Sep 26, 2022

Writing a personal statement strategically- 7 insights from a director of a fellowship office

Overview: A well-written personal statement can help a review committee understand your motivation for attending graduate school, grasp how a graduate degree will launch you towards your career goals, and give them confidence in your ability thrive in the graduate school environment. Robyn Curtis, the director of the Clemson University Office of Major Fellowships, spoke with undergraduates in the Clemson engineering and science programs recently based on her 14 years’ experience helping students about how to develop a strong personal statement for graduate school and fellowship applications. Her office works with Clemson undergraduates, graduate students, and alumni on preparing their applications possible for fellowship opportunities such as the Truman Scholarship, Marshall Scholarship, Barry Goldwater Scholarships, and the Rhodes Scholarship program. I listened in and below are the eight insights that I took away.


Post Contributor(s): Marian Kennedy and Robyn Curtis, the director of the Clemson University Office of Major Fellowships



Photo by Robert Katzki on Unsplash
A personal statement should not be viewed as creative writing assignment. While authenticity of the content is of value, following a set format will make it easy for the member of the selection committee to find the vital information about your application. A reader on a fellowship review panel can be assigned between 20 to 40 application packets to review, and they may be reading very quickly. Thus, you should use a simple structure that includes a hook, transition to the statement body, the body and finally a conclusion.


  • The hook is a literary device at the beginning meant to grab the reviewer's attention and compel them to actively read rather than scanning your statement. 
  • The transition to substance should be smooth. Make sure your hook is well-suited to emphasize the key takeaways or highlights of your personal statement.
  • The body is the bulk of your essay. It should include your motivation for graduate school, etc.)
  • The conclusion includes goals and explicitly connects all the dots.


Very few students can write a convincing personal statement in a single draft. It is wise to get feedback from faculty, student program coordinators, staff helping coordinate major fellowships at your institution, peers, research mentors from your internships, and others to refine your drafts, which means that you have to be willing to let others see a draft you may see as rough. This is part of the process. Robyn suggests setting a deadline for yourself to give it to someone else to read well ahead of the deadline so that you are not tempted to hold off on sharing it until you think it is perfect. It will never be perfect, and the point of feedback is that your draft needs work. The work of writing a persuasive essay is like using a new muscle that you need to learn to flex to get better and you will not improve if a draft simply hibernates on your desktop.


Insight #1: Your mission and the funding agency’s must have some overlap for you to receive funding. So, before you start writing, learn about the funding agency by reading their mission statement and who has received funding previously.


Insight #2: Know your audience. Identify who sits on the funder’s review panels. Will this panel be made up of researchers from your discipline or an assortment of higher ed professionals?  If readers are not experts in your field, be careful about jargon and spelling out abbreviations, even those you consider very ordinary.


Insight # 3: A personal statement should trace your trajectory and point the reader to your desired future. Your résumé or transcript document your prior steps. Do not summarize them but only refer to them inasmuch as they relate to your plans for the future.


Insight # 3: Your readers will be more convinced when you include relevant data or examples, even if those are subjective or qualitative.  For example, explaining to the review committee experiences you have that lead to your choice to pursue a field are important.  If you chose to become a computational materials scientist because broke an optical microscope while image cells because you were thinking about how to code data, tell the reviewer!


Insight #4: Fellowship review panels are often selecting a cohort of scholars rather than an individual. In your personal statement, highlight any unique perspective that you might bring to that cohort that will enhance others’ experience.  


Insight #5:  When you ask a colleague, faculty advisor or mentor to review your essay, they will excel at deleting and cutting to refine your message.  So, during your initial drafts go ahead and write a little extra. Give yourself permission to overshoot the page limit. How far over will depend on how long the limit is, but it’s better to go over than risk leaving out something essential.


Insight #6: Successful personal statements involve feelings.  They should convey when you learned what parts of your field you have a passion for.  Consider showcasing a lab experience that did not go well or a changed major because it was not what you liked. This essay should also be evocative for the reader.  Be descriptive so that your reader can share (or at least notice) your feelings. 


Insight #7: Get comfortable with “I” instead of “we”. Part of your essay will talk about your research experience.  While research is often completed through collaboration, the reviewers are more interested I your role and experience than the accomplishments of your research team as a collective.  So, make sure to sprinkle some “I”s through your personal statement.  Just be warry of going to the other extreme and don’t  start too many sentences in a row with “I.”


While I have advised students for years as they wrote their personal statements, listening to Robyn’s talk gave me a new perspective on the power of a well written personal statement.  I will be sure to utilize her insights and hope that you do too. If you are looking for a “Robyn Curtis” on your campus, you may find that her role is under a different unit. Not every school has a dedicated office for this function!

For example, workshops at Cornell are run through the Office of Academic and Student Affairs for graduate students and the Career Center for undergraduates. If you are having a hard time finding the right place or person, ask a faculty member or student services coordinator in your department. You can also check the membership list at the National Association of Fellowships Advisors to see if your institution has an affiliated advisor.


Finally, have fun with this if you can! As Robyn pointed out, the process of writing a personal statement often can help a student solidify or clarify their motivation for graduate school and career planning. Finding your passion will make the next few years of your life eminently better.


Acknowledgements: This blog post was edited by Kate Epstein of EpsteinWords. She specializes in editing and coaching for academics, and she can be reached at kate at