Sample personal essay that won me the Fulbright in 2003

I found this recently and shared with a Ugandan friend who is applying for fellowships. He tends to give a matter-of-fact summary of his skills and accolades. I urge him (and everyone) to take a narrative or conversational approach to writing your personal statements, like my example below.

you-story-arc

Rule of Thumb for Personal Essays:

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 fella who has to read tons of these essays, the price is that you MUST reveal something personal.

My personal essay (complete rough draft)

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Who am I? Why grant me a Fulbright? What have I done or what do I know that makes me uniquely qualified?

My story begins in Peace Corps. But here is the prelude. My parents were both Peace Corps volunteers in their twenties…. ah, too boring.

Ever since I can remember, I have been provided with the oppotunity to experience other cultures. I lived for four years in Paris, France when I was in grade school. My parents were both Peace Corps volunteers who had travelled around the world and shared their experiences with me. In fact, they travelled so extensively that our house was always decorated like a museum of lost artifacts from Europe, Asia, and South America mixed together like a salad.

My interest in international development began when I joined the Peace Corps. Previously, all my experiences were in developed countries. Unlike many of my colleagues, I didn’t join Peace Corps to save the world or make a difference; I joined because I could tell from my parents’ stories that it would be a good way to take a break between College and Graduate School. I was going to become a chemist, a professor, and teach.

However, while in the The Gambia with Peace Corps I was exposed to the standard of living enjoyed by over half of the Earth’s people. My students were living on a dollar a day; other teachers with whom I worked were earning less than five dollars a day despite being considered professional educators. Considering I was assigned to teach science at the most prestigious high school in the whole country, this was a real shock.

Not even my parent’s stories of working in the Phillipines could prepare me for my personal experience. In Gambia people smuggle sugar, a basic nutrient, into senegal because the Senegalese tax sugar as a luxury! Crossing a river is an ordeal. My urban students had never left the city. This is the world into which I was thrust by Peace Corps, and this is also the world I grew to call my home.

Despite the basic lifestyle, Gambia turned out to host a rich culture. People didn’t eat a variety of food, but what they did eat was always tasty and probably better for me than the junk available in America. They didn’t live in a world of entertainment, but they did laugh a lot. Despite the ups and downs of daily life, people were pretty content. I learned to speak wolof, a local language, and to cook local food. I dressed in local garb and found it to be more comfortable and sensible than western clothes. All said, I think I assimilated quite well.

At the same time, I was still perceived as a westerner and was thus a representative for Western culture and values. My virtues were held as western virtues – while my flaws were considered emblematic of the problems in the developed world. While under the microscope, I learned to conduct myself as the role model I wish more political figures strived to be here and abroad. And in the process, I learned how to be a leader, an independent worker, a project designer, and friend to people who speak a language I don’t understand.

My original role in the Gambia was that of high school science teacher. However, it wasn’t long before I realized my capacity for change was greater if I took up the cause of promoting computer literacy in the schools. By my second year, I was coordinating computer labs and training the new computer staffs at 4 schools in my area. In addition, I built a network of computer teachers accross the whole country and organized an IT Consortium that met regularly, organized the first Gambian Computer Curriculum Development Workshop that brought together computer teachers nationwide, and wrote a book for Peace Corps on how to effectively design technology projects in West Africa such that they remain operational even after you are gone. But the project that had the most potential of all was a little month-long effort to create the first IT demographics in the Gambia. In 2000, my team of volunteers surveyed every school and health center in the Gambia with a computer. We quantified hardware and personnel resources at these locations and determined what skills and computers were available in areas. This information was used at Peace Corps’ IT Workshop for Africa in 2000, and broadly disseminated to agencies thereafter. However, I think the time is ripe to conduct an updated survey that will be far reaching and have a greater impact on the approaches the governments and organizations take to IT in the future.

Although I had intended to become a university professor, I now realize that I feel passionate about improving education in developing countries. Through my experience I realized that science education in West Africa isn’t providing students with skills to get jobs locally. However, it doesn’t need to be this way. Knowledge of science is not an end but rather a means: In doing science, one develops the critical thinking, problem solving, and group planning skills that all students need to be leaders, regardless of the careers they choose. With these goals in mind, I have set out to begin the process that will bring computers to schools and with it – better science education.

Computers are quickly spreading all over Africa. By now, my previous snapshot (from 2000 in Gambia) may not represent the current state of computers. A current survey could be compared to this previous one to determine how IT is changing in West Africa. Several years ago, the World Bank (World Links for Development) spend a great deal of money to promote computer literacy in developing countries, thus preparing them to compete in the future economy. However, measurements of this program (and the growth of computer literacy in rural areas in general) have been lacking. Somebody needs to find out what African teens have been using computers and the Internet to do. Have they discovered new ways to make a living? Is there a better kind of computer education? In short, what has the impact of computers and the Internet been in rural schools across West Africa?

===== (end of essay) =====

It’s not my best writing, but it was good enough to win a grant. Write something personal and make sure you can answer these three questions in the affirmative once you’re done:

  1. Is it good?
  2. Is it honest?
  3. Does it speak to me?

If you can score a YES on 3 for 3, your essay is worth the sheet of paper you’re printing it on.

CV writing tips

These tips are from a Slate editor:

Over the last five years, I’ve read something like 500 applications for entry-level media jobs. Over time, I’ve spotted many talented people, including a number of recent college graduates who are now valued Slate employees. Slate is a small company, so when it’s time to make a hire, a list of three great HR-approved candidates does not magically appear on my desk. I write the ads (like this one) and read all of the responses myself—and after scaling mountains of cover letters I’ve developed some opinions I can no longer hold back.

The most important one is this: Many young people seem to have no idea how to apply for a job. What I see time after time from young media hopefuls are not the classic no-nos, like misspellings and typos, but what appears to be a fundamental lack of understanding of how to sell oneself to a prospective employer. While I certainly don’t speak for all media folk or even all of the editors at Slate, allow me to offer some guidance to current college students and recent grads. Some of my advice may sound familiar, but based on the applications I’m seeing, there are plenty of green job-seekers out there who could use these pointers.

Focus on the cover letter. It is not uncommon for me to get 100 applications for one spot, so I’m constantly looking for reasons not to advance a candidate to the interview round. Writing a good cover letter is your best shot at getting noticed. If I hate a cover letter, I won’t even look at the résumé.

Keep it short. I started putting word limits on cover letters because I couldn’t stand, nor did I have the time to read, the epically long letters I’d receive. I’m going to give your letter maybe 30 seconds of my time. If you are interested in a job in journalism, you should be able to tell me about yourself and why I should hire you in less than 200 words. I’ve never hired someone with a longwinded cover letter. Same goes for résumés. No one with fewer than four years of full time work experience needs more than a page. Your summer lifeguarding job does not need five bullet points.

Avoid awkward phrasing and attempts to be overly formal. Introductions like “With this statement, I declare my interest in the position you have advertised on your website” are clumsy and should be avoided. Start with a strong but simple opener, like “I’m excited to be writing to you to apply for the blogging position at Slate.” Conversational is much better than stilted.

You are your best advocate. It’s not uncommon for me to get a cover letter that opens with, “I am sure you are getting many qualified applicants for this job, many of whom are more qualified than I.” If you don’t believe you are the best candidate, why should I? This letter is your chance to sell yourself. Don’t plant the seed in my mind that you aren’t the best candidate for the job. You don’t want to be overly cocky, but I’ll take confident over meek any day.

Show me that you read my site. It’s common for cover letter writers to say, “I loveSlate,” but that doesn’t stand out to me. Be more specific. Who are your favorite writers? What are some recent articles you enjoyed? Detailed flattery will get you further, because it shows you’ve done your homework. Ninety percent of the cover letters I read for our news blog, the Slatest, mention nothing specific about that particular blog. Here’s what one applicant for a recent position wrote (spoiler: I hired him): “I’m particularly drawn to a dynamic news outlet like the Slatest. I appreciate its blend of politics and current affairs, as well as its ability to consistently sniff out the most compelling news pieces and narratives. I dig its sense of humor, too—I can’t resist a news blog that picks up on the latest North Korean, pigeon–eating propaganda pieces.”

Explain how selecting you will benefit me. This is where candidates often get it totally backward. I frequently read lines like: “I am applying for this paid internship because I think working at Slate would be highly beneficial for me, and would do a lot to help my future job prospects for a career in media for after I graduate from college.” I know how working at Slate would strengthen your résumé. But I am looking to you, candidate X, to solve a problem for me. My problem is that I need good interns. Explain to me how choosing you will solve my problem. Here’s how one candidate convinced me that his skills were pertinent to the role I was hiring for: “From my editorial experience as managing editor of 34th Street Magazine here at Penn, to my experience in news and culture blogging at LAist.com last summer, I’ve picked up the tools I need to perform as a Slatest intern with excellence.”

I’m not interested in anything you did before college. Leave anecdotes like this out: “I am a born storyteller, and I’ve loved writing ever since I won an award for playwriting in the third grade for my series of puppet fairytales.” If you are early in your college career, then hopefully you still have relevant experiences and interests to write about. If you don’t, know that you’ll be competing with upperclassmen, college grads, and graduate students who do.

I’m not interested in your life journeys. This includes your experiences studying abroad,even if you had an amazing time. I get too many letters with paragraphs like: “I’ve wondered to myself, how can I translate my natural talent for the written word into a life path that is interesting and meaningful? I asked myself this question many times during my study abroad in Morocco. I loved working with the Moroccan farmers in helping feed their families, but I also longed for a way to feed my own passions for books, literature, and writing. As I enter my senior year, I think more and more that my true calling could be to be a journalist.” Save these musings for late night dorm room chats with your best friend.

When I read “senior thesis” my eyes glaze over. Despite the fact your academic advisers have convinced you these are really important, most people don’t care about them in the real world. Be wary of dwelling on what your topic is and PLEASE do not attach a chapter with your application. Writing a senior thesis has nothing to do with journalism. I’ll never open it, and I’ll resent you for sending it.

I don’t really care what classes you’ve taken, either. I’m much more interested in what you’ve done that relates to the skills needed for the position than I am in what you’ve studied. An interesting Tumblr account, a vibrant Twitter presence, or a personal blog on a topic you are passionate about is 10 times more compelling to me than your course load.

Your college and GPA aren’t as important as you think. This may be the biggest blow to you, grasshopper. In general, I don’t care about your GPA or whether you went to an Ivy League school, so definitely don’t expect this alone to swing open any doors for you. Of all the entry-level people I’ve hired, the one that went on to have the most successful career in media never finished college. If you are still in college, you should mention where you go and what you study. But the further out of college you are, the less I want to hear about where you went or how you did there.

Follow the application instructions to a T. I often give really specific instructions in the job posting, listing a word limit on cover letters, requesting exactly two writing samples, and noting a firm deadline for when applications are due. This is my first test in how good you are at taking direction. If you send four writing samples rather than two, that doesn’t make me think you are overqualified, it makes me think you can’t edit yourself or aren’t good at doing what is asked of you. Small mistakes like this help me figure out whom to eliminate, so tread carefully.

If you follow these instructions, you should have a good shot at making it to the top of the pile. It might not be long before you’re on the other side of the desk, reading cover letters yourself. Good luck.

Where to learn more:

I noticed that this post has been read almost ten thousand times in the last two years. People obviously are looking for more examples and tips on writing essays that connect with readers – well, really one reader in particular – the person who is deciding whether you get the job, scholarship, grant, or just into your preferred college. So I wrote down everything I’d learned with a ton more examples and published it in the Kindle store. You can buy it by clicking on the image of the book.

Download the kindle book, "Who am I? Writing a compelling personal essay" today
Learn the seven rules of writing a compelling personal essay in this book!
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9 thoughts on “Sample personal essay that won me the Fulbright in 2003

  1. Really lovely essay, thanks for posting it. I am in the process of applying for a Fulbright, and the rules are that the personal statement has to be one page single spaced, Times New Roman 12 pt. I pasted this into a word document and it comes out to be 1.5 pages, and that’s without a title or anything. Have the rules changed since 2003? Thanks.

  2. Maybe. Probably. I was never good at following rules. They also said there was a strict rule against proposals that crossed into multiple countries, and yet I applied for THREE countries, and got approved in all three. You have to remember that more than half of the decision is exciting political figureheads in the host countries, and in 2003 they all really cared about the Internet and comparing themselves against their peers. So I won. Cheating? yes, perhaps, but nevertheless much of success is learning which rules to bend.

  3. Hi. This is a very inspiring way of making application for scholarships and other funding opportunities available.
    Thanks.
    kelvin Juma

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