The Writer's Work

The best part of writing a proposal is the excitement of formulating your ideas and imagining the possible project.  Along with crafting the "heart" of your proposal, however, is the less exciting work of proofreading.  Proofreading is an important responsibility for every applicant.  An excellent essay with sloppy errors can slow or even stop the progress of your application.  Be sure to avail yourself of all writing resources, including guides such as the classic Strunk & White to double-check these details.  

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Getting Started with Your Essays


Reading and Revising the First Draft
Rewriting and Outside Editing
Questions that may help you generate a personal statement
Personal Essay Do's and Don'ts
Sample Questions



A good start is to first consider your audience: who are you speaking to?  You are speaking to people who will rely on the strengths of your written work to assess your candidacy.  Grant reviewers are people, just like you.  Many of them were fellowship or scholarship recipients when they were your age. Committees are usually composed of professors from all different fields, public leaders, as well as professional staff from educational grant societies. In short, you are addressing a group of highly educated, talented people who are generalists and specialists of many disciplines. When they ask you to avoid jargon and use straightforward language, they wish to free you from a pressure to produce an amorphous vision of "scholarly" writing. Above all, they seek clarity of thought and simple elegance in expression. Just be.


Before you try to write a narrative essay, the next recommended step is to "brainstorm." Think globally, yet illustrate locally. Make lists of your interests, experiences, unique qualities, and aspirations - nothing is too silly, too grandiose or too mundane at this phase. Some students might begin by creating a visual collage or working in a notebook to identify experiences and mentors you value. You are seeking details and images that will communicate your passion, maturity, and character, and that can be used to personalize and distinguish your essay. Think about quotations or people that have influenced you. Take the time to dream, muse and reflect ... before putting pen to paper.


Like a warm-up, free-writing is the space to group together the ideas and details you have gathered to see if trends or themes emerge. Draft freely to discover your message and what will become the focus of your essay. Don't focus on a finished product yet; just write. Set aside your efforts for 2-3 days before returning to your drafts with fresh eyes. Consider the language, tone, and style of your writing. Do your sentences all share the same cadence? Do you have a tendency to insert unnecessary adjectives? Are you using too many adverbs (look for the -ly endings!)?  There is a difference between a lively writing style and sounding like you are communicating by e-mail: try to be sensitive to tone.

Reading and Revising the First Draft

The famous writer William Faulkner suggested that writers should not be afraid to "kill their darlings!"  Drastic as this sounds, it's actually wonderful advice: keep an open mind as you draft, write, and revise.  The opener that you love, may actually be more of a warm-up, and it's possible your true essay doesn't get going until the fourth paragraph.  Proposals and personal statements often benefit from a "road map" approach: outline the specific stops along the way before you get started, then feel very free to toss out initial ideas, welcome new ones, and keep building as you go.  Your initial essay may look like a solid, four-square suburban ranch house: as you rewrite, take the freedom to renovate the "ranch house" into a fabulous modern structure!  The existing structure, if you will, may be where you start out, but with real work and creativity your writing can always become more deft, specific, and engaging to the reader. 

Most writers tend to start with generalities, then work towards the far more interesting specifics that convey who you are.  If you open with, "Ever since I was three, I have wanted to be a physician," (your reader is starting to feel drowsy), then revision is all about working beyond the first layer of thought here.  Here's an example of a more striking start: "During a week-long stay in the hospital as a teenager, I felt I was peeking in on the vast world of medicine: doctors and nurses weren't just the lead actors in a real-life drama. They were a corps of knowledge and compassion amidst so much technology..." 

Sometimes what is often called "a hook" is useful, and sometimes it sounds too heavy-handed or straining.  A good warm-up is to jot down a few potential "hooks": a quote you love, a memory from childhood, an experience in which you saw the world differently.  The hard part about creating a hook is not letting it become a hackneyed motif.  If you feel like you're working too hard at a metaphor, you probably are.

Revision happens in several stages.  Take breaks between revisions, and seek out trusted feedback from your advisors. Set the essay aside long enough to gain a new perspective on it.

Rewriting and Outside Editing

Be prepared to do a lot of this - to reshape and re-imagine, to develop strengths and discard refuse, to add details and provide interesting evidence, to create new and stronger connections, to pitch for your audience, to craft an active voice, and to begin to proofread. Do the ideas progress in a lively way? Examine the transitions you make from one idea to the next. Do you leap abruptly from German to gymnastics? Are you dropping names without giving background on why people are significant? If so, you may need to work on your transitions between paragraphs or thoughts, one of the hardest parts of writing a coherent essay.

Consider finding two or three outside readers whom you trust in order to test your essay for its effectiveness. Parents and good friends can be a terrific resource, but also be sure to ask faculty, writing teachers (through the writing center), and your fellowship advisors.  Listen to the advice you receive with an open disposition. Trust your readers as you rewrite, and also trust your own instincts if advice doesn't feel right or raises skepticism. Finally, give a polished version of your essay to your advisers to help them write better, more focused letters of recommendation for you.

Questions that may help you generate a personal statement

1) Who have your mentors been, and why?
2) What are your accomplishments?
3) What classes did you enjoy the most during college?
4) What paper or assignment did you learn the most from during your college career?

History of interest in your chosen field
5) When did you first become interested in this field?
6) What made you certain that you wanted to pursue the field as a profession?
7) What research have you done and what did you learn in doing it?

What makes you unique?
8) What non-academic work experiences have you had?
9) Have you traveled?
10) Have you done any unusual activities or do you have any hobbies?
11) Are there weaknesses you need to address?

Personal Essay Do's and Don'ts


  • Begin early and revise often
  • Be yourself - not who you think you "should be"
  • Find a unique hook upon which to center your essay
  • Have a strong opening sentence and/or paragraph
  • Use active voice and lively language
  • Discuss your academic preparation for graduate school
  • Mention areas you expect to focus on as a graduate student
  • Show how you see graduate school leading to a specific career
  • Convey your familiarity with the field you have chosen to study
  • Demonstrate that you understand the challenges & rewards of the profession
  • If you are sincerely interested in working with a specific member of a department to which you are applying, explain why
  • If necessary, frame your weaknesses in their best light
  • Proofread!


  • Ignore the question! Answer the question that is asked
  • Start your essay with "I've always wanted to be..."
  • Use statements like "While writing this essay I realized..."
  • Make false claims
  • Be too general
  • Use jargon
  • Name drop unless your reasons for doing so are genuine
  • Go over the page limit, generally 2 pages
  • Overlook any spelling or grammatical errors in your essay: even minor errors can irk a committee

Sample Questions

For specific examples of essay questions, check out the information on each fellowship. In general, however, some applications will require two essays, one personal the other academic, whereas others ask you to integrate a statement about who you are with discussion of your scholarly goals. In either case, you must make sure that your personal statement is an essay, and not merely an annotated list of your accomplishments. There are other parts of all applications that require a list of honors, awards, publications, etc. What distinguishes the essay, or rather, where you must distinguish yourself, is in your ability to come alive for the committee through narrative writing. How can an essay allow others to understand the multi-faceted and talented person whose credentials are under review?

With work and dedication, a wonderful essay can capture the writer's intellectual passion, maturity, character, experience, family history, etc. Before you throw yourself into writing, however, be sure to take time to daydream, seek ideas, and reflect (see "Prewriting" above).