If you’re applying to a fellowship, internship, or even graduate school you may be asked to write a personal statement as part of your application. These statements are the best way to convey your personal story as well as your passion for the work you do. However, they can be the most challenging element of the application to complete. There are an infinite number of ways to approach these essays and deciding on the best strategy is key to your success. These five steps will help narrow your focus and hone your language to make your personal statement truly stand out.
Tell a story
Application committee members may be reading dozens or even hundreds of essays, each written by a thoughtful, intelligent professional with a commitment to changing the world. Eventually, generic language about “making a difference” and “fighting for equality” blends together. An easy way to make your statement memorable is to tell a story. If you’ve already done work in the field, try selecting a memorable event or moment that made you feel like your work was having an impact. If you’re more policy-focused or haven’t had much direct-service experience yet, then think about an incident from your own life that reinforced your commitment to human rights. Don’t be afraid to delve into specifics! Use the names (or pseudonyms) of people and places. Describe the scenery or weather to give a sense of time and place. Use action verbs so that the reader can follow along with what is happening. Construct you story around a central conflict or crisis and take the reader through the beginning, middle, and end. And don’t forget to describe your own thoughts and feelings. This way, your readers will stay engaged with your essay while simultaneously learning about your personal and professional development.
Keep the job in mind
Prompts for personal statements can often be frustratingly vague, often asking candidates to do little more than state their interest, expertise or goals. In some ways, this is great! You have free reign to share what’s most important to you. But this freedom may also lead to an essay that doesn’t connect to the opportunity you’re applying for. Writing about your life-changing summer volunteering in a refugee camp might not be the most obvious match for an organization focused on building wells. Describing how much you love on-the-ground work with small organizations may not impress the decision-makers for a United Nations internship. In these cases, you may need to do a little more work to connect your passion and experience to the specific opportunity. In addition to telling a compelling story, be sure to explain how the skills and experience you acquired will translate to the fellowship or job opportunity in question. Use the conclusion of your personal statement to make this connection explicit.
Be certain (even if you’re not)
For these kinds of short-term positions, you want to make sure to demonstrate how this opportunity will carry you forward towards a long-term career. Some personal statement prompts will even ask you to talk directly about how the fellowship will be useful in achieving your long-term goals. But what should you do if you’re not sure of your ultimate path? The short answer: make a choice. Selection committees will respond better if you demonstrate a clear, achievable goal and show how this fellowship will prepare you for your future work. There’s no need to explain how you’re deciding between several career paths, or are unsure if you want to go to grad school or keep working. Your personal statement should sketch out a clear vision for your future and demonstrate the ways in which this particular opportunity will be integral to your success. Think about it as an exercise in setting goals rather than an irrevocable decision about your future. There’s nothing stopping you from changing your course once the fellowship has concluded.
Show some personality
Your personal statement should reflect who you are as a worker, student, or activist. Not only do selection committees want to know you can handle the workload, they also want to trust that you have the temperament to follow through on your commitments. Make sure to use your personal statement to give a sense of who you are as a distinct and interesting person. If you’re stumped as to how to do this, try an easy exercise: Write down three adjectives that you would use to describe yourself in school or the workplace. Alternatively you can also ask a friend or colleague to do it for you. Then, make sure every paragraph of your essay helps to illustrate at least one of those points. If you have decided you are empathetic, persistent, and a creative problem-solver, focus all your details and anecdotes on those three traits. That way you can efficiently and effectively communicate a focused image of who you are.
Be specific and show outcomes
As much as possible, avoid generic language and trite descriptions. Every applicant will be passionate and committed to the cause. Your challenge is to find a way to demonstrate how you are uniquely qualified for the opportunity. The easiest way to do this is to provide a detailed picture of your work and volunteer experiences. Describe the situation in which you worked, how you assessed problems, what actions you took to make improvements, and how you measured your results. It’s not enough to say that you helped implement a restorative justice program. Go in-depth about the steps that you took. How did you get stakeholders on board? What logistics did you tackle? How did you set up a training program? It’s also important to show the specific, tangible effects. How many people participated? What was the drop in violent offenses/arrests? How did participants characterize their participation on surveys? Don’t be afraid to claim the positive outcomes of the work you have done.