather than “my internship with a renowned environmental organization’s project to save an endangered species.” Note which sounds more real and natural, and which sounds impersonal and artificial. (See “don’t” number 4 below.)
5. Find the "story" in your history. Your life has been a journey, with planned and unexpected turns, with successful and frustrated goals, with hard-earned and accidental insights, with hoped-for but as-yet-unrealized achievements. Your basic challenge in writing a compelling personal statement is to tell the story that makes sense of your life as it has been, is, and could be.
6. Welcome the reader into your life and aims. Scholarships are looking for promising people, not high-powered profiles. Write to engage your reader, write in a way that invites him or her to want to meet and get to know you – even if your scholarship process does not involve an interview stage.
1. Write to impress. Scholarship selection committees have seen and heard it all. Let your credentials and awards speak for themselves. Use your personal statement to talk to your readers about the things that motivate, inspire and shape you. Help them to understand what your specific accomplishments have meant to you, or how they have shaped you. Help them to understand why you care about the things you care about.
2. Write in cliches. Ask yourself if each and every sentence in your draft reflects some thought, fact, reflection or experience of your own. Avoid sentences that could have been written by absolutely anyone. Avoid stock phrases or expressions.
3. Re-write your resume in prose. Again, selection committees are looking for the person behind the credentials. Avoid laundry lists of activities, etc., and focus on the select few experiences that have meant the most to you, or have had the greatest influence on your development and aims.
4. Be too general or abstract. Don’t distance your reader by using vague references or abstractions in your essay. You (or your roommate) may think it sounds more impressive to say “my internship with a renowned environmental organization’s project to save an endangered species,” but that doesn’t really tell the reader what organization you worked for or what species was being helped. They would rather meet the person who worked with the Sierra Club to help save bald eagles.
5. Get too frustrated! Distilling your life into a compelling, informative one thousand word or one-page personal statement is a challenging task. Think of this as an opportunity, all-too-rare in life, to reflect calmly and creatively on who you are, who you want to be, and what you hope to do with your life.
Checklist for Evaluating your Personal Statement Drafts
A. Does your opening paragraph quickly engage the reader? Does it convey a distinct picture or impression of you as a person?
B. Is your guiding theme or idea clearly expressed? Is there a thread that runs through the essay, unifying it?
C. Are your principal intellectual interests and aims clearly elaborated? Is there evidence of your intellectual engagement and of the ideas that motivate you in your work or studies?
D. Are your more important commitments to community service, campus or off-campus organizations, or leadership roles effectively addressed?
E. Is the closing paragraph effective? Does it leave the reader with a sense of completeness? Does it suggest to the reader something of the spirit with which you are going forward in life?