Many fellowship applications require two essays: one explaining a student's background and goals, or the personal statement, and one setting forth a project or research proposal. Ideally these two essays should work together, supplementing the other with essential information about students and their project.
Some tips for writing the personal statement follow.
Make Your Passion Manifest
Your personal statement should convey the essence of your passion—the core of your personality, the well-spring of your commitment and drive. You do this by telling a story about yourself, one in which key moments of self-discovery and self-realization set you on a rising path that culminates, for the present, in the fellowship application. It should also be a path that you plan to stay with for many years to come.
Situate Yourself on a Trajectory
If the second essay, or project proposal, is task-oriented, the personal statement should have a developmental emphasis. In the project proposal, you want to get across all that you intend to do in the fellowship year. In the personal statement, you want to talk about the decades leading up to that year, as well as those that will follow. The goal is to present the fellowship award as both an affirmation and a boost. As an affirmation: it will ratify all of your efforts to realize yourself so far. As a boost: it will give you the experience and knowledge to make a larger contribution to humanity in your coming career.
Show the Origins of Your Desire
The earliest point on your personal time-line is often the most resonant. When did you first realize that you had the consuming passion that animates your application? Often enough, this moment of epiphany lies in the past, somewhere in childhood. Sometimes, however, it can be found in a recent course at Columbia or in last summer’s trip to another country. What book, what teacher, what taste of adversity or of unexpected success revealed your purpose to you? What encounter with the world, willed or accidental, set you on the course that you say you want to take?
Recount One or Two Moments of Triumph
Generally the fellowship applications will offer you plenty of blank boxes to list your honors, awards, publications, and other badges of merit. It would be a mistake, therefore, to use valuable space in the personal statement to reiterate these successes. Instead, establish your qualities of persistence and motivation by focusing on one or two smaller but indicative moments of triumph. These can be times, for example, when you helped solve an intermediate step of a large, intimidating problem; or when you silenced someone who was skeptical of your abilities with an incontrovertible display of competence; or when you managed to communicate your passion to a previously indifferent colleague or classmate.
The nature of the obstacle counts for less, in this context, than the fact that you surmounted it. Keeping technical details to a minimum, and focus on yourself and how you managed to surpass the limits of your own expectations.
Paint a Picture of Your Future
The selection committee is likely to view their award as an investment in your future—and by extension, in the future of the nation or of the world. Help them believe that you are a person of genuine promise by painting a picture of your future self. Explain how you will continue to build, after the fellowship year, on the interests and enthusiasms you have already set forth. Where do you hope to be ten years from now? What kinds of responsibilities do you foresee yourself having? Through the specificity and conviction of your prospective self-portrait, let the selection committee know that you will make them proud of their choice down the road.
Stay Anchored in Your Story
Unlike academic papers, the best personal statements are anchored in earthy details. You are presenting yourself as an individual with a particular, rooted, and contingent life history. It is likely that there was little of the predictable or the generic in your experiences before GS. You made unusual choices, took big risks, and overcame long odds. To anyone who knows you, these may be self-evident truths—but the selection committee doesn’t know you. You can help them recognize and appreciate your uniqueness by capturing the details of your story in your personal essay.