Personal Essays

General Advice

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)?

Leadership Essays

Several fellowships now require separate essays on Leadership, often asking you to describe your most significant leadership experience. Keep in mind that leadership is not just about leading an organization. You are exhibiting leadership any time you have an idea and are able to get other people behind your idea. Thus, leadership can be intellectual and artistic as well as political or organizational. The leadership essay is a type of personal essay, another way for the selection committee to get to know you. Be sure to tell a compelling story and keep the focus on you, not on the organization. While many leadership experiences are collaborative, be careful about over-using a vague “we” pronoun (“Because we took this new approach, we were able to raise more than $1000.).” Be clear about your own personal contributions as a leader.

Word Counts and Character Issues

Most scholarships set word or character limits for personal statements and other essays. You should aim to get as close to the word or character limit as reasonably possible without going over it—you want to use every opportunity to tell your story, but must always follow the rules and guidelines set forth by each scholarship.

As a general rule, first compose and revise your essays without thinking too much about the length. For your first draft, get out everything you want to say without thinking at all about how many words or characters you are using. As you revise, you should get within the general range of the word count, but keep your focus on content, not on word count. Once you have a near-final draft, you are then ready to pare down your essay to get it within the word count. Take a rigorous and dispassionate approach to your writing—it is often helpful at this step to print out your essay and use a red pen. In addition to looking for unnecessary content, you also want to look for ways to make your writing more concise. Although this process can be time consuming, it will inevitably make your writing stronger and more direct. Be sure to budget for the extra time it will take for this final paring-down editing pass. For ideas on what types of extra verbiage to target as you are editing down your essay, see Joseph Williams and Joseph Bizup’s helpful discussion of “Concision” from Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace, Fifth Edition (New York: Pearson, 2015, pp 82-88). Applicants can contact Dr. Smolin directly for a copy of the relevant pages.

Things to Watch Out For

Dartmouth’s fellowship advisors read many personal statements. Below are some issues we often find come up—either things we recommend against or issues that you should consider carefully.


Acronyms can be frustrating for selection committee readers, who must read and process essays quickly. Even if you introduce a term first (“I worked for the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network [DEN],” readers will likely not remember the meaning later in the essay. Unless the acronym is broadly understood (NASA, Scuba, EPA, NEH, etc.), avoid it.


Contractions like “I’m,” “isn’t,” “can’t,” etc., are informal. Generally, you should avoid them in application essays and adopt a more formal tone. Some scholarships, however, such as the Truman, prefer that you write closer to how you speak, in which case you might decide to use them.

Controversial Subjects/Partisan Opinions

You should never avoid a subject that you are passionate about and that is relevant to your goals because of fears that you may alienate a partisan/conservative/liberal committee. At the same time, anticipate a selection committee with widely varying opinions. Focus on explaining why the issue is important to you. A reader might personally disagree with you but still feel strongly that you are an ideal recipient for the scholarship. Committees are looking for people to support, not ideas or issues to support.

Dartmouth Jargon

Selection committees for national fellowships will likely not be familiar at all with campus life at Dartmouth and may not even have heard of Dartmouth. Avoid terms that are Dartmouth-specific (for instance, D-Plan, Trips, etc.) and give context or explanations where needed. It is generally also good to avoid phrases like, “When I graduate from Dartmouth…” Readers familiar with Dartmouth might think that you are name-dropping, and readers unfamiliar with Dartmouth (there are some out there!) may find this tedious.

Pop Culture References

Approach these with an excess of caution. It is extremely likely that some members of a selection committee (or all) will not understand a pop culture reference that seems simple and obvious to you. A reference that no one gets gets you nowhere.

Sensitive Personal Information

Application essays are all about telling your story and letting the selection committee get to know you. While you can get personal, you should be careful about getting too personal—avoid oversharing, too much self-deprecation, or personal stories that do not have a greater relevance. While applicants often write movingly about overcoming doubts and challenges, it’s essential to tie such anecdotes to a broader theme. Also take care not to inadvertently give selection committees reasons to doubt your ability to carry out your project.

Seeking Help

Before you seek feedback or input on your essay, make sure that the fellowship to which you are applying allows you to get help. Some fellowships, such as the Rhodes and Mitchell, expressly forbid you from getting any assistance.

The Fellowship Advisors at the Office of Fellowship Advising provide feedback on personal essays for endorsed scholarships when it is permissible to do so. We ask that you send drafts at least 24-hours before you wish to meet to discuss them and at least two weeks before the deadline of the fellowship.