By Deborah Vieyra
Ah, that dreaded blank page where your personal statement should be! Writing your personal statement is probably the most daunting part of your fellowship application process. In a page or two, you have to sum up yourself— what you believe in, how you have arrived where you are, what you aspire to do in the future—in the hope that you will be selected as the perfect candidate. Of course, this is daunting. Sometimes, looking inward is far harder than writing about topics outside of yourself.
Take a deep breath and think about what it is you would really like the selection committee to know about you. Think of this exercise as a moment to check in with yourself and your goals. Why are you choosing to pursue a fellowship? What aspects of your experience so far has led you to this moment? Once you have decided what got you here, think about how doing a fellowship fits into your plans for your future.
Here are five things to include in your personal statement that can serve as a mini checklist for you as you go about this process.
1) A personal story
If you’re wondering how to be authentic in your personal statement, remember that your personal story is the ultimate differentiator. Nobody else has your particular confluence of influences in their lives—both positive and negative. Your task now is to select a specific story to tell that makes your uniqueness stand out in the crowd. Think of an experience that you have had that brought you to your field of study. How has that story shaped your dedication to your field? My own wish to study theatre came from a desire to shape the narrative of South Africa’s young democracy—and believing that storytelling is an instrumental part of that process. (Luckily, I had been practicing for this by putting on elaborate backyard performances for the neighbourhood parents when I was a young child.)
Once you have chosen a personal story to highlight, make sure you tell it in your own words. Write the way you speak and start with a powerful opening statement. This will not only endear people to your story but demonstrate your capacity for effective communication.
2) Your values
As much as they are interested in your resume, fellowship selection committees are looking to see what kind of person you are. They want to know that you will show dedication to your field and operate in an ethical manner. This requires a high degree of self-reflection on your part. Try not to just insert words that you think they want to hear. In this case, it’s better to show, not tell; meaning – provide examples of how you live your values through your work, your studies, your volunteerism and your personal commitments.
If you need to, take the time to go deep and define what your core values are. Even if your application is unsuccessful, this is a worthwhile exercise for your personal development.
3) Your motivations
You may know that you want to follow a specific path but might not have considered why you want to do so. Sometimes, what feels like just a gut instinct is actually the result of experiences that propelled you down a certain path when you were at a crossroads. As with the process of pondering your values, take the time to reflect on the big “why” of your application. Carefully articulate your motivations through the lens of your personal and professional development. For example, if you’re applying to an international fellowship because you’re excited to travel, don’t leave your motivations at that – be sure to go deeper and articulate why. You may be motivated by the opportunity for cultural exchange and personal growth. Don’t let them come to the conclusion that you only want this opportunity to get free roundtrip ticket.
4) Why the fellowship matters
In your personal essay, communicate why you think the award or program you are applying to is important in today’s world. This is a crucial element that is overlooked by many applicants. What impact does this particular award or program have on the world, and how can you further contribute to it? By exploring this, you will demonstrate to the selection committee that you have put time and effort into researching the program and why you would be a good fit for it. Beyond making a case for your acceptance, this shows proactivity and that you have taken care to find out exactly what the award or program entails.
5) Your aspirations
Lastly, don’t forget to tell them about your goals for the future. How does this fellowship fit into your plans? If you can contextualize the fellowship within broader career and personal goals, you will illustrate that you are a long-term investment for them. By awarding you the fellowship, they will be working on a sustainable project that will have impact long after the award period has ended.
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Deborah Vieyra is a Fulbright alumna from South Africa who completed her MA in Applied Theatre Arts at the University of Southern California. She now works as a writer, proofreader and performer in Vancouver, Canada.
© Victoria Johnson 2018, all rights reserved.