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:
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:
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.
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:
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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