University of Illinois

The Application Essay




Scholarship recipients Josie Chambers and Matt Grobis share their advice on writing personal statements.

The primary purpose of the personal essay is to allow you to express yourself and explain how you would use the grant to further your plans for the future. It also serves secondary purposes. It can show how diverse elements of your application are related and address any areas that might be ambiguous or problematic. The essay you write may tip the scale in your favor and compensate for less strong parts of your application. For this reason, some would rate the essay the most important part of the application.

As you prepare your essay, you need to consider your audience. You are writing for the selection committee of the scholarship in question. These are individuals - some professors, some former winners of this scholarship, some business and professional leaders - who are charged with selecting those applications that best exemplify the standards set forth by the scholarship donor. Be sure to read the scholarship description again to be clear on what criteria applicants must meet. Note that the "personal statement" is kind of a misnomer. Committee members are looking for more of an intellectual history of yourself-- one that subtly yet creatively illustrates some of your personal characteristics.

There are many different ways to write the essay, but whatever manner of presentation you use, the selection committee will be looking for certain things - insights about who you are, what values you hold, what you strive to do and become, your potential to contribute to your field, and how the program of study you list on your application relates to your history up to now and to your plans for the future.

The selection committee will be examining perhaps hundreds of applications from highly qualified individuals. From these applications perhaps only 25% or less will be considered for an interview. In this context, an outstanding essay must engage the reader at the outset, present your thoughts in a clear and organized manner, be a pleasure to read, and leave the reader wanting to know you better - as in a personal interview.

How is such an essay written? It is written in stages, the first being aggregation and development of material, in this case, the expression of your thoughts, values, and aspirations. And how do you produce this material? You write and you write and you write.

As a way to get things flowing, some writers collect ideas they have jotted down from time to time. Others use brainstorming, still others use free writing - just sitting down and writing - anything - for a page or more. The Writers Workshop provides tips on composing personal statements. We also recommend an online publication, Writing Personal Statements,which focuses on scholarships in particular. In addition, the National and International Scholarships Program has some hard copies of award-winning statements to share.

The act of writing itself will stimulate more thinking and more ideas. In the first stage of writing, you seek only to capture your thoughts. At this stage, attempts to revise or edit should be suppressed, as they are counterproductive to the externalization of your inner dialogue.

Only when you have acquired a critical mass can you begin the next stage - which is reviewing what you have written and getting a sense of how you might organize this material. Some material you will choose to eliminate; some material you will choose to focus on and expand. Along the way, you may find it helpful to take a break from the essay, to let it sit for a while, and then to come back to it with a fresh perspective. When you have decided along what lines to organize the essay, list these ideas in outline form. Next on your to-do list will be an introduction, smooth transitions between ideas, and a conclusion. Flesh out the concepts into sentences, and call this your rough draft. This is the first of what may be any number of drafts, for multiple drafts are the norm. It's a good idea to put the date and time of each new draft at the top of the page to avoid confusion.

Remember that your personal essay should not restate your résumé or boast of the honors you have received. When beginning, dividing the essay into three parts may be useful: how your past experiences have influenced you or brought you to where you are today; how study in the UK, research in Kenya, your chosen graduate program, etc. will fit into your career goals, interests and/or professional aspirations; and how you hope to make a difference in your discipline and/or to the betterment of society. Tell a unique and engaging story of yourself.

At some point, the time will come to introduce your intellectual efforts to others who can be a positive influence - perhaps an instructor, perhaps your advisor, certainly the National and International Scholarships Program. While you may feel reluctant to expose your essay to the world, it is important to do so as other readers will catch things one person can not, see potentials to be explored, and offer valuable thoughts. Reviewers will appreciate your double spacing the essay to provide room for their remarks. Thoroughly consider their suggestions and revise your essay as you deem appropriate.

Finally, in the last stage turn your full attention to editing and proofreading for spelling, punctuation, and grammar. This is the polishing stage. Perfection is allowed here, and appearance does count.