Most national fellowship foundations ask candidates to write a Personal Statement as part of the application. While this statement gives each applicant a welcome opportunity to distinguish themselves as a candidate, the prospect of writing it can seem daunting. In college, students become adept at many kinds of writing – explaining scientific processes in lab reports; summarizing secondary literature; analyzing viewpoints; discussing the merits of a work of art; and arguing and supporting a thesis – but the purpose of this kind of statement, and the process of preparing to write it, are different.
In a personal statement, you are being asked to describe what drives you intellectually and personally. To do this, you must spend time in reflection – carefully considering your past choices, current activities, and future goals. Listed below are some questions designed to help you do this. You might consider spending some time each summer or between semesters reviewing these questions and recording your responses. Consider these questions in any order you like, choosing the categories that appeal to you most first. Once you’ve answered the questions, look for threads – connections between your experiences, strengths, influences, and goals. By the time you need to write a personal statement, you will have plenty of material from which you can draw to address the specific statement prompt the foundation provides.
- What writers and which particular articles in your field of study have had the greatest influence on the development of your thought?
- Who were/are your favorite professors in college, and why? How has each influenced you?
- What is the best paper or exam you ever wrote in your major, and what makes it good?
- What do you consider the most important book, play, article, or film you have ever read/seen, and how has it influenced you?
- What is the single most important concept you have learned in college?
- What three courses have had the greatest effect on the way you think? Why and how?
- What are the most significant things you have accomplished so far in your life?
- What have you done that demonstrates significant drive or perseverance?
- What skills or attributes helped you accomplish these goals?
- What body of relevant knowledge have you gained in your field(s) of interest so far?
- What study or laboratory skills have you honed to date?
- What research or independent study have you completed to date? Make a list of major research projects and your role in them/independent study and your process.
- What role did you play in the research/study?
- What was the purpose?
- What did you learn? Specific knowledge, collaboration, a new trait?
- What classes are you going to take between now and the time the fellowship takes effect?
- What lab or research skills will you learn?
- What new concepts will you explore?
- Have you done or do you plan to do a culminating thesis or capstone project?
- Why did you choose to do this instead of taking more courses?
- If you did not choose to do a thesis, why not? What did you gain that you couldn’t have gained if you had pursued a thesis?
- Will you/did you present your findings at any type of conference or meeting? How did this experience challenge or inspire you?
- Did you take any classes that were “outliers”? Why did you take them? What did you learn? How did they influence your perspective in your major field?
- What do you think about how the world works? Do you think there is a benevolent master designer behind it? Do think things happen randomly? How does this shape your approach to your own life and choices?
- Do you identify with a particular political party? Why? Have your views changed on this while in college?
- What issues/problems in society do you think most need addressing?
- What would you like to fix and how would you go about it?
- What personal attributes or characteristics make you particularly likely to succeed in any challenging endeavor?
- What are your shortcomings? How do they relate to your strengths?
- How would you describe the way you interact with others?
- When you want to convince others to do or join something, how do you go about it? If you wanted to spearhead a campaign, how would you get others on board?
- What examples can you give about a time when you have persuaded, inspired, or led others? What did you learn from those experiences about yourself and about other people?
- To what extent do your current commitments reflect your most strongly held values?
- Have you had special life experiences—an unusual upbringing, overcoming disadvantages, being a parent, or living in the “real world” (outside academia)?
- Have you taken risks? How did they turn out?
- What experiences as a volunteer or traveler have influenced your career or academic direction?
- What about your ethnicity, gender, nationality, religion, family make-up or other identity markers has shaped you? How? What have you embraced or rejected? Why?
- What makes you quirky? What makes you predictable?
- What do you do besides study? What are your hobbies, jobs, and extracurricular activities (student organizations, athletics, art, music)? Why do you spend time on these?
- What work or volunteer experiences have influenced your interests?
- What kinds of books (for pleasure reading) appeal to you? Why?
- What kinds of music/film appeal to you? Why?
- What are your goals in life? How have these goals evolved?
- What causes are you committed to, and why?
- Why did you choose the particular path you’re now pursuing? What attracts you to this career? What do you hope to gain?
- What are your career plans beyond your graduate program?
- Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten years?
- What experiences from your family life have contributed to your goals?
- What are some of the encouraging words others have said to or about you over the years?
- Did a certain teacher or professor encourage you to pursue your studies, go beyond your abilities, or pursue a goal or dream?
- Where were you and what were you doing when you first thought of pursuing this particular direction of study/goal?
- How has your interest evolved, and what specific turning points can you identify?
- What errors or regrets have taught you something important about yourself?
- When does time disappear for you? What does this tell you about your passions and values?
- When have you changed? Consider yourself before and after; what does this change mean?
- What do you know about the city, region, or state where you hope to further your studies?
- Have you ever visited? Did you like it?
- Do you have friends or relatives living there? Any other connections to the region?
- What do you know about it? What don’t you know but would like to learn? What can you only learn by being there?
- Are there any professors associated with your target school whose research interests you? What is different/significant/impressive/compelling about their work?
- What sets this program apart from the other ones that you are applying to and makes it the ideal fit for you (courses; internship opportunities; methodology; orientation)?
- What makes your proposed study timely or relevant?