Develop a Strong Personal Statement
For students, personal statements are one of the most difficult and most important documents they will ever write. We have the resources to boost your confidence and the know-how to help you write a powerful personal statement.
Debunking the Personal Statement
What it is:
- Your introduction to the selection committee. This is your story, written by you.
- Think of it as an intellectual or vocational autobiography. It should describe your interests, skills, questions and goals. It should clearly portray continued interest in your field of research and desire to learn more.
- A chance to demonstrate your ability to write and communicate effectively. A well-written personal statement with proper grammar and spelling, demonstrates your ability to write well, organize your thoughts and communicate clearly. Conversely, an unplanned, unpolished statement can unintentionally portray the writer as disinterested, unprofessional and careless.
- It should articulate your preparedness. Your personal statement should clarify how your past experiences, readings, curricular activities and extra-curricular activities have prepared you for your field.
What it isn't:
- A personal autobiography. A personal statement is not the time to write about your childhood, family or hobbies that are not relevant to your field or academic development.
- A resume of accomplishments in essay form. Do not simply list information that is already available in your other supporting documents (e.g., resume, transcript). Rather, you should provide context as to why your past accomplishments and experiences are significant to your academic and professional development.
- A plea for the scholarship. This is not the time to beg, plea or justify why you are more deserving of the scholarship than the other applicants. You are eligible for this scholarship for a reason. Focus on your accomplishments, not why your accomplishments make you better than others.
What to Include in Your Personal Statement
Professor Stacy Hubbard from UB's department of English breaks down what you should include in your personal statement.
- Origins of interest in a particular field. This could be a book you read, a lecture you attended or an experience you had.
- Ways in which you have developed your interest. Additional reading, experiments, internships, coursework, summer jobs, science fairs, travel experiences, writing projects, etc. Give some details about what you gained from a particular course or how a particular project or paper has helped you to develop intellectually.
- Reasons for changes in your interests and goals. These chances could be addressed in positive, rather than negative, terms. Instead of saying "I became bored with engineering and switched to physics," try "Through a bridge-design project, I discovered a new interest in thermodynamics and decided to focus my studies on physics."
- Reasons for inconsistencies in your record. If there is anything unusual or problematic in your record (poor grades, several school transfers, time away from school, etc.) this information needs to be explained in as positive a way, as possible. If you were immature and screwed up, then you matured and shaped up, say so and point to the proof (improved grades, a stellar recent employment record, etc.). Remember, failure of one kind or another, if you learn from it, is good preparation for future success.
- Special skills you have developed, relevant to the planned research. This could be general knowledge of a field acquired through reading and study or special practical skills (data analysis, fossil preservation, interviewing techniques, writing skills, etc.) that will qualify you to conduct a particular type of research. Be specific about how you acquired these skills and at what level you possess them.
- Character traits, talents or extra-curricular activities outside the field that help to qualify you. If you are particularly tenacious about overcoming obstacles, creative at problem-solving, adaptable to unfamiliar circumstances or just great at organizing teams of people, these qualities can be mentioned as relevant to the research experience. Sometimes the evidence for these traits may be other than academic; Have you have overcome a disability or disadvantage of some kind in your life? Have you persisted in a particularly challenging task? Have lived in different parts of the world and adapted to difference cultures? Have you organized teams of volunteers in the community? Make clear what traits have been developed by these experiences and how these will help you in the research experience. Acknowledge your strengths, but do so humbly.
- Knowledge and/or skills that you hope to acquire through participation in this opportunity. What is particularly intriguing to you about this opportunity? How will it help you to acquire new skills or carry forward your own research questions?
- Emerging and ongoing questions. What kinds of unsolved puzzles, problems or potential research paths are of interest to you? Which of these have you explored in school or extra-curricular projects? What sorts of projects do you hope to pursue in the future?
- Future plans and goals. Do you plan to go to graduate or professional school and in what field? What are your post-graduation goals and why? How would this research opportunity help you to achieve those goals?
The Do's and Don'ts
- Adhere to the rules. Note the proper page layout, format and length, and adhere to it.
- Use proper spelling and grammar. An easy way to have your application overlooked is to submit it with spelling and grammatical errors. Use spell-checkers, proof-read and let others review your application, before you submit it.
- Show your audience, don't tell them. It's easy to say "I am a leader," but without concrete examples, your claim isn't valid. Give an example of why you believe you are a leader.
- Don't try to tell them everything. You can't cram your entire life into one personal statement. Choose a few key points to talk about and let your other application materials (resume, letter(s) of recommendation, application, interview, etc.) tell the rest of your story.
- Don't use clichés. Things like "since I was a child" or "the world we live in today" are commonly found in personal statements and don't add any value.
- Don't lie or make things up. Tell the truth. This is not the time to fabricate or inflate your accomplishments. Don't try to guess what the committee is looking for and write what you think they want to hear. Invite them in to get to know the real you.
Daniel Salem, 2012 Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship winner
The Bottom Line
At the end of your personal statement, you want people to think "I'd like to meet this person." That is your end-goal.
No matter how strong your record of activities and achievements (Items 2-6 of the Application) and your grades, nor how well-prepared your Policy Proposal may be, together they are not sufficient to get you invited to an interview. Through your responses to Items 7-13, you must convince the Truman Scholarship Finalists Selection Committee that you are a potential Truman Scholar deserving of an interview. The Truman personal statement--collectively, the contents of Items 7-9 and 11-13 of the Application -- is a critical factor in determining your advancement in the Truman competition.
A compelling personal statement will enable you to stand out in a field with other high-achieving persons. It will help you overcome any gaps or inadequacies in your record. It can predispose the interview panel to want to give you a Truman Scholarship rather than to merely hear your case and then decide.
The passions, accomplishments, ambition, and creativity that you present in a carefully prepared personal statement will go a long way toward success in the Truman competition. Your ability to portray well these characteristics should be of enormous value in competitions next year for graduate fellowships and admissions to highly selective graduate schools.
Writing an effective personal statement is difficult. Points in this section should help you — but count on a lot of thought, effort, feedback from the Truman Faculty Representative, rewriting and editing to produce an outstanding personal statement. The skills that you develop in writing an excellent personal statement for the Truman competition will likely be skills that you will employ throughout your professional career.
Recognize that the people who read your Truman application and decide whether you advance in the Truman competition are pros. Veteran members of the Truman Scholarship Finalists Selection Committee have read hundreds of Truman applications. They distinguish easily between the sincere and the insincere, the truth and the puffery, the carefully prepared and the hastily prepared, the substantive and the superficial. Don't try to guess what they want to read. Just write honestly, simply, and clearly about yourself and your aspirations.
Understand your motivations for a career in public service. Think about why you want to be in the public sector as opposed to the potentially more lucrative and less emotionally challenging private sector.
Get a mentor/critic to help you with the Personal Statement. Generally, this will be the Truman Faculty Representative. If you are unable to work closely with your Faculty Representative, find a professor to assist you and to encourage you when you bog down in telling your story.
Before answering any of the items, think strategically about yourself and your candidacy. Ask yourself: "What are the most important characteristics and values, goals and ambitions, life experiences and service activities that define who I am?" Then decide which of these you wish to emphasize in your Truman personal statement. Don't try to cover every aspect.
Everybody has a special story - some people just tell their story better. Share those stories that have been formative in your development as a potential change agent. These stories are often interesting and compelling.
In telling your story, you want to use your responses to Items 7-9 and 14 to bring out some dimensions that are not obvious from reading your list of activities (responses to Items 2-4). Reveal why you are committed to public service.
Read some good personal statements to see how effective and revealing they can be. The Foundation's Advice & Guidance Page contains links to excellent examples from nominees of responses to Items 7, 8, 9, 11, and 14. To the extent possible, develop a unified, integrated set of responses. The policy proposal should be related to the areas identified in Items 9, 11, 12, and 13.
In completing items 7-9 and 11-13 of the Application, you should strive to:
- Be absolutely honest.
Don't overstate accomplishments, claim credit for what should be shared, imply something other than the truth, nor propose a graduate study plan or ambitions only for the Truman competition.
- Be yourself.
In a "blind reading" (e.g., your name removed) of your application with other good applications, your family and your teachers would identify you. The set of responses to these items ought to be one that only you can write.
- Make it interesting.
Consider having an approach that introduces some pertinent unusual features of you or your experiences to reveal your unique individuality and to help distinguish you from the other candidates.
- Avoid undue repetition.
Don't make the personal statement a narrative description of all of your activities previously identified in Items 2-4. Highlight the most important.
- Answer the questions concretely and specifically.
You should have precise, well-focused answers responsive to the Item. Depth is better than breadth.
- Engage the reader quickly.
Have intriguing or compelling opening and closing sentences in your narrative responses to Items 7, 8, and 14.
- Be current.
If you cite statistics or political developments or provocative writings, they should be up to date. Be careful about examples from high school days or early childhood.
- Understand the goal of the personal statement.
The main goal of the written material is to get an invitation to the interview and to present some lines of questioning. An outstanding personal statement won't win a Truman Scholarship for you, but a poorly prepared one will deny you the chance to interview for the scholarship.
- Maintain a sharp focus.
Have precise responses to each item. Don't try to share every interest, every societal concern, every accomplishment, every ambition, every passion.
- Maintain a degree of modesty, especially in Item 14.
Hold down the use of "I". If you have had a rare accomplishment (e.g., member of a National team, winner or high finisher in a national competition, board for an international organization), share it. Be careful in trumpeting high school accomplishments — many Truman Scholar candidates have been high school class presidents, varsity athletes, debate champions and the like.
- Be realistic in Items 12 and 13.
- Be bold but not unrealistically ambitious.
- Reveal your motivations for a career in public service.
- Avoid repeating experiences.
Use different examples for your responses to Items 7, 8, 9, and 14 if possible. Let the Finalists Selection Committee members see your various dimensions.
- Be thoughtful in discussing major challenges.
If discrimination, poverty, family breakdown, severe illness or another problem beyond your control has been a major factor in your development and the establishment of your ambitions, write about it. Avoid playing for sympathy. Truman Scholars are selected on the basis of accomplishment — not endurance.
- Explain "understandable" gaps or weaknesses.
If you had a serious illness or unusually heavy family obligations that temporarily affected your grades or limited your participation in public service, please share it (or have your Faculty Representative bring it out).
Dos and Don'ts for the Truman Personal Statement
. . . and for others you will write someday
Have a consistent story line that focuses on your special aspects and interests.
Be positive. Be upbeat.
Be honest about your ambitions, accomplishments, and plans.
Say what you mean to say.
Write simply. Rely on nouns and active verbs, not adjectives and adverbs, to carry the story.
Take it easy on the readers. Make it interesting. Make it easy to read — both in terms of writing style and appearance.
Have lightness, color, and possibly something amusing or humorous.
Make the opening of each response engaging.
Have perfect spelling, punctuation, and grammar.
Get others to review your statement.
Leave blank more than one-third of the response space for items 7, 8, 9, 11, and 14.
Use qualifiers or imprecise words such as: very, quite, rather, little, many, great, somewhat, far, some, often, deep, broad.
Try to impress readers by using words which are not a part of your normal vocabulary or writing.
Repeat the question in the opening sentence of your response.
Make a plea for financial assistance.
Use statistics without giving the primary source.
Use famous quotations — it's like name-dropping.
Be cute, flippant, profane, or glib.
Employ jargon, slang, or unusual abbreviations.
Use flowery language or cluttered imagery.
If you must write about them, use the following cautiously: how much your family means to you; how difficult or unjust your life has been; how smart, capable or compassionate you are; how much you got out of a short trip abroad; how much you learned about government from an internship.