A good fellowship application always has a compelling narrative. The basic narrative should connect your past experiences with your future goals and explain how the fellowship opportunity will bridge between the two. The Personal Statement gives you an opportunity to flesh out this narrative and tell your unique story. Selection committees will already know quite a bit about you from other application materials—they will know which classes you took and how you did, the jobs you have had and your extracurricular involvements, the opinions of your professors. However, what they will not know is what it has all meant to you. What do you care about? Why have you focused on these particular goals? Who influenced you? What put you on this particular path?
Think about the people you know best—friends and family members. Now imagine their lives as a series of data points, transcripts, resumes, and letters of recommendation. What part of the picture would be missing? Their individual stories, personalities, and the summation of their experiences. Everything that makes them particularly unique. You may, for instance, have two friends who both have the same GPA, have played the same sport, are majoring in the same subject, and active in the same clubs. But beyond this basic biographical data, your friends are each entirely different. Your Personal Statement is your chance to fill in the story that only you can tell, and which cannot possibly be communicated through the record of your achievements alone. Your GPA and other data tell the committee that you are a strong candidate, while your Personal Essay should convince them that you are someone they want to interview or select for their fellowship.
Beyond telling your story, the Personal Essay is also a place to discuss your goals. You want to strike a balance between being ambitious and realistic. Remember that fellowship committees are looking for a reason to invest in you. If they give you this opportunity, what might you be able to do as a result? No one can say with absolute certainty what the future holds, but you should be able to speak with conviction about your current plans and what you hope to achieve. Be sure you have researched your goals and plans. If you want to get a master’s degree in Sociology, for instance, talk to professors in your field about the best schools and programs—and know for sure if it makes sense to pursue an MA or a PhD based on what you hope to do. Likewise, if, for instance, you hope to run for office, figure out some possible trajectories to achieve what you hope to achieve (where would you run? What level? How would you build a coalition)?