Tell The Story Only You Can Tell: Personal Essay Tips

Applying for a fellowship or another opportunity that requires a personal essay? Get started with three tips from Fulbright winner, Peace Corps volunteer, and author Marc Maxmeister.


Recently, a friend was applying for fellowships and asked me to read his essay. I urged him to take a narrative, conversational approach, and avoid sounding like he was reading off a list. Don’t write: “I am this. I am that. I am also this other thing.” Connect your strengths together with a story, I advised. Link them to the growing arc of your life.

My colleague Nick Hamlin at GlobalGiving applied the six basic story arcs to the thousands of project reports from nonprofits on our site and found that even these brief updates include the same, novelistic, emotional ebb and flow of fates. Connected ideas are a more powerful and more natural way to describe yourself.

So when writing a personal essay, put yourself at the center of your story, and connect your achievements together like stones along your path—just as I’m trying to do in this list of personal essay tips.

After writing tons of essays for fellowships in my career, including for the Peace Corps and a Fulbright fellowship, I decided to share my personal essay tips in a book. Here are a few of my top takeaways, which can be applied to all kinds of writing challenges:

    1. Tell the story only you can tell.

    If somebody else could have written your essay for you, it’s not personal enough. If you want to grab hold of the person who has to read tons of these essays, the price is that you MUST reveal something personal. Make sure your essay makes you say YES! to these questions when you’re done:

    • Is it good?
    • Is it honest?
    • Does it speak to me?

    2. Build rapport.

    Know the foundation, institution, or company you’re writing to, and show that you studied them. Imagine the person for whom you are writing. Often, you can discover the name of the person reviewing your essay, and you can look him or her up on LinkedIn and customize your story to draw that reader in.

    3. Get inspired by other writers.

    The best opening lines are seldom of the “Hi my name is…” variety. Here are some rather amazing openings to essays and books I found:

      “The gale tore at him and he felt its bite deep within and he knew that if they did not make landfall in three days they would all be dead.”
      — First line from the novel “Shogun” by James Clavell

      “Growing up, I only knew one girl who was not cut.”
      — First line from the personal essay “My Lifelong Promise To End FGM” by GlobalGiving partner Grace B. Mose Okong’o

      “This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country.”
      — First line from the personal essay “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” by Joan Didion

If those aren’t some of the most interesting introductions to essays you’ve ever read, then I am dying to read your essay!

For more personal essay tips, check out my book, “Who Am I? Writing a Compelling Personal Essay for College, Merit Scholarships, or Dating.”

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Featured Photo: Street to School by Aasraa Trust

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