Writing Personal Statements

Although scholarships have different requirements, most applications include a personal statement or personal essay component. Some scholarship foundations require that the personal statement answer specific questions. Other scholarship applications leave it up to the writer to determine the content and the theme. While length and parameters vary by scholarship, the personal statement is always an opportunity to bring your application to life, to present yourself as a unique individual, and to frame a compelling argument for why you should be chosen to receive the scholarship. These essays provide a picture of you and your story in a way that resumes and transcripts cannot.

You will likely also find that the experience of writing the personal statement itself provides you with some clarity about your goals, values, and your formative experiences. Instead of writing what you already know, you might approach the personal statement as a chance to discover more about yourself.  As your essays evolve, you'll want to refine them with your audience of scholarship reviewers in mind.  In order to stand out from the piles of other applications, you need readers to get a sense of who you are, what motivates you, and why you are a good fit for the scholarship to which you're applying.

Consider the suggestions below as you progress from preparing to write, to drafting your essay, to revision. Note that this is rarely a linear process; you will likely return to earlier stages as you’re revising to further develop and strengthen your essay.  Successful scholarship applications usually involve many, many drafts.  It is not uncommon for students working with CFSA to produce more than a dozen drafts of an essay--so leave yourself plenty of time and be prepared to rethink and revise!

Preparing to Write

  • Start early: Preparing to write and then drafting an exemplary personal statement requires reflection that cannot be rushed. Successful Syracuse University students working with CFSA often note the necessity of starting early.
  • Carefully research the scholarship or fellowship, paying attention to the foundation or the donor’s goals and values. How does your path reflect these values? Why should this foundation or donor invest in you and your future?
  • Find and practice articulating what gives you your “fire in the belly.” What will the scholarship allow you to accomplish and why is it important that you do this?  Readers should be able to understand your motivations and your passion.
  • Consider your contribution. Imagine how you would benefit from the scholarship. Now imagine how you would contribute to its goals. Many applicants forget that the exchange works in both directions.
  • Learn about your audience. Find out what you can about the foundation that funds and administers the scholarship, and about its review process.  Most applications will be read by highly educated people who may not be experts in your field specifically. Keep this audience in mind as you draft your essay.
  • If you hit a block, choose a mindless, repetitive activity to allow yourself space to rethink. Activities like taking a walk, doing the dishes, going for a drive, playing simple video games, or cooking something that requires little concentration, can give you time to reflect. Studies have found that completing mundane tasks can actually boost your creativity.
  • Ask yourself the following questions, and take time to get specific.
  1. Where did I come from? Where am I now? Where am I going?
  2. How do I stand out from my peers?
  3. The last time I was completely engrossed in a project or an activity, what was I doing? What does this say about my interests, passions, and abilities?
  4. What mistakes have I made? How have I learned and grown from these?
  5. What are some “key moments” in my life? What are some of the most formative experiences of my life? Why did they have a significant impact on me?
  6. What are some values or principles that guide my life choices?
  7. What are some adjectives that a close friend or family member might use to describe me?
  8. What memories come to mind when I think of the characteristics and/or values I included in my responses to the above questions?

Drafting

  • Begin drafting with the expectation that you will revise many times. A strong essay requires multiple drafts. Many first drafts start with vague or clichéd ideas. Your ideas will mature and evolve with more drafts.
  • The first paragraph is your “hook.” If the reader is confused or bored after the first paragraph, they’re unlikely to mark you as a strong candidate.
  • Every essay should have a central idea and a clear theme that unites all of the information. Most personal statements come to a resolution, or come “full circle.”
  • Avoid clichés, lists, and overly technical or specialized language.
  • Whenever possible, show rather than tell. Instead of using an adjective or adverb to describe something or someone, try using an active verb and structuring your sentence around it. Anecdotes can often reveal much more about you than an adjective can.

Revising

  • Revising involves substantial change and reexamination. While copy-editing is also important, your drafts should go through significant adjustment and reorganization as you make improvements. Since drafting a personal statement can be an act of self-discovery, you may decide to change the general theme or idea of your essay.
  • Seek feedback. Share your personal statement with faculty mentors, CFSA, and other trusted advisors.
  • Keep your personal statement authentic. Remember that you are presenting a picture of yourself to your readers. Is your essay a true reflection of you?
  • Keep it simple. Cut grandiose language and vague, abstract ideas. Be critical when deciding whether an adjective or adverb is necessary – these can detract from your main arguments and take up space.
  • Remember that scholarship application readers are reading dozens, or possibly hundreds, of applications. How does yours stand out? Is it memorable?
  • Are you specific enough about your goals and your methods? Do these goals align with the scholarship?
  • Read your statement aloud. Listen to the rhythm in your writing and remove any awkward phrasing. Think about the pacing and information flow.  Are there any ideas or sections to which you devote too much space?
  • Give yourself a break. It takes time and practice to prepare a personal statement, and it can sometimes be uncomfortably intimate. Take breaks between drafts, and allow yourself time to reflect.
  • Draft, draft, and draft again.

Remember: CFSA is available to help you plan and revise your essays! To set up a meeting with a CFSA advisor, call 315-443-2759 or email Jolynn Parker at jmpark02@syr.edu.

For some scholarships, CFSA also coordinates writing workshops, in which applicants swap essays and offer feedback. To view upcoming CFSA writing workshops and other events, check our events page.

Still need more inspiration? We recommend reading this excerpt from Joe Schall’s Writing Personal Statements and Scholarship Application Essays. You can view his full online manual for writing personal statements here.