The primary purpose of the personal statement is to allow you to express yourself and explain how you would use the grant to further your plans for the future.
The essay also serves to show how diverse elements of your application are related and address any areas that might be ambiguous or problematic. The essay you write may tip the scale in your favor and compensate for less strong parts of your application. For this reason, some would consider it to be the most important part of the application.
Before You Begin
As you prepare to write, re-read the scholarship description and consider your audience. You're writing for the selection committee of the scholarship in question. These are professors, former winners of the scholarship, business and professional leaders, and host country officials who are charged with selecting those applications that best exemplify the standards set forth by the scholarship donor. They're looking for an intellectual history of yourself—one that subtly yet creatively illustrates some of your personal characteristics.
The essay can be written many different ways, but whatever manner of presentation you use, be certain to provide insights into who you are, what values you hold, what you strive to do and become, your potential to contribute to your field, and how the program of study you list on your application relates to your history up to now and to your plans for the future.
Remember that your personal essay should not restate your résumé or boast of the honors you've received. Instead, tell a unique and engaging story of yourself. Thinking about the essay as three separate parts may be useful:
- How your past experiences have influenced you or brought you to where you are today.
- How study in the UK, research in Kenya, your chosen graduate program, and so on will fit into your career goals, interests, and professional aspirations.
- How you hope to make a difference in your discipline and to the betterment of society.
From the hundreds of qualified applicants reviewed, only around 25% or less will be considered for an interview. To stand out, your essay must engage the reader at the outset, present your thoughts in a clear and organized manner, be a pleasure to read, and leave the reader wanting to know you better.
How is such an essay written? It's done in stages, the first being aggregation and development of material—in this case, the expression of your thoughts, values, and aspirations. To get things flowing, some writers collect ideas they've jotted down in the past. Others use brainstorming, while still others use free writing—the process of writing anything that comes to mind. The act of writing itself will stimulate more thinking and more ideas. In the first stage, you seek only to capture your thoughts. At this stage, attempts to revise or edit should be suppressed, as they are counterproductive to the externalization of your inner dialogue.
Only when you have acquired a critical mass can you begin the next stage, which is looking over what you've written and getting a sense of how you might organize the material. Some content you'll choose to eliminate, and some content you'll choose to focus on and expand. Along the way, you may find it helpful to take breaks, letting the essay sit for awhile before coming back to it with a fresh perspective. When you've decided how to organize the essay, list your ideas in outline form.
Next on your to-do list will be coming up with an introduction, creating smooth transitions between your ideas, and writing a conclusion. Flesh out the concepts into sentences and call this your rough draft—the first of what may be any number of drafts, for multiple drafts are the norm. It's a good idea to put the date and time of each new draft at the top of the page to avoid confusion.
The Writers Workshop provides tips on composing personal statements. We also recommend an online publication, Writing Personal Statements, which focuses on scholarships in particular. In addition, our office has hard copies of award-winning statements available to share.
Scholarship recipients Josie Chambers and Matt Grobis share their advice on writing personal statements.
At some point, the time will come to introduce your intellectual efforts to others who can be a positive influence—perhaps an instructor or advisor, and certainly our office. While you may feel reluctant to expose your essay to the world, it's important to do so, as other readers will catch things one person can't, see potential areas or topics to be explored, and offer valuable thoughts. Thoroughly consider their suggestions and revise your essay as you deem appropriate.
Once you're satisfied with your essay, turn your full attention to editing and proofreading for spelling, punctuation, and grammar. This is the stage in which you polish your work, where perfection is allowed and appearance counts.