The Personal Statement

The Personal Statement is at the heart of most scholarship and fellowship applications and it remains one of the most challenging but rewarding written efforts that you will encounter in the scholarship process. It is, strictly speaking, your story.  It asks you to find a way to articulate who you are because of the what, why, and where.  In other words, the personal statement asks you critically reflect on how you define yourself based on your sense of self, what you value, what you are passionate about, where those passions come from and how they are both manifesting in your current experience and will likely take further shape in your future.  It compels you to drop the pretense, break through any and all previous assumptions of what defined you coming into your undergraduate experience (GPA, test scores, captain of team, etc.) and really begin to dive deep into your own authenticity. 

A strong personal statement not only tells your story, it does so in a way that is both captivating and sincere.  It is focused, clear, concise, and compelling.  In actual fact, it is probably the most difficult writing you will do as a national scholarship applicant, maybe even as an undergraduate.  It is challenging for a variety of reasons:

  1. A Personal Statement forces you to write in way that conflates your ‘academic voice’ with your ‘personal voice’.  After years of having your ‘personal voice’ trained out of your writing style, a Personal Statement asks you to put it back in given that you are making an effort to tell your particular story;
  2. A Personal Statement should reflect the level of critical reflection that has both shaped your sense of self and your sense of purpose.  Meaning, you’ve given some time and thought to the effort;
  3. In addition to telling at least a small part of your larger story, a Personal Statement should reflect your trajectory, detailing where you have come from and how that is shaping the next steps you plan to take;
  4. It requires you to think about your strengths, achievements and accomplishments and maybe even write about them.  This is perhaps one of the strangest, if not most difficult things for any ‘high-achieving’  individual who also tends to be quite humble when describing themselves;
  5. It requires a certain level of commitment to your future plans, even though those sitting on a review committee recognize that what you put forward as your future plans (certainly while still an undergraduate) amounts to your best, well-educated guess;
  6. It is short.  Most Personal Statements are a maximum of 1000 words in length or less.  That means you have to reduce (in the best sense of the word) your story to fit those requirements, hence the necessity of very clear and concise writing.  A Personal Statement does not afford you the opportunity to pad your essay with a long introduction and grand, summative conclusion.  There simply isn’t word-count enough.  So, find a way in your first two sentences to capture your readers’ attention and proceed from there.

But, all that to say, if done well and with adequate time to reflect, write long, edit, revise and refine, your Personal Statement could also be one of the most rewarding pieces of writing you engage in while a student.  It will help you not only develop a strong portfolio for your national scholarship applications; it will also guide you in your efforts toward graduate school, further professional pursuits, even job interviews.  Why? Because you have given yourself a moment to stop, think, and write about what is at the very core of you and how that has and will continue to shape who you are becoming.  If done well, your Personal Statement will be an authentic representation of yourself and will serve you in the best of ways, providing you with a kind of bell-weather as you pursue your next best thing.  In fact, with minor adjustments apropos to your developing life-story, you may find your Personal Statement remains relatively unchanged at its core.  Why? Because, chances are fairly good that your own core sense of self will remain relatively the same.  So, rise to the challenge of the Personal Statement, overcome it, and benefit from the process of thinking and writing about your most authentic self.

And, of course, remember that you have the support of the CCSA staff, who recognize the difficulty of starting to write a Personal Statement.  We all have our own ways of brainstorming and ‘priming the pump’; sometimes one of the best ways to start, is to have a good long chat with someone about what you really (really) care about, why, and where and what you hope to see all those cares move you toward.  That’s precisely what we are available to do with you – chat, listen, draw story-boards, idea webs, you name it – so, contact us to make an appointment.  There is absolutely no reason you should feel you have to tackle the Personal Statement process on your own.

Suggestions and Tips:

  1. Do your homework and make sure you understand the purpose of the scholarship, fellowship, or nationally competitive experiential learning opportunity for which you are applying.  This will offer some shape to the tone of your writing efforts.  It will also help you identify what is important to those who will be assessing your application and making a determination as to its outcome;
  2. Give yourself plenty of time to brainstorm, reflect, and really dig deep into your core.  Use whatever method best suits you to keep track of important ideas, quotes, contacts, plans, connections, dreams, and opportunities so as to have a kind of personal reference collection that will be useful in both planning for your future and crafting a Personal Statement;
  3. Ask yourself certain key questions, like:
  • What hurts you about the world and how do hope to help alleviate that hurt?
  • What do you want to be remembered for?
  • What gets you about of bed in the morning?
  • What are your strengths? Weaknesses? What challenges have your overcome and how have you come understand them as opportunities?
  • When have you lost all sense of yourself when involved in a particular activity or experience because it came so naturally to you?
  • What do you really care about and why?
  • Who do you really care about and why?
  • Who has inspired you? Who has helped to shape your academic experience and why? 
  • Why are your studying your particular subject and how have you come understand the challenges and unique opportunities within your discipline(s)
  • Where have you been in the world that has shaped your sense of self and your place in the world?
  • What are your greatest dreams and how do you to intend to build/have you built the foundation from which to launch those dreams?
  • What do you hope to contribute to your personal circle, to your local community, to your nation, to the world? And, how do you imagine beginning to do so.

4. Even though your final draft will likely only be 1000 words or less, write long.  You can always edit down and make your drafts tighter as your thinking and writing becomes more focused. 

5. Expect to write a number of drafts, hence the necessity of giving yourself plenty of time to think, reflect, write, and edit. Once you have a draft you are comfortable with, start to peddle it out to friends, family, peers, colleagues, and faculty mentors and advisors for further guidance and suggestions on refining your statement.  Of course, share any and all drafts with CCSA staff as they are happy to help with conceptual challenges right on down to red-lining;

6. Use other parts of your developing application portfolio – like your Curriculum Vita/CV, your project or research proposal, writing samples, research you’ve done on your programs of interest, etc. to help guide your Personal Statement (but, don’t regurgitate your CV);

7. Give examples.  There is tendency when writing about oneself to keep it in the abstract realm of ‘passions’ and ‘dreams’ but your reader needs something concrete to tack down those abstract ideas and understand them in the context of your real-life experience.  So, be specific and identify relevant antidotes that help paint a better picture of the story you are telling;

8. Give yourself plenty of time to edit, revise, spell-check, edit, revise, edit, send out for review by others, read aloud, edit, revise, set the document aside for 24-48 hours, and then edit one last time.   Remember this is the core of your application and it is your chance to articulate your core self and what care about in an authentic way.  It deserves all the time you can give. 

You’ve got the ‘Do’s’, now some ‘Don’ts’

  1. Don’t include anything in your Personal Statement that you would not be comfortable speaking about in an interview situation.  Remember, every last bit of your application is fair game and if you don’t want to be pressed on an experience, an opinion, or anything else that may find too personal to attend to in actual conversation, don’t put it in your statement;
  2. Don’t use your Personal Statement as a piece of opinion writing, a journal entry, a position statement, or even a faith statement.  Remember, this a nuanced assessment of who you are as it relates to what you are proposing to pursue on a national scholarship, in graduate school or as a professional;
  3. Don’t apologize for yourself or your experiences.  This includes undervaluing your undergraduate institution, your personal background, even what state you’ve come from.  Find a way to describe in writing the way you have turned challenges into opportunities;
  4. Don’t re-hash your CV.  You’ve provided all of the specific details of your actual experiences in your CV.  There is no point in re-telling it; you don’t have space in your word-count and you will surely lose the interest of your readers from the get-go;
  5. Don’t go hunting for samples of Personal Statements from CCSA staff, other advisors or the internet.  There is a reason they aren’t readily available and it is largely due to the fact that if you are trying to write something that is authentically ‘you’, using someone else’s formula won’t get you very far in that effort toward sincerity.  So, don’t bother hunting anything down.  Talk with CCSA staff on how to get started and then dive in;
  6. DON’T WAIT UNTIL THE LAST MINUTE! A Personal Statement written the day before the deadline will not be as successful as one that has received a good deal of time and attention.  And, in fact, a poorly written statement may prove a detriment to your success.  So, plan ahead, set a schedule, and then, get to it.

Additional resources to help with writing your Personal Statement:

Food for Thought: Good writing takes time and practice.  Consider adding Strunk and White’s iconic text, ‘The Elements of Style,’ to your collection:  ‘Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell’.