#6: Prepare a Compelling Personal Statement

Apr 09, 2012

By ProFellow Founder, Dr. Vicki Johnson

Fellowships applications vary widely, but almost all of them require a personal statement of a paragraph to several pages. The personal essay is similar to a college admissions essay, where you describe your career goals, your passions and why you want the fellowship. This essay is distinct from a project proposal where you describe your proposed research, although occasionally a fellowship organization will require you to mix the two in one document.

Example of the Personal Statement question on the New York City Urban Fellows application:

In an essay, not to exceed 1,000 words, please describe your reasons for applying to the Urban Fellows Program. We are interested in finding out what you can contribute and gain from the fellowship experience. The objective of this essay is to provide us with a better understanding of you and your interest in public service as well as how you will relate to the Urban Fellows community. You may want to draw upon past experiences in leadership, community service, team efforts, etc. that have significantly impacted your career goals. Do not recount your résumé.

The best way to start is to break down the question(s). Using the Personal Statement question of the New York City Urban Fellows Program application as an example, I would break down the paragraph like this:

  1. describe your reasons for applying to the Urban Fellows Program
  2. what you can contribute [to the fellowship experience]
  3. what can you gain from the fellowship experience
  4. your interest in public service
  5. how you will relate to the Urban Fellows community
  6. draw upon past experiences in leadership, community service, team efforts, etc. [note: Do not recount your résumé.]
  7. your career goals

You now have 7 “questions” under which you can begin drafting some bullet points. It’s important that you provide an answer to each of these questions. I suggest bullet points instead of diving into writing because many people begin writing but end up stressing out about writing the perfect sentence. Start with bullet points and think big. Write down anything and everything you can think of that might relate to the questions. Also, talk through some ideas with family, friends, professors, colleagues, whoever! It’s always interesting to hear other people’s perspectives on the trajectory of your career.

Most personal statements require you to describe your career goals. One thing I often hear from people is that they don’t really know what they want to do in their career and therefore don’t quite know how to answer this question. The thing is, most people don’t really know what they want to do with their life. However, the personal statement is not the place to speculate about your career path. If you are applying to a professional fellowship, your personal statement should express how and why you are committed to working in that professional field. The reason you need to sound confident about your career path in the personal statement is because a fellowship organization is more likely to pick a person who is focused and committed to a specific career in line with the fellowship, than a person who is just exploring options.

Also, be sure to explain in your personal statement why you want to win the fellowship, how it will advance your career goals, how you will build upon the work you do during the fellowship and where you see yourself 5-10 years after the fellowship. A lot of applicants I work with spend most, if not all, of their personal statement describing things that they’ve already accomplished and use this information to justify why they want the fellowship. Fellowship organizations are less concerned about what you have accomplished as they are about what you could accomplish should they award you the fellowship. They want to know: will the fellowship help you publish? Will it help you enter or complete graduate school? Will it give you professional/language/technical skills you couldn’t get elsewhere? Will it get you one step closer to your dream job? Be sure to answer those questions in your personal statement. Your resume will highlight everything you’ve done until now.

Once you have lots of bullet points under your questions, take the best ideas to begin writing. One of the best ways to start is to write sentences that directly answer the questions, for example:

1. describe your reasons for applying to the Urban Fellows Program

“I am applying to the New York City Fellows Program to….”

2. what you can contribute [to the fellowship experience]

“My contribution to the fellowship program would be….”

3. what can you gain from the fellowship experience

“Unlike other professional experiences, the Urban Fellows Program would provide me…”

And so forth. You do not need to answer the questions in the order they were provided in the personal statement request. The most important thing is to be direct and concise, so the answers to the questions are very clear to the reader.

Always remember that the personal statement helps the fellowship organization understand who you are before they meet you in person. In your personal statement, your personality, character and passion should shine through. The New York Time opinion piece “The Art of Repetition” provides some great writing tips, summed up as “Show, don’t tell. Avoid clichés. Be specific. Try not to repeat yourself.”

Be sure to have several people read your personal statement, particularly your final draft since grammar errors and misspellings are hard to see once you’ve read the statement a hundred times.

Next up: #7: Prepare a Strong Project Proposal

Dr. Vicki Johnson Headshot

Dr. Vicki Johnson is Founder and CEO of ProFellow, the world’s leading online resource for professional and academic fellowships. She is a four-time fellow, top Ph.D. scholar, Fulbright recipient and an award-winning social entrepreneur. She is the Creator and Director of Fully Funded, an award-winning online course and mentorship program for graduate school applicants seeking to find and win full funding. 

© Victoria Johnson / ProFellow, LLC 2012, all rights reserved.