4 Steps to Formatting a Personal Statement

Oct 25, 2017

4 Steps to Formatting a Personal Statement

By Brittany Mihalec-Adkins

As evidenced by you clicking on this article, you already know that writing a good personal statement can be hard. Fortunately, there really is a science to it (or maybe an art?). Even more fortunate is that we’ve compiled some of that science for you! Without further ado, here is some of our advice for mapping out your personal statement.

Step 1: Open with a hook

First things first: you’ll want to open with a “hook” – an attention-grabber that will keep your readers reading. You’ve been hearing this since 6th grade English class, I know, but standing out is important when you’re applying for competitive fellowships, scholarships, internships, and so on. Reviewers are likely reading dozens and dozens of these things, so it’s crucial that you find a way to engage them right from the beginning. Take a look at your favorite novels and short stories and think about why you kept reading after the first line.

Step 2: Set up the backdrop

Next, set up the backdrop. What got you interested in your area of study? How did you get to where you are now – working on this particular application? Maybe you went on a field trip to a nature preserve in 3rd grade where you learned about water pollution. Then in 5th grade, you moved to a new neighborhood close to a river that was too dirty to swim in, and as you got older, you started thinking about what we can do to protect our fresh water sources. Maybe it pushed you to major in Environmental Science in college, and now you’re applying for a Fulbright grant to continue this work. Telling this story will help reviewers see how invested you are in your topic and help them, in turn, feel invested in you.

Step 3: Walk them through your experience

When you get to the body of your personal statement, you’ll obviously move to discussing your various educational, professional, and volunteer experiences. This part can be particularly tricky to write and especially boring for reviewers to read. Why? Because many people use this space to regurgitate their CV instead of walking readers through their experiences. Try to use your many impressive experiences to tell a story about how you went from that disgruntled 5th grader with no river to swim in, to the fellowship applicant you are now. Maybe even draw out a map or timeline of your experiences and draw arrows connecting similar experiences when deciding how they could all be presented in a coherent and interesting narrative. Remember: this section is supposed to help the reviewers get to know you better, not just remind them of what’s on your CV. You want to illustrate, with your experience, that you are passionate about your work without having to ever use the word “passionate.”

Step 4: Make your closing pitch

Finally, use the concluding paragraph (or two) of your statement to briefly explain both (1) why this particular fellowship is the best fit for your goals, over the many others you could be applying to, and (2) why you are the best fit for the fellowship. Use this space to address specific aspects of the fellowship experience and how you can both contribute to and grow from those experiences. Talk about how you see this fellowship catapulting you into your next endeavor or altering the trajectory of your career as a world-renowned environmentalist. The reviewers want to choose someone in whom to invest – use your final sentences to convince them that you are worth investing in.

Brittany Mihalec-Adkins is a first-year National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow and second-year Ph.D. student in Human Development and Family Studies at Purdue University. 

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