Office of Major Scholarship Advisement

Essays and Personal Statements

Each award requires a written essay that is usually in one or both of two distinct genres:

  • The first type, the "personal statement" or "intellectual autobiography," challenges students to discuss their lives.
  • The second type, the "proposal," asks you to describe and defend your academic project or intended course of study.

Mastering both types of essay writing will benefit students well beyond the process of applying for scholarships and fellowships; for example, knowing how to write a strong proposal will prepare you to write documents such as grant applications and dissertation abstracts should you continue to work in academia.

When approaching any type of essay, much of the work occurs before a single sentence is composed.  Applicants must thoroughly understand the mission of the competition in which they are participating in order to understand the audience for whom they are writing. However, you should avoid writing what you think the readers want to hear. Instead, you should strive for a well-developed understanding of the seminal concerns and fundamental goals of the granting agency, and how your life and work might relate to them.

The Opening Paragraph

The opening paragraph is crucial and should include a dense, convincing articulation of the main idea.  The "main idea" usually accounts for the direction of the writer's intellectual life or the intent of a proposed course of study. 

Essay  WritingAn exceptional application essay usually   goes through as many as twenty rounds of revision. Although very little from the first few  drafts may survive in the final version, those drafts are never wasted effort. The initial work enables you to discover what you are really  trying to say. Remember that it may take multiple pages to create one good opening paragraph.

The Personal Statement

 A personal statement comprises a key element  of professional school applications.  You may want to envision the personal statement as a biographical sketch of a historical figure whose intellectual breadth and commitment to the public good changed the world for the better. Nonetheless, the essay must be comprised of your feelings and tone, showing a snapshot of the forces and people that have changed you, the issues that currently 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 your life experiences (school, travel, friends, mentors, work experience, family, etc.) that have led you to the interests you wish to pursue in your work.  You should not be excessively personal, however. You should avoid heartfelt, but trite, observations such as "I have always loved art" or "I have always felt a compassion for other people." You should write in terms of what you think and what experiences led you to develop these thoughts. You are on the wrong path if you find yourself grappling with and explaining your feelings.

The Tone of the ProposalEssay Writing

If you are able to convey the impression that your life has directed you inevitably to your intended project through a story, you will have succeeded, even if this means you have ironed out or diminished the zigzags along the path and have papered over the moments of ambiguity and indecision. You should not think of "editing" your life in this fashion as being deceptive. You must remember that you are trying to persuade a granting agency, which is trying to choose between many high-quality applications, that there is an exact match between your abilities, knowledge, and interests and the work you wish to pursue.

Your proposal must plainly connect the content and ambitions of a project with specific knowledge, training, skills, and interests. You need to demonstrate a thorough familiarity with the resources that you will use during the course of work on the project. This may entail knowing people, detailing experience with libraries or archives, or exhibiting familiarity with social and ethnographic situations and conditions.  This is an essential part of demonstrating that a project requires support (and travel if elsewhere relevant), and can be done within the frame of the fellowship or grant. Your proposal must be feasible; it must be doable.

Relativity to the Scholarship

Your proposal should be justified and framed in terms of the historiography of the scholarship in the field, particularly if you are writing a graduate application.  You need to show a detailed familiarity with the chosen scholarship as well as an explanation of how your proposed undertaking will either fill gaps in the record or reverse or modify its conclusions. You need to take measures to avoid the language of arrogance: "No one has ever worked on this topic before." Chances are someone has, and you will want to 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 its timeliness or resonance with current socio-political, cultural, or economic concerns can be highlighted, this is always a plus. That is to say, if a proposal appears to be compelling and well-framed, one that is also ripe for doing right now, the proposal becomes even stronger.