How do I write a personal statement?

Personal Statement Writing Advice

adapted from Marnie McInnes, DePauw University
Professor of English and Women's Studies
Director of Nationally Competitive Scholarships

In many ways, a scholarship application essay resembles other types of analytical essays you are asked to write in college courses. It must present a clear, logically developed, well-illustrated set of points; it must be a unified whole, rather than a string of observations; and it must be aware of its audience (faculty members, business people, and experts in the area defined by the scholarship).

Unlike critical essays you write for humanities and social science classes, and unlike science lab reports, however, most scholarship essays expect you to talk about personal experience. Using the first-person ("I") in a critical essay may be the single most difficult challenge for scholarship applicants. These essays need to make good, clear points, but they also need to tell stories and to convey your character, personality, values, and experiences. Strong scholarship essays are both critically astute and deeply personal.

As you draft your scholarship essay, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Does the essay address the prompt directly, answering all of its embedded questions?

  2. Do I give specific, detailed examples to illustrate each of the points made in the essay?

  3. Do I show myself in action, rather than simply listing credentials and skills?

  4. Does each topic sentence (first sentence of each paragraph) make a point or lay out an idea that is then developed and illustrated by the paragraph that follows? That is, could a reader follow the gist of your argument by reading only those first sentences?

  5. What sentences or ideas best identify your passion in life? Could the essay begin with or more fully highlight these sentences and ideas?

The following questions are usually best to ask when reviewing a near-final draft of your scholarship essay:

  1. Does the opening sentence catch the reader's attention?

  2. Does the last sentence pull ideas in the essay together? Is it adequately specific and visionary (rather than just a flat summary)?

  3. Does the essay have momentum? Does it build up to its most interesting and important insight?

  4. Is there a thread connecting the different parts of the essay -- an idea or image that unites the essay as a whole?

  5. Do any points remain vague, overly general, or incompletely illustrated?

  6. Does the essay use unnecessary words? (Experiment by cutting adjectives and adverbs, especially intensifiers such as "unique" "entire" "overwhelming" "completely" "absolutely" "definitely". The plain sentence that results usually has more power and punch.)

  7. Do the essays adhere to character or word limits?

  8. And finally, is it thoroughly edited?

Getting Personal: What You Should or Should Not Say 
about Yourself on Scholarship Applications

from  A. Scott Henderson
Director of National/International Scholarships, Furman University

Five Things to Target

  1. Sincerity and authenticity.  You should speak from the heart.  Do not merely say what you think reviewers want to hear.  This includes encomium about the namesake of the award, honor, etc., if there be one.  Talking about a personal flaw or defeat (with proper finessing) is OK.

  2. A consistent tone.  Particularly on items that ask for personal information, you should try to maintain the same tone that exists throughout the rest of the application.  Otherwise, that response/section might sound flippant or ghost written.

  3. Mentioning something significant or telling that has not been revealed elsewhere in the application. Such references should not be gratuitous (see #4 above) or trivial (“Most people don’t know that my favorite color is blue.”)

  4. Highlighting (when appropriate) the connections between your personal characteristics and the topics/issues that you have investigated (or want to investigate).

  5. Prompting this reaction from the reviewer: “I want to meet this person!”

Five Things to Avoid

  1. Responses that resemble a talking family tree.  Reviewers are interested in you, not your great-great-great-grandfather who was a Justice of the Peace in the Kansas Territory.  Mentioning mothers, fathers, brothers and/or sisters is OK if doing so provides greater insight about you. (“Having been raised in a single parent household…”)

  2. Not-so-thinly-veiled—or unapologetically trumpeted—reasons why you deserve, more than any other living person, to get the prize, scholarship, fellowship, admission to law school, etc. (“So, as you can see, my whole life has prepared me to be a Rhodes Scholar.”)

  3. Boasting about particular accomplishments, especially unimportant ones.  (“Ever since I won the spelling bee in third grade, I realized the importance of hard work!”)

  4. Gratuitous or otherwise inexplicable revelations about personal attributes that aren’t connected with anything else you have said.  Such revelations are OK if they are relevant to your identity or long-term goals. (“My abiding passion for civil rights stems from the fact that, as a gay male, I have been the victim of bigotry and discrimination.”)

  5. Comparison between you and a famous person, dead or alive.  (“I was happy to see that my views are the same as John Dewey’s, inasmuch as we both believe that ‘The best education is the best education for everyone.’”)


(w/ Tara Yglesias, Deputy Executive Secretary
Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation)

Be concrete: go beyond mere ideas and notions

Sincerity: avoid manipulation/exploitation of the reader Flaw/Challenge: make sure it’s real

Quotes: generally don’t work; readers want to hear/read the applicants’ words (No reviewer has ever noted “Excellent use of quotes.”!)

Comfort: Will you be comfortable talking about all aspects of your statement if/when you get called for an interview?

Consistency of tone: formal application; casual oral interview, etc.


This information is adapted from the University of Notre Dame's Center for Undergraduate Scholarly Engagement.