Writing Your Fellowship Application

Please view the recording of our most recent writing seminar to guide you in writing statements for your fellowship, scholarship, and/or grant application.

Contextualization: Embracing the Challenge in Writing a Personal Statement

Every personal statement is unique, and trying to define what constitutes an effective personal statement seems almost impossible.

Although you can look at examples of top-notch personal statements, and this document tries to give you some guidance in crafting your own, in the end there is no model to follow. This reality is both liberating and maddening. It’s liberating because it means you get to write what you want and how you want. But it’s maddening because this lack of regulation and form requires you to create not only the topic but also the method of expression.

In many ways, writing a personal statement is a 180-degree turn from what you’re used to doing in college. You have been trained to write rather staid, formal, academic papers in which you know the format and what is expected of you, and the challenge lies in researching the topic at hand. In crafting a personal statement, you are the world’s leading expert on the topic (you!), but you must create the method of conveying this information to the evaluators.

A personal statement is:

  • Your introduction to the evaluation committee. 
  • The heart of your application, which is your ticket to an interview, where the scholarship or fellowship will be decided. 
  • A picture of you.
  • An invitation to get to know you.
  • An indication of your priorities.
  • Your story.
  • “A serious examination of the intellectual and personal experiences that have motivated you to participate in this process and to pursue the particular project you are proposing in your application, and the ways in which your intellectual and personal experience since entering college have informed your choices.”
  • Among your best opportunity to gain solely from the process of applying for a scholarship or fellowship. Even if you aren’t nominated or don’t receive the award, you will have this amazing document that crystallizes who you are and what’s important to you in just a few hundred words. Taking the time to work really hard on your personal statement will pay dividends – if not financial reward in the form of a scholarship, then as help as you look for other next steps after graduation.

In the end, every personal statement I’ve read that I thought was truly exceptional had one thing in common: When I finished reading it, I thought, “I’d like to meet this person. I’d like to take this student out for a cup of coffee and learn more.” A really effective personal statement tells the reader what makes you different from everyone else in the applicant pool, and it does so through engaging, interesting, and concise prose. 

Writing an effective personal statement is hard work. You should expect that the first draft that you write may very well be terrible, and very little of it may end up in the final draft. You should also expect to go through about twelve revisions before you create a document that you are truly happy with. And you should also expect that this experience will be a challenging yet valuable exercise that will demand you to be self-reflective, will force you to be cogent in your writing, and will serve as an excellent preparation for you to take this task on again and again in your future career. 

In other words: “I have said and written it once, and I shall say and write it many times again, that excellent writing skills are requisite not simply for a strong application for the Churchill Scholarship but for all the endless applications for graduate programs, fellowships, postdoctoral positions, and grants that lie ahead for students in the STEM fields. Clear, persuasive, and thought-provoking prose is not the result of rhetorical tricks: it derives from deep reflection, a strong sense of identity, maturity, and, often, a delightful sense of irony. On occasion during my visits to your campuses I have referred to weakly written personal statements as ‘mashed potatoes without salt,’ which is my lightly sarcastic way of suggesting that weak personal statements do not provide a sense of a identity of the applicant, do not offer a means of distinguishing someone who obviously has an outstanding academic and research record from many other applicants with excellent records, and do not provoke the reader into thinking, ‘I would really like to meet this person.'” (Peter Patrikis, former executive director of the Churchill Scholarship, in 2011)


  • Write from your gut. You’re used to writing from your head. Don’t let your head make it up. Listen to your gut, and get it down on the page or on the screen.
  • You can’t tell your readers everything. Have a few main points you want to get across, and let them find out the rest of your story in your resume, interview, letters of recommendation, and other elements of your application.
  • When you decide on the main points and stories you want to tell, answer these questions: What is the point of the story you’re telling? What do you need to include to tell it well? What isn’t necessary? 
  • Have many others read your statement for objectivity and distance, since you are the most personal topic you’ll ever write about. 
  • Remember your high school English teacher’s advice of “show, don’t tell.” Don’t tell readers that you’re enthusiastic or passionate about a topic; tell them a story that shows your enthusiasm and passion. 
  • Include anecdotes of life-changing moments or of moments that clarified and crystallized what you want to do. 
  • Tailor your essay to the opportunity and application. What instructions do they give you for topics, length, and so on? What parts of your story do the reviewers most want to hear about? 
  • The first paragraph is vitally important. It sets the tone and direction for the rest of the essay, and it provides quick personal insights. The conclusion should pull the essay together but also point to the future and indicate how the themes developed throughout the essay will continue to develop over time. Give the readers a sense of how this opportunity will impact you in the long-term, and make sure the link between your goals and project is clear.
  • Sell yourself. Grinnell students have a wonderful sense of egalitarianism – “We’re all talented; we’re all smart; we’re all wonderful; I’m no different from my peers” – that I love, but such an approach can hurt you in a personal statement, where you really need to set yourself apart from everyone else who is applying. Be careful, though, because there is a fine line here that you don’t want to cross. You have to write about yourself without being egotistical. Be confident but not arrogant; be informative but also persuasive; and believe in yourself without seeming self-important. 
  • Think about, plan, and pay careful attention to your tone. How will your tone come across to your reader? What does it say about you? Tone can speak to who you are more loudly than your words. 
  • Be authentic, accurate, and honest. Interview questions are usually based on your personal statement more than any other element of your application, so don’t write just what you think the committee will want to hear. Phoniness will come out in the interview and hurt you. In an interview, be prepared to delve much further into the topics and issues raised in your personal statement. 
  • Give yourself lots of time to experiment and prepare many, many drafts, and perhaps even wholly different versions. Your first few drafts are likely to be awful. That’s fine. Don’t be afraid to be terrible. Writer Anne Lamott, in Bird By Bird (1994), writes of “shitty first drafts.” Aim for your first drafts to be such. The important thing is to get your ideas down on paper, then dress them up later.
  • Think about how the personal statement fits in with the flow of your application: How does it mesh with your letters of recommendation? Your transcript? Your proposal? Other pieces? 
  • Be human. Write about your preferences, foibles, and obstacles. Explain and own your shortcomings. 
  • Write about what excites you, and don’t be afraid to be sophisticated, detailed, and enthusiastic about it. This advice is especially true for scholarships that are strongly academic in nature and that are being decided by academicians; the reviewers enjoy seeing young scholars excited about arcane or obscure ideas and research proposals. 


  • Be flowery (or “purple”) in your prose. 
  • Overuse “me” or “I.” Seriously. Print out a copy of your personal statement, and circle or highlight all cases of me, myself, and I. Revise to omit as many as possible, while maintaining active voice. 
  • Present a resume in narrative form. You should mention only those accomplishments that are directly germane to the subject at hand. Let your readers find out about your other activities through the other elements of your application. 
  • Provide references to past traumas, such as deaths or alcohol or drug use in your family. Although these may be important moments in your life, it is too easy to accidentally write about them in a way that seems schmaltzy, exploitative, or designed to create pity for you. Write about traumatic events only if they are crucial to understanding your topic to be studied or to your theme. If you are writing about trauma, try to treat these moments with some distance and objectivity, and be sure to have others read your statement with this concern in mind. 
  • Present a confessional or a journal entry where you reveal your most private thoughts and actions. You should not be overly personal or reveal details that could cause your reader to squirm.
  • Write an academic paper with you as the subject. Personal statements should have personality. 
  • Make a plea or justification for the scholarship. Make sure not to whine or beg.

Now you have at least a vague idea of what an effective personal statement is supposed to look like and some basic ground rules, how do you get started?

In general, remember that writing a personal statement is about listening to your gut, not letting your head talk. You have to find ways to turn off the logical, academic, editing part of your brain and tune in to your gut. Do so by engaging in mindless, repetitive activities that allow your mind to wander away, like folding laundry; jogging; or driving on a long, straight, uncrowded interstate. Or try writing first thing in the morning, every day, before your brain has a chance to really wake up and kick in. Listen for the small voice inside that really knows you best. 

Then, start writing. Here are three plans of attack to begin writing your personal statement:

  1. Brainstorm, freewrite, and organize. Just sit down and start writing about yourself. Don’t edit anything. Just let everything about you spill out on the page or screen. Then pick a bunch of the most promising-looking ideas and give yourself five minutes to freewrite on each of those topics to see which ones you can tease the most out of. Finally, start organizing these ideas: Which ones fit together best? How can you make sense of these disparate parts? Make a schematic, organizational, or flow chart that shows the relationship between and among them.
  2. Make a timeline of your life. What three or five or ten events someone would have to know to understand you? How do these events connect to one another? What themes bind them to one another? 
  3. Write short answers to a bunch of the following questions. Keep track of which ideas keep popping up and also when you seem to be repeating yourself. Limit yourself to one or two paragraphs so that you can answer as many of these questions as possible:
  • What experiences do you like talking about the most? What has been the most interesting, intriguing, or exciting part of your life: Why? And what did you learn from the experience? 
  • Discuss an activity or experience that has helped you to clarify your long-term academic goals. 
  • Name a class or internship that you have taken to develop expertise in your major field of study.
  • Describe a person who has shaped your values or beliefs. 
  • In five years, where do you see yourself working, and what do you envision yourself doing? 
  • Discuss a need of society that you hope to address in your career. Use statistics and other published resources to document the magnitude of the problem. 
  • Describe your hometown and explain its impact on your beliefs or values. 
  • Discuss an obstacle that you’ve had to overcome to achieve your academic or personal goals. 
  • Write me a letter, and tell me everything you do, your personal history, and what matters to you. 
  • What do you enjoy doing? 
  • When I was in kindergarten, one of my best friends loved to eat so much that he would hum with joy when he ate. What makes you so happy that you can’t help but hum? When are you really you? When have you been so immersed in what you were doing that time seemed to evaporate?
  • What ideas, books, theories, or movements have made a profound impact on you? (Be honest and don’t try to impress anyone.)
  • Where or how do you seem to waste the most time? 
  • How are you a typical product of your generation and culture? In what ways do you deviate from the norm? 
  • Which famous person (alive or dead; real or imagined) do you most identify with, and why?
  • What errors or mistakes have you made that have taught you something about yourself? 
  • How have you changed since you came to Grinnell? 
  • What is something you haven’t tried yet, but want to? What is keeping you from trying this? 
  • Of which decision or accomplishment in your life are you the most proud? 
  • What do you wish you had done differently in college?
  • What makes you different from everyone else?
  • What kind of contribution do you want to make, and how?
  • When did you first become interested in your field of study, and what was the trigger?
  • What motivates you?
  • What are your goals? When did these become your goals, and why do they matter to you?
  • Describe an experience that changed you. How did you change? What does this change mean to you today? What do you think it will mean to you in ten years? 

In the end, the process is worth it. Finalizing a personal statement and getting it to a point where you’re happy with and proud of it is not easy and takes a huge amount of time and energy. But even if you don’t receive the award or even get an interview, going through the process of defining yourself and accounting for your life and decisions to this point will help you step back, look around, and engage your future with intention and purpose. 

These suggestions, written expressly for Grinnell College students and alumni, were collected by Doug Cutchins ’93, former assistant dean and director of postgraduate transitions at Grinnell College (now at New York University-Abu Dhabi), with assistance by Lori Coliander (University of Washington), Linda Critchlow (University of Puget Sound), Jane Curlin (Willamette University), Barri Gold (Muhlenberg College), Mary Hale Tolar (Harry S. Truman Foundation), Paula Warrick (American University), and the Scholars and Fellows Office at Columbia University. Edits and revisions by Steve Gump, former assistant dean and director of global fellowships and awards at Grinnell College in July 2015, and current edits and revisions by Ann Landstrom, current assistant dean and director of global fellowships and awards at Grinnell College as of June 2017.