The essay(s) that you prepare for an application to a fellowship or scholarship program represents the most important piece of your entire application. The essay is where you convincingly state your case for why you should be awarded the fellowship. In your essay you must demonstrate critical thinking skills and creativity; you will give context and provide details of your accomplishments. You will reveal your ambitions and motivations and articulate how the fellowship will help you to achieve them. It will also give the readers a sense of who you are and what you believe—authenticity is key.
There are two types of essays that are most commonly requested as part of the application process for a fellowship or scholarship: personal statements and study/project proposals.
You should expect to write many, many drafts of your essays. The first draft rarely resembles the final draft so be prepared to devote a lot of time and effort to the process to make your essays as compelling, well-defined and error-free as possible. The essays determine whether or not you make the candidate shortlist. Below are useful tips for preparing the two most commonly requested essays.
Essay Writing Strategies
Do your homework
Your first step is to carefully read the instructions for the essay(s) provided by the fellowship organization. Do they have specific questions or items they want you to address, or are the instructions more general? Also, research the selection criteria for the award so that you can make sure to address how you and/or your project will contribute to the fellowship’s specific goals.
Getting started can be the most difficult part of the essay writing. It is best for you start the essays well in advance of the deadline, at least 2 to 3 months in advance, and sometimes 6 months to a year in advance. You will go through multiple drafts before the final product is ready for submission. A good way to start is simply to start writing. Begin by capturing thoughts on the page without worrying about sentence structure or organization. You will complete multiple, substantive revisions until you reach your final proposal, so begin by brainstorming to help you sort through your ideas.
As you progress, sort through your early ideas to determine which most support your overall message. Prune heavily. Your main idea should be captivating, compelling, and flow like a narrative. Experiment; try completely different versions of your essay. Don’t become committed to early on any one version, toss out drafts that aren’t working. Sharpen the message and winnow until you have one central theme, a central narrative story about yourself. Review and revise your ideas and content before you spend much time refining and polishing the writing. Try reading your essay out loud. A well-written essay has a nice rhythm and flow.
Style and Formatting
When writing your essay(s) it is important to keep your audience in mind. If you are writing an essay for a fellowship that is offered in a variety of fields, you should try to write intellectually but avoiding the use of jargon or acronyms that are not commonly known. Also, it is protocol to first spell out the complete wording (with the acronym in parentheses) before using the abbreviation later in the document. As a general rule, you should write to the “intelligent lay person.” However, some fellowships will only be offered for a specific field of study and in these cases you can write using more technical and specific language, as the reviewers will be specialists in the field.
Make sure that you carefully read the fellowship’s formatting instructions. Strictly adhere to page or word lengths and other formatting details such as font and margin size. Avoid technical disqualification by following these instructions with complete precision. Using bullet points or other formatting techniques (when permitted) can be useful to help you organize your main points, but avoid too much or overly complicated formatting. Also, many fellowship organizations require candidates to submit using online application systems which do not allow for a lot of personalized formatting (bullet points, graphics, etc.).
Ask for feedback
Ask several people for feedback on your essay. For the personal statement, you can ask friends and family as well as academic/personal mentors (anyone who knows you well) to ensure that it reflects your individuality, goals and values. Do they recognize you in the essay? Ask them if they can interpret a common theme or if they feel it is a good reflection of you. For the study/project proposal, or an essay that combines the two, you will want to ask your faculty advisors for feedback as well. They will help ensure that the main idea is clearly written and explained. They will check your essay for accuracy and to make sure it sounds academically compelling and interesting. Your readers will also help you to edit for typos, but at the end of the day it is always up to you to ensure that your work is error-free.
Once you have all the tips and advice from your reviewers you will need to revise again and again. Be open-minded and remember that they read your essays as would a committee, so if something does not make sense to your reviewers then it is likely that it will also confuse a selection committee. Reword and rework your essay until you are confident that the essay is a clear reflection of who you are and what you want to do.
Proofread over and over again. Go slowly to avoid missing common mistakes “study aboard” instead of “study abroad.” Given that your essay will have gone through many revisions it is possible to make small grammatical errors or spelling mistakes. Even the smallest mistake could eliminate your application for a fellowship. You should assume that the applications of other candidates will be error-free so yours must be presented with the same commitment to perfection.
The personal statement presents a narrative of you as an individual. It will highlight your academic achievements, your personal goals and plans for the future. It will illustrate the choices you have made and the influences that have contributed to your path and which have led you to where you are now – applying for this fellowship opportunity. While revealing your authentic self, you must also convey your goals, plans, and history in a way that engages your readers and convinces them that you are a perfect fit for their program. Typically, these essays begin with a narrative hook, to draw the reader to your application, which is likely sitting in a large pile of other applications.
Beginning your personal statement
There are many things that you should consider when you first sit down to write. A few examples include:
- Why are you applying for this fellowship?
- What experiences will you gain that will benefit you, personally or professionally.
- Why are you special and deserving of the award?
- What achievements have you made in your field, and how do these relate to the work that you will do on the fellowship?
- What influences have shaped you? Are they people, experiences or events in your life?
- What obstacles have you overcome, and how did you do this?
- What motivates you?
- Why did you go into this field or decide on a particular career path?
- Be attentive to the intent of the question and read carefully.
Give examples of your accomplishments and be clear. Do not over generalize; avoid trite statements. Consider one or two anecdotes that are specific to you and put your personality into words. Ensure that your essay is organized and follows a coherent structure. The personal statement will be a window into how you think. An essay that is incoherent or disorganized will give the impression that you have difficulty in forming your thoughts.
Browse the resources below to gain a better understanding of how to write a competitive and authentic personal statement.
- "Conceptualizing Your Personal Statement" by Grant Eustice
- Essays that worked from John Hopkins University
- Writing the Personal Statement, Purdue Owl Writing Lab
- "Writing Scholarship Essays" from Kansas State University
A study or project proposal essay will be required for fellowships that award funding for you to pursue a specific project that you propose to the funding organization. This may be in the form of a program of study or research or even a combination of the two. Some organizations will ask you to discuss a project in the same essay as a personal statement, but others will ask for this as a separate document. Either way a personal statement and a project proposal should connect and complement each other without restating what you have already written. Avoid large amounts of overlapping information also applies to any other material you will submit (letters of recommendation, etc.)
How to formulate a project idea?
A project idea should be carefully conceived and researched. Begin by selecting a topic, one in which you are interested. What do you already know about it and what do you want to learn? Next narrow your topic to a specific aspect of the subject. Then form your topic into a question. The research question or thesis statement provides the focus for your research.
Discuss your plans with professors in the discipline to ensure that the idea is legitimate, valid, and appropriate to your skill level. If you have a particular location in mind where you would like to conduct the project, then you could research the resources available at that location (professors, libraries, archives, research centers, specialty programs) to determine what projects or research programs that already exist to help you to formulate your own project. Perhaps there is something that you could build upon, or join that would interest you and make a fine project.
Writing the project proposal essay
Once you have determined a project or study plan you will need to convey answers in your essay to the following questions: Is it feasible given the time and resources that will be available? Do you have the necessary research skills, academic qualifications and prior experience to accomplish it? If so then give evidence of your preparation. If not, discuss how you will obtain these skills in time, or detail the accommodations you will make to ensure the project is workable. Will it contribute to the literature in the field, or have some benefit other than just to you? Is appropriate to the funding organization’s mission? What is your motivation for pursuing this project? Why in this particular setting at this university/research center or in this country?
The essay is a persuasive document. It should accurately express the methodology, location and plan that you will use to complete the project. It should clearly explain the results and outcomes. You may need to present a timeline and/or a budget that you determine is necessary for successful completion of the project. Your proposal (structure, language, etc.) should conform to the research conventions appropriate to your field. However, some projects will follow a structure determined by a specific program of study where the time and expenses required are built into the program. Either way it needs to be detailed in your essay. You also need to demonstrate that you have support for the project from the host institution, organization or an individual who will help you to facilitate the project’s completion. A letter from them on institutional letterhead that you can include with your fellowship application is a good way to show their support. Emails are convenient, but they can be easily forged so letters on official letterhead are the best. Often these can be signed, then scanned and transmitted electronically to you or directly to the fellowship organization.