This is the first of a few posts about writing the personal essay for your fellowship application.  These comments are most germane to the personal essay, as opposed to the project proposal or other more focused questions.  I’ll talk about those in a separate post.  These comments are geared toward those amorphous intellectual autobiography kinds of questions (typical in the Marshall and Rhodes, for example).  The Rhodes, for example, just asks you describe in 1000 words or less “your academic and other interests.  The statement should describe the specific area of proposed study and your reasons for wishing to study at Oxford.” Don’t let the simplicity of the question fool you.  This is a very hard essay to write well, especially in 1,000 words or less.

Here are some common problems with these essays: they are boring, full of cliches and even spelling errors, they are poorly organized, discuss the wrong things, the goals are too vague, and leadership examples too superficial. (And this list of faults is not campus specific; I’m getting these critiques from the people at foundations who read the somewhere between hundreds and thousands of essays submitted each year!) So to help you get going and avoid these pitfalls, here are some strategies organized by the different stages in writing. Remember, there is no magic formula and no perfect essays. There are many strong, effective essays. They are all unique, but what they have in common is a clear, compelling rationale; a thoughtful perspective; clear goals; and a personal voice that comes through the writing.

Brainstorming: Think about the material that these essays should reflect. You should think about key events and ideas that have shaped you as an individual and your interest in pursuing the study of x.  Think about anecdotes and stories worthy of retelling (and note, no epiphanies at the top of a mountain, please).  Identify concrete details that give your anecdote precision and imagery.  Is there a thread that connects your past experiences to future goals? What is it?

Draft: Work the ideas culled from your brainstorming into a draft.  Put it away.  Go do something else and return to the draft the next day.  Read through it.  Redraft.  Repeat the process until you have something that seems coherent, well-organized and reflective of you. Getting your personal voice across in the essay is important.

Test the draft:  This is a good exercise for you to do by yourself and with a friend (if permitted! Rhodes and Mitchell applicants, work on your own).  Get a brightly colored pen or marker. You pick the color. Now read through your essay and underline every expression that you’ve heard before and every example that could be true for any number of people you know.  Ask your friend to do the same with a different color marker.  Look at what’s left.  That remainder is probably the beginning of your original, unique content and writing style. Remember, if you can’t grab your reader’s attention within the first two paragraphs, you’re not going to progress to the round of finalists.

Review the draft in conjunction with selection criteria: The foundations write out their selection criteria for good reason; this is how they evaluate your application. Do you address these criteria in the different parts of your application?  For applications that rely on only one or two short essays, much, though not all, of this work will happen within the essays.  Do your examples illustrate well the qualities the selection committees are looking for? Read the essay in conjunction with the other application sections: is it clear how you exemplify their selection criteria? (Remember, letters of recommendation and the endorsement letter, if applicable, also do this, but you do not have access to them.)

Select good examples: Much of what you do in this kind of writing is illustrate through example.  You need concrete details in order to provide your reader with real way to understand you and what you’ve accomplished.  Choose examples that address important selection criteria (e.g. intellectual curiosity, leadership) and write about them in a way that reflects on their significance. They should also connect to your broader goals.  So if you organized a conference on campus on issue Y, think more concretely about that activity.  Ideally it should be related to intellectual/social/political/environmental issues you care about, but be specific about your role in the event and the impact that the event had on issue Y.  There is an important reflective component to these examples.  If it’s not there, that’s a problem.

Be reflective and concrete in talking about your experiences: You don’t have a lot of space, but it’s helpful to move between general statements and details. You want to avoid phrases, sentences that are too vague or general to be useful to your reader.  As you read through, note the places where you see this and the places where you see a statement grounded with a few details and you’ll see a big difference in impact.

Share your drafts with other readers, unless this if for the Rhodes or Mitchell: Faculty, fellowship advisors, friends and family can all be useful readers in this process.  Faculty will primarily pay attention to your academic goals, your professional aspirations, your academic program of choice (if this is for post-graduate study), as well as to the language and organization of the essay.  Fellowship advisors will look at the whole essay and application for coherence, detail, and rhetorical effectiveness. Friends and family will be able to speak to how well you’ve done articulating YOU as a unique, accompished person.  When you share your drafts, ask all your readers to think about how well you’ve answered the following questions: Who am I? Who do I want to be? Where do I want to go and why?  What inspires me to achieve this goal? What makes me special? Rhodes and Mitchell folks, you need to do this work on your own. Take breaks between drafts, so you can see your work with fresher eyes.

There is no magic formula to a successful essay.  It’s all about deep reflection and serious revising.  You should expect to work through anywhere from 10-30 drafts.  I often see 5-10 drafts from individual students.  And if it sounds like a lot of work, it is.  But it’s useful work.  It can pay off greatly in winning a scholarship.  Even if you don’t win, it’s very useful writing for graduate school and employment applications.

Mitchell and Rhodes applicants, you will need to do this revision work without the benefit of outside readers. You’ll need to try to imagine yourself as an outside reader at times and read your essay with that lens. Would this make sense to someone who did not know me? Does the essay give a good understanding of who I am, what I care about, where I want to go? Does it provide a grounded and clear understanding of what you have worked on, what you’ve accomplished, what you’ve learned, and why that all matters?

Don’t forget the copyediting. Spelling, grammar and correct word usage is essential. You do not want your reader getting tripped up by your language; you want your language to be a transparent vehicle for your reader to learn about you, your goals, your accomplishments, your story.


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