A personal statement for a fellowship or graduate school application is your opportunity to express to the selection committee who you are and why you are a great candidate for the program. In particular, an eye-grabbing lead sentence or opening paragraph is your most important tool for maintaining the reader’s attention. Here are some examples of powerful personal statement openings of winners of highly competitive fellowships.
- “My parents are acupuncturists who made the long trip from their tiny cluster of villages in Guangzhou, China, to the quaint suburbs of Northern California, two years before I was born.”
By a winner of a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) in Macau. The applicant draws the reader to something memorable – her parents’ unique vocation – paving the way for an interesting story about her childhood and interest in working abroad. Read more.
- “Every morning at 10:00 a.m. I come face to face with the power of language to free; it happens in a classroom. The students I teach at Seattle Central Community College come from night work in an industrial bakery, from a Vietnamese refugee camp, from a 9-to-5 job in a car wash, or from the day care center where they’ve left their children.”
By a graduate fellowship applicant to the University of Washington. This opening paragraph begins to tell a story that reflects on the applicant’s work with a diverse community. Read more.
- “My grandparents have touched many lives: former drug addicts, refugees, neighbors, and my own. They have an uncommon ability to build relationships; they are a paradigm of service— where service is more than what you do and is also defined by who you are.”
By a winner of the Fulbright U.S. Student Grant. The lyrical nature of this stand-alone opening paragraph exhibits an advanced ability to use both words and punctuation to express the applicant’s personal values and how they originated. Read more.
- “Thirty years ago, my dad boarded a one-way flight to the U.S. Unlike the people he left behind, he was coming to a new country filled with educational opportunities his homeland could not provide. He was not limited by his place of birth.”
By a successful applicant to Teach for America. Immediately, the applicant has built a framework to describe his interest in education and equal opportunity, and his personal experience as a child of an American immigrant. Read more.
- “In the sixth grade, I took a test to see if I was left- or right-brained. To my elementary eyes, the result of that quiz would be the truth from on high—a resolute word that would define the man to come as either analytic or artistic.”
By a Marshall Scholar to the U.K. The applicant masterfully opens with a story to describe the early beginnings of his intellectual curiosity, a key characteristic that the selection committee seeks in applicants. Read more.
A common aspect of these opening statements is their ability to draw the reader in to a unique and memorable story that begins to describe why the applicant is applying to the fellowship. You can identify more personal statement samples like these online by Googling “personal statement example pdf” with the name of the fellowship.
For more tips on writing a compelling personal statement, see our Step-by-Step Guide For A Competitive Fellowship Application.
© Victoria Johnson 2016, all rights reserved.
Length: One single-spaced page
The Fulbright website provides the following description of the personal statement:
“This statement should be a narrative giving a picture of yourself as an individual. It should deal with your personal history, family background, influences on your intellectual development, the educational and cultural opportunities (or lack of them) to which you have been exposed, and the ways in which these experiences have affected you. Also include your special interests and abilities, career paths, and life goals, etc. It should not be a recording of facts already listed on the application or an elaboration of your statement of proposed study.”
The Fulbright personal statement is an opportunity for you to share with the committee information about yourself that is not available in other parts of the application. In it you can provide the committee with a sense of your personality and your interests. Ideally, your personal statement will complement your written proposal in some way. For example, if you are proposing a research project, you might discuss the origin and development of your interest in that field of research.
There is no one format or approach that will work well for every application. Some applicants choose to write an intellectual autobiography highlighting the key moments in their academic development. Others discuss their passion for travel, the topic of their proposal, or the host country, detailing the origins of their interest and how it evolved. Many students give an overview of significant experiences and reflections, while others tell one particular story as an example of a larger point about who they are.
Keep in mind that engagement with the community in the host county is an important criterion in selection as the primary purpose of the Fulbright Program is to encourage mutual understanding between people from the U.S. and people from other countries. Your application should indicate how you expect to become involved in the local community, whether through volunteer work, extra-curricular activities, and/or simply pursuing a hobby—sports, music, cooking, etc.—in the host country. The personal statement is the best place to include this information.
Writing a personal statement is an exercise in self-reflection. To write a good statement, you will first need to think about your accomplishments and past experiences. These can be personal, academic, or extracurricular, including any significant insights or experiences that relate to your interest in international exchange, the host country in which you hope to do your work, or the specific project or area of study you plan to pursue. Your goal in this personal statement is to give the committee a sense of who you are and how you became interested in applying for this particular project in the context of an international exchange.
A free writing process will help you sort through your experiences and narrow your focus to two or three central issues or experiences you can use to frame and anchor your essay. Consider the following questions:
- What problems or questions intrigue you? How did you become
- What sorts of things have you done outside of the classroom? What have you learned from your extracurricular or work experiences, and how have those experiences contributed to your growth?
- Have you had to overcome any unusual obstacles or hardships (for example, economic, familial, or physical) in your life? If so, what were these obstacles and how did you face them?
- What might be unique, special, or distinctive about your life story or past experiences?
You are encouraged to work with a writing proctor even at this early stage. Talking over your experiences and reviewing your initial thoughts with someone else can help you narrow your focus and determine what you really want to discuss in your personal statement.
Your personal statement should not be a narrative version of your resume, listing events, activities, and accomplishments one after the other. Rather, it should provide the committee with a snapshot of yourself that connects to why you want to pursue this particular Fulbright in the country you have chosen. Doing this in one page is no small feat. The best statements undergo multiple drafts and revisions over a period of time. Give yourself plenty of time to write your statement, and allow it to evolve along with your understanding of why you want to pursue the project you are proposing.
In general, your personal statement will contain the following three sections:
- The opening paragraph will contain a statement, example, or anecdote that grabs the readers’ attention right away, while providing a solid frame for your essay as a whole. This is the most important part of your statement, and it will likely be one of the hardest parts for you to write. When drafting, don’t get stuck on the opening paragraph. You will revise it many times as you revise the essay as a whole.
- The body presents more specific detail, building on the framework you have established. The rule of thumb here is to use concrete examples to illustrate your points. Show, don’t tell. Rather than simply telling the committee “I am curious,” “I love science,” “I am patient and dependable,” etc., consider using one or two anecdotes that can help you focus and bring specificity to the discussion.
- The concluding paragraph can address your future goals and how your work/experiences as a Fulbright scholar fit into your future plans. Your personal statement should not repeat information already represented in your proposal; thus, you should not conclude your personal statement by making an argument for why you need a Fulbright to conduct your study. Instead, you should discuss more generally how your proposed Fulbright year relates to your future goals and aspirations. The scholarship committees want to award Fulbright awards to people who will use their Fulbright experiences as bridges from where they are now to where they are going. Students have a tendency to be too general and rely on abstractions or clichéd phrases when describing their experiences and interests. Show your passion for neuroscience through the experiences you’ve had and the skills you’ve developed, show them you believe in the value of being open-minded through a specific example, show them that you care about issues facing developing nations by talking about your experiences helping to develop new irrigation techniques in El Salvador one summer, etc. The more specific and concrete you can be about illustrating your interests, the better.