Essays and Personal Statements

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Every award requires a written essay, usually a “personal statement,” “proposal,” or both.  A personal statement or intellectual autobiography challenges students to discuss their lives. A proposal requires students to describe and defend their academic project or intended course of study. Mastering both types of essay writing will serve students beyond scholarship and fellowship applications.

As with all effective writing, the essays need to be written for the audience. An applicant must thoroughly understand the concerns and goals of the granting agency and consider how the applicant’s life and work might relate to members of the agency.

The crucial opening paragraph should present a dense, cogent articulation of the main idea. Exceptional application essays usually go through up to twenty rounds of revision. Remember that it may take pages of writing to produce one good opening paragraph.

Write the personal statement using your own tone, a snapshot of the forces and people that have changed you, the issues that move you, the direction you wish your life to take, and how the program for which you are applying will further those plans. The essay should be specific about life experiences (school, travel, friends, mentors, work experience, family) that led you to the work you wish to pursue, but it should not be overly personal. Avoid generic statements like, "I have always loved art" or "I have always felt a compassion for other people." Write about what you think and the experiences that led you to develop these thoughts. If you find yourself explaining your feelings, you’re on the wrong path.

If you manage to convey the impression that your life has led you inevitably to the project, if you tell a story, you have succeeded. Remember you’re your goal is to persuade a granting agency trying to choose between many quality applications that there is an exact match between your abilities, knowledge, interests and the work you wish to pursue. Demonstrate a familiarity with the resources to be used during the course of work on the project. Whether this entails knowing people, detailing experience with libraries or archives, or exhibiting knowledge of social and ethnographic situations, this is an essential part of showing that a project requires support and can be done within the frame of the fellowship or grant.

Particularly when applying for graduate study, the proposal should be justified and presented in terms of the historiography of the scholarship in the field. A detailed understanding of the relevant scholarship must be demonstrated, along with an explanation of the ways in which the proposed undertaking will fill gaps in the record, or reverse or modify its conclusions. (Avoid arrogant language or statements like, "No one has ever worked on this topic before." Someone probably has, so show how your approach differs from or adds to existing scholarship.) The crystal-clear narration of an innovative project is the bedrock of success. If you can highlight your project’s timeliness or resonance with current socio-political, cultural, or economic concerns, that’s a bonus.