A major component of most scholarship applications is the personal statement. Your personal statement introduces you to the scholarship selection committee. A well-written statement provides insight into your character and motivations—and it can be the deciding factor in whether the committee invites you to interview.
There is no formula for writing a personal statement. However, there are several steps you can take to help you write a compelling statement.
First, see the scholarship’s stated requirements.
How long should the personal statement be? A limit of 1,000 words is typical. This means 950 words is acceptable; 1,100 is not.
What should the statement cover? For this, look at both the description of the personal statement and the rest of the application. For example, should your statement include a description of your proposed academic plans, as for the Rhodes, or will you cover this in detail elsewhere (Churchill, Marshall)?
What are the scholarship’s criteria? Identify what the readers of your essay will be looking for. Is the scholarship intended for young people poised to become leaders in their professional fields, like the Luce? Will it be important to demonstrate your commitment to scientific research (Churchill)?
Next, make a list of the things you want the reader to know—and remember--about you. Try to be as concrete as possible. Ask yourself:
What do I care about? Why?
What questions motivate me?
Where have my passions led me?
What experiences have most shaped me?
What is my most significant achievement?
What do I hope to do in the future (education, career, etc.)?
Now try to figure out your story: when you look at the list you have generated, is there a unifying theme? Is there a way of describing your path so far—regardless of whether it has been straight or winding—to show why applying for this scholarship is the logical next step?
Start writing, allowing yourself plenty of time to rewrite. Your personal statement will probably go through more drafts than you can count. You may want to show it to a few close friends or mentors and ask for feedback. Writing your personal statement is an opportunity for reflection: you will likely learn about yourself during the writing process.
As you read what you have written, ask yourself the following questions:
Is my writing clear and succinct? Am I avoiding unnecessary adverbs and adjectives, repetitive sentence construction, and the passive voice?
Am I using concrete examples rather than vague generalities?
Will the reader be confused at any point or left with unanswered questions?
Am I writing for the educated reader who is not an expert in my particular field? (In most instances, this will be the right audience to have in mind.)
Is my statement interesting? Will it hold the reader’s attention?
Most importantly, is this personal statement an honest reflection of who I am?
An interview is often part of the scholarship selection process. Interviews may follow different formats; however, at the nomination stage you may generally expect to be interviewed by a committee of approximately six U.Va. faculty members from a variety of backgrounds; interviews usually last about 20 minutes.
If you become a finalist for a national scholarship, the Center will arrange practice interviews for you before your finalist interview. If you are selected for an interview, either at the nomination or finalist stage, here are steps you can take to prepare:
Know your application front to back—even go over your transcripts to refresh your memory of classes you have taken. If you are proposing a course of study or a research project, be ready to explain why you selected it and how you are prepared to undertake it.
Be familiar with current events. Read a national newspaper daily before your interview.
Identify a short list of points you want to make (two or three), and be prepared to look for opportunities in the interview to make them.
Practice answering potential questions. You can ask yourself questions; you can also set up a practice session with a friend or mentor.
In the interview:
Keep your answers concise, and get right to the point.
If you need to pause briefly to gather your thoughts before answering a question, do so; this is a better approach than launching into an answer and figuring out what you think as you go.
If you don’t know the answer to a question, it’s best to say, “I don’t know,” rather than guess. However, depending on the question, you might use the opportunity to show how you would reason your way to an answer.
Interviews can be far-reaching in scope and cover areas outside your field. For example, you might be asked to describe your strengths and weaknesses; to discuss your favorite novel or film; or to identify the most serious problem facing the nation and propose a solution. If you have a made a particular point in your application or interview, you may be asked to defend it.
You might be given the opportunity at the end of the interview to say one last thing; e.g., “Is there anything else you would like to tell us?” How you choose to answer this is up to you (some people simply thank the committee), but don’t let the question take you by surprise. You might—briefly—mention something about yourself that didn’t come up in the interview, or you might use this opportunity to convey your enthusiasm for what you are seeking to do.
Selection committees use the interview as a chance to get to know you and to see how you handle yourself in what can be a stressful situation. Interviews can be brisk-paced and far-reaching. The best interviews are like good conversations and cover a lot of ground.
Take a deep breath, convey your passions, and be yourself!