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Fellowship Application Essay

Essays are the heart of fellowship applications. Selection committees read the essays for content as well as form: They want to know about your goals and plans, your personal background, and your motivation. They also want to know that you can organize your thoughts and communicate effectively in writing. 

Your essays need to be engaging, specific, and thoughtful. And they need to model principles of good writing. Logical organization, effective transitioning, and precise language are essential. The tips below will help you produce the kind of essays that will persuade a selection committee that they want to interview you or offer you a fellowship.

  • Work on your opening. The opening sentence (and paragraph) of an essay functions like a fishhook: You want to grab your reader and make him or her pay attention. Your introduction must send the message: READ ME; DO NOT SKIM; DO NOT FALL ASLEEP; THIS LOOKS INTERESTING. Avoid platitudes. Do not begin essays with sentences such as “From the beginning of time human beings have been curious” or “In America, education is the key to success.”  These commonplace observations send the message: Fall asleep; skim this essay; forget this candidate.
  • Be specific and concrete. Avoid abstractions and generalizations; use concrete details whenever possible. Rather than saying you are excited by policy issues, discuss a particular policy issue that interests you. Instead of saying that you are motivated, describe an instance that demonstrates your motivation.
  • Keep your audience in mind. Most fellowship selection committees are comprised of well-educated generalists. Do not make your project proposal so field-specific that readers from different disciplines will have difficulty understanding--and thus caring about-- your work.  Avoid disciplinary jargon whenver possible. 
  • Revise, revise, revise. Never be satisfied with the first version of any part of your essay. Reject a vague word for a more precise one; substitute a strong verb for the weak one you thought of first; choose one precise adjective rather than a list of  three. Vary your sentence structure. Look at each of your sentences and explain why it begins and ends where it does. Excellent writers revise their work extensively; the fruit of their labor is clear, fluid prose that sends a compelling message.
  • Proofread. Even if you feel that you have your essay memorized, read it over carefully before turning in the final copy. Proofreading on a computer screen is less effective than reading a printed copy. Try different proofreading techniques  such as reading the essay from the bottom up or reading it aloud. When you think it's perfect, ask someone else who edits well to read your essay. You do not want to be the Rhodes candidate who is eliminated from consideration because of a typo in your essay's first paragraph.

Writing resources at Brown

  • Attend a workshop on writing project proposals and writing personal essays. The Dean of the College office conduct such workships during the academic year as well as in the summer.
  • Stop by 213 University Hall to read essays that successful fellowship applicants wrote. We have binders of winning essays for several of the nationally competitive fellowships, including the Rhodes, Marshall, Fulbright and Truman. 
  • Make an appointment with the Writing Center to go over drafts of your essays.
  • Offices that support particular fellowships usually provide editorial support for the required essays. Contact the office responsible for the particular fellowship(s) in which you are interested for more information. 

A good essay must have this permanent quality about it; it must draw its
curtain around us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in not out.

—Virginia Woolf

Nowhere does a student’s ability to communicate well about personal attitudes and accomplishments become more important than in applications for national scholarships. With a mostly even playing field among scholars when it comes to GPA, personal statements and answers to application questions truly do help selectors winnow out the best choices, seeking a tidy match between individual candidates and available opportunities. A Marshall Scholar might not be right for an NSF Fellowship, and vice versa; a student activist might be a poor fit for many scholarships but perfect for the Truman Scholarship.

This chapter summarizes nine of the nation’s most coveted scholarships, with samples of personal statements and essays following each scholarship description. All of the samples here are strong, and about half of them come from scholarship winners and finalists, culled from about 100 students representing about 20 states.

Using the material in this chapter, educate yourself on your target scholarship and study its samples thoroughly, recognizing the rhetorical strategies employed as well as how carefully writers match their backgrounds to the scholarship criteria. Visit the scholarship websites and read the profiles of past winners when available, envisioning yourself as a featured student on the website in the following year. Most importantly, be prepared to spend 50+ hours studying, reflecting, and writing as part of the scholarship application process, as winners typically report they do. Whether you win or not, the time will be well spent.


In addition to the national scholarships discussed in this chapter, there are numerous other "prestige" scholarships available to ambitious and deserving students. The guidebook, "Prestige Scholarships for College," lists and explains the various prestige scholarships available, discusses how to make them a realistic option, and includes expert advice on increasing your changes of landing one.

Visit the "Prestige Scholarships for College" Website.