Students Studying in Carrier

The personal statement is one of the most important parts of many fellowship applications. These awards are competetive, so a strong personal statement will help you stand out. It is also a peculiar kind of essay. It involves a narrative style of writing that some people aren't used to. Others find it awkward to talk about themselves in such an open and forward way. The following resources can give you the know-how and confidence to produce an authentic and compelling personal statement.

The Basics

A personal statement is an intellectual autobiography that illustrates the experiences, interests, and ambitions that define who you are. It introduces the formative experiences that shaped your intellectual and professional development. Think about key moments in your life that influenced your direction, led you to this point, and set you on your future path. This can include personal history, family background, intellectual influences, opportunities (educational, professional, and cultural) or lack of them, and the ways in which these experiences have affected you and your personal growth. 

The personal statement should also be persuasive, making a compelling case for yourself as the ideal candidate for the particular fellowship. Always keep the specific award you are applying to in mind and make sure to tailor your statement accordingly. Are they looking for particular qualities or criteria? How do you meet (or surpass) these expectations? How will this fellowship impact your future goals?

The key to a successful personal statement is telling an authentic narrative that convinces the selection committee that you are what they are looking for. 

Consider the Context

Many fellowship applications include a number of application components. You will need to consider how the personal statement fits within the larger application package. If there are additional written essays you are asked to submit, think about how the content in the personal statement will complement, rather than replicate, these materials. What you include in your personal statement will depend on what is covered elsewhere.

Some awards include a specific prompt or ask a set of guiding questions. Make sure your personal statement is tailored accordingly.

Be aware of the distinction between a personal statement and a statement of purpose. These two essays are similar, but statements of purpose focus more on your academic plans and goals. In a statement of purpose, you would discuss research experiences and interests, which faculty members you hope to work with in the future, and/or possible topics for a thesis or dissertation.

Show, Don't Tell

Stories are a critical element of a good personal statement. They bring the narrative to life and help the reader see the real you.

Include anecdotes and examples that show evidence of your qualities, interests, and experiences. For instance, rather than just saying, "I am a leader," recount a time when you exhibited leadership in a real-world context. When discussing your interest in an issue or field of study, describe an experience or two that led to key insights or new perspectives.

Do's and Don'ts


  • Research the fellowship and/or program you are applying to.
  • Write a coherent, well-structured essay. Frame it with a unifying metaphor or analogy. Start with an interesting lead--a story, anecdote, or description of a scene--and end it with a conclusion that refers back to the lead or completes the metaphor. 
  • Be concise and to the point. Sometimes a short sentence is more effective than a long one.
  • Revise the personal statement multiple times with the help of your advisors, mentors, friends, and the University Writing Center. Of course, the Office of Fellowships and Awards should also be one of your first stops if your personal statement is for a competitive fellowship.
  • Read it out loud to yourself. If it doesn't sound like your natural voice, make some edits.
  • Adhere to the expected page layout, format, and length. Unless otherwise indicated, default to Times New Roman font, 12-pt., 1-inch margins. Page limits vary. When in doubt, consult your fellowship advisors.
  • Thoroughly proofread your personal statement. The easiest way to sink a fellowship application is to send a personal statement with spelling and grammatical errors.


  • Don't list everything on your resume. 
  • Avoid phrases like "I've always wanted to be," "The world we live in today," "My biggest passion," and other clichés. 
  • Don't try to be funny. You might get the joke, but the selection committee might not.
  • Don't sell yourself short. Avoid negative qualifiers such as, "Although I've only taken two years of French," or "Despite not having as many leadership opportunities as I would like." If you frame your experiences negatively, so will the selection committee.
  • Avoid overly flowery prose and discipline-specific jargon. Keep it simple.
Getting Started

1. As you start to formulate your personal statement, answer these guiding questions

  • Who are you? What defines you?
  • What are the character traits that help to qualify you?
  • Why did you choose your major or field of study? How have you nurtured and developed this interest?
  • Who or what motivates you? Who or what do you care about?
  • What is unique or different about you?
  • What are your future goals?
  • What have you accomplished that you are proud of?
  • What do you hope to accomplish through this fellowship? What knowledge or skills do you hope to acquire?

2. Write down some stories:

  • What are some key life moments that changed your perspective or led you in a certain direction?
  • What experiences convey something interesting or unusual about you?
  • Who has influenced you and how?
  • When have you experienced disappointment and how did you handle it?
  • When have you experienced success and what did you learn from it?

3. Once you've answered these questions and drafted some stories, make an appointment with a fellowships advisor to discuss how to craft an excellent personal statement!

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