Cornell University

Personal Statement

The personal statement is an essay, generally under 1,000 words, which is designed to give the selection committee a sense of who you are and how closely your goals and strengths match the ideals of a specific fellowship. In this essay you have a great deal of flexibility on how to organize and present your thoughts, but you should be sure to cover the following basic points:

  • your qualifications for the given fellowship
  • how the fellowship fits in with your personal and professional goals

A personal statement is generally most effective when it concentrates on:

  • an issue or experience that you feel strongly about, or one that has helped to shape who you are
  • a significant accomplishment or contribution you have made to your field or community

What is the selection committee looking for in your statement?

A selection committee may read hundreds of application essays back-to-back in a short period of time. Readers are looking for essays that:

  • make sense—logically, grammatically, thematically
  • engage their attention
  • provide substantive and relevant information
  • stand out from the crowd

How to get started

Write down two or three experiences you feel have shaped who you are. Write down two or three significant problems you have faced and how you solved them. Then look for patterns.

  • what values keep popping up
  • what interests
  • what strengths and skills

Now take a look at your transcript.

  • how does your coursework express your interests and talents
  • how has it developed them

The writing process

Try several different approaches until you find one that feels right. Revise, revise, revise! If you need help on structure, visit the Writing Workshop.

As you write, show your essay to people who know you well and ask if it accurately expresses who you are. Be sure to show your essay to faculty advisors before you send off a final version.

Some common pitfalls

Weak essays generally share one or more of the following characteristics:

  • melodramatic or self-congratulatory statements
  • vague, abstract ideals
  • laundry lists of achievements
  • jargon and specialized vocabulary
  • misspelled words
  • poor grammar
  • convoluted syntax