Kerri Riveley is a Faculty Writing Fellow at the Drexel Writing Center and the Project Coordinator of the DWC-DFO Partnership, in which a team of dedicated faculty support fellowship applicants in their writing processes as they craft their essays. In addition to writing center pedagogies, Kerri’s research interests lie in extra-institutional and self-initiated writing practices.
What should be my goal when writing the personal statement?
It depends on the particular fellowship that you are applying for, but overall, not only should your goal be to represent the best version of yourself, but also to do a lot of self-introspection, to really reflect on your life choices, and how they have led you to the goal that you ultimately want to achieve.
What are the most common misconceptions students have about writing the personal statement?
I think that sometimes people think they’re just going to pound something out, and that’ll be it. It’s a much more in depth, complicated process with many, many revisions. So, it is imperative not to have the misconception that it’s going to be quick, easy and painless. It’s going to require a lot of time and dedication.
Introspection and reflection are very challenging for people. Talking about themselves, in creative and engaging sense, might be a little unusual, especially if they come from scientific backgrounds. So tapping into that kind of writing can definitely be challenging.
That being said, I see people come out of it feeling more confident, having a better understanding of why they made the choice to get where they are today, with a better understanding of both their past and their future in the context of their past.
Why is the personal statement such an important part of most fellowship applications?
Most of these fellowships not only fund important research that can change the world, but have some sort of human connection element. Be it being an ambassador to another country or collaborative work, being able to work on a team well, and strengthening the scientific community – part of what enables people to do this is having a good understanding of who they are as a person.
How much emphasis should there be on stories of personal growth versus professional or academic achievements/activities?
It depends on the fellowship you are applying for but the balance should be what works best with your own personal story and your personal goals. Sometimes it’s going to be giving equal emphasis to both, sometimes it’s really going to be emphasizing a pivotal moment that has led you to the path that you want to go down, sometimes it’s going to be prior academic experiences that have been life changing for you. So, it depends on who you are. You are going to let shine what feels most real about you.
For example, for Fulbright you’ve got two essays to write: one is the personal statement, one is the statement of grant purpose which is your project description. They want to know your personal story, and they want to know about your professional and academic experience. So you could have some in one and some in the other essay but they have to work together to show this full picture of yourself. Do you have what it takes to pull off the project that you want to do? Are you someone who has experienced personal growth, learned about yourself in the process, knows about your motivation and where your drive comes from, and also has the necessary background and skills to achieve your goals?
Students are encouraged to be specific rather than make vague, declarative statements about themselves. Can you give us an example of this? Conversely, how much detail is too much detail?
Sometimes people know so much about their project that they want to say everything about it. The biggest constraint is space. When you have only got one or two pages, you can’t really go into all that detail. Knowing what’s necessary and what isn’t is tricky, but you should be able to give a clear and concise picture so that a person who is not in your field, with average intelligence, can understand accurately what your project is.
Sometimes it means explaining some terminology, providing background about the things you’re talking about. I think it’s generally a good strategy to write out everything that comes to mind and then chop away from there, thinking about space constraints and clarity.
It could be helpful to have outside readers, especially for Fulbright as it is likely that the people reading are not going to be in your field. NSF, it’s more likely to have someone from your field. But if I, someone with no scientific background, reads it and does not understand whatsoever, that probably means it’s too technical with too much scientific detail that is unnecessary.
From your experience, what are the three elements of a successful personal statement?
Remember that [selection committees] are reading hundreds of essays. I’m struck by that element of realness, that makes you seem like a real person, something that makes you unforgettable, something that they are going to remember and make them go, “Oh yeah that’s that person who did such and such crazy thing.” Details that reflect depth to you instead of just a list of your experiences or your goals. That’s the kind of stuff that really sticks out to me, when people really capture the essence of who they are.
This is where introspection and self-reflection come in. You have to really think about who you are to be able to communicate it in writing to somebody else. When you think about yourself, who you are, your past achievements, your prior academic experiences, your goals for future research, all of that need to fit in a kind of unifying, cohesive story.
So three words for the personal statement – it should be genuine, compelling, and engaging.
Stay tuned for Part II in two weeks!
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