How to begin? Begin! Draft early and often. Draft and redraft, revise, throw away, start over, and then maybe you'll be getting somewhere. Sound discouraging? It's not meant to. This process can be incredibly illuminating and a pleasure in its own right – assuming you're not under tremendous time pressures as you're doing it. Hence, the importance of starting early!
Even in this early part of the process, it's important to keep before you the three crucial questions: Who are you? How have you become the person that you are? What do you want to do next – and next after that as well? Ultimately, who you are should mostly be implied by what you say in addressing the other two questions – and just as importantly, how you say it.
Remember that the personal statement can be a bit of misnomer: it's relatively easy to get too personal in these essays! Fellowship selection committees are interested in your development as a thinker, reader, writer, doer, leader. All of those terms should be represented, though not equally. If you're a literary critic who will someday lead a scholarly revolution by publishing a groundbreaking book on the little-known writer Anna Kavan, then you're going to emphasize thinking, reading, and writing. But you're also going to need to demonstrate a genuine interest in and ability at influencing others. If, on the other hand, you want to change the way public education works in this country, you're going to have put a lot more emphasis on doing and leading. But you still need to show the way the work of other people, at least some of them writers and scholars, has shaped and informed the thinking behind your passion.
Early in the process, ignore the 1000-word limit (that's about 4 -5 pages, double-spaced). If it seems too daunting, just write 2 pages; if too constrictive, go ahead and write 8. Ultimately, there’s nothing magic about the 1000-word limit, but it seems to have emerged as a form long enough for you to say something meaningful and short enough for selection committees to read without going crazy!
In the early expansive stages, think – and write -- about the significant experiences of your life thus far – and especially your life as a college student. What classes have made the most impact on your thinking about your field, and on your thinking about yourself in that field? What books? What work that you’ve done – whether writing, research, experimentation, a presentation, a Praxis placement, etc? What connections exist between two or more of these significant experiences? How do your plans for future study and work in the field emerge from and build on what you’ve done before?
By this time, you probably have too much material for a 1000-word essay. Here's where a certain amount of rhetorical sophistication is called for. A lot of personal statements begin with an “aha!” or “eureka!” moment – a description of that time when pieces fell into place, connections became clear, and you saw something important and new and your own emerge. Using the description of a moment like that works because it can simultaneously be presented as a typical moment and an exceptional one. It represents who you always are -- a student of literature – and who you are at your best – a deeply insightful critic and writer. In that way, it’s a perfect emblem or metonymy of your life; it allows you to show rather than tell; it elicits curiosity from your reader – and maybe even suspense. (Remember, though your essay does have to stand alone, it also has to make your reader want to meet you. After all, most of these fellowships include interviews in the second round of the selection process. And if you are chosen for an interview, you'll probably realize drafting all those personal statements didn't just help you get an interview – it will also help you do well in the interview!)
You’re definitely going to need some help and feedback as you go through this process. Once you’ve got something coherent that discusses some specific experiences and outlines what you want to do next, it's time to seek feedback. If you give them enough time, most faculty are happy to read personal statements and give you comments, in writing or in person. Ask a few different people: someone you've worked closely with in the past, someone who works in the area you're interested in pursuing, someone from a different discipline altogether. The Writing Center is another good place to go. Finally, I am more than happy to read and give feedback on personal statements at any stage of the process.
For fellowships that have an internal stage at Bryn Mawr, leading to institutional nomination, members of the Fellowships Committee on campus will generally have some comments on your personal statement. They may give you these comments themselves; otherwise, I will pass them on to you when we meet briefly after your on-campus interview.
Note: For fellowships where the number of nominees from Bryn Mawr is limited, I am still happy to provide feedback. However, until our nominees are selected, my feedback will remain on a fairly general level.
Most of this advice has focused on how to write about the experiences that shape you. It’s focused a lot less on what you're planning to do next. There's a reason for that: different fellowships vary a lot more in what they ask you to say about where you're going than in what they ask to say about where you've been. Thus, it’s very hard to give standard advice. In fact, the most important advice is to realize that coming up with a good well-informed proposal for a course of study and research requires a lot more than just introspection. You're going to have to do a lot of research, and you're going to have seek a lot of advice. Here too, get started early! The Rhodes and especially the Marshall websites have links to good resources for study in Britain. The Fulbright and Watson require you to take more initiative in learning about your options. For fellowships for graduate study in the US (the Mellon, the NSF), faculty in your department are your best initial sources of advice.
Finally, don't neglect the finishing touches. Once you essentially have it, it's still not quite done. Just as you drafted and redrafted, you need to edit and re-edit. You're editing not just for mistakes and errors, though you certainly want to correct those, but for polish. Get rid of useless words and vague, meaningless sentences. Get rid of clichés. Look for repetition of words, of sentence structure – if the repetition is deliberate and effective, keep it. If not, rephrase. This is what you should be doing a week from the deadline – not writing the statement, but simply ensuring that it’s the best possible statement that you can submit.
At the end, even if you don’t win a fellowship, you should have a portrait of yourself as you are on the verge of the rest of your intellectual life. It’s a document you'll want to keep. When that first year of graduate school – or that first year of writing your dissertation – or that first year of working for that non-profit – starts to seem meaningless and wrong, look back at your personal statement. It may help you understand anew what you're doing – or it may help you see what you want to change