Advice for Writing Fellowship Essays

Think of your essay(s) in context, as they comprise a portion of a total application package that represents you. Other components, such as your resume and transcript, contain important data points, but they do not reveal your motivation, your goals, or your vision. Use the essays to tell what cannot already be gleaned from those materials.

Consider your audience. For most applications, you will be writing for an intelligent, educated, non-specialist, so make sure the terminology is understandable to someone outside your field. Avoid the trap of aiming for what you think the selection committee wants to hear. They want to know how and what you think.

To explain how and what you think, you will likely include content such as current events, historical examples, or things you have been involved in. Be prepared to discuss those topics in more detail, should you be invited to interview. Check your facts to make sure what you are saying is accurate, whether it is about things happening in the world or your own experiences. Do not inflate your own experiences, but do expound what you have learned from them. Don’t mention things that you only vaguely understand in the effort to sound sophisticated. Speak of what you know and would like to know.

Read examples from former winners. Essays don’t win fellowships; candidates do. But reading essays by former winners can help you understand the genre, and how some other candidates have presented themselves. Read multiple examples to see that there is a range of ways to do it. You can access examples of essays by Amherst College fellowships winners under Sample Applications. (You must be logged in with an Amherst email address to see these.)

Read the prompt. Read it carefully and slowly, unpacking each word. Type it at the top of your page, and refer to it frequently while you are writing. An excellent essay that does not answer the prompt may impress the readers but is unlikely to result in their choosing you. Some prompts seem frustratingly general, but even these contain carefully chosen language. What they do not ask for is sometimes as important as what they do ask for.

Use formal prose, avoiding contractions and conversational clichés, but do not hesitate to write in the first person. Phrase your ideas as directly as possible, using active verbs and avoiding filler phrases. Your essay will be read for content, but also as a writing sample; readers will look for indications of clear and organized thinking and effective communication.

Get the format right. Margins, typeface, font, and word count guidelines are inviolable with most applications, so pay strict attention to them. Readers will not be charmed by your having so much to say that you ignore their limits.

Write your first draft well ahead of the deadline and get feedback from professionals. The Director of Fellowships, and for some awards, the Fellowships Specialist, will read and provide feedback on your essays prior to submission for the internal deadline. We usually type comments on your drafts and exchange them via email attachment, but in-person consultation is also possible. Allow at least 3-5 work days to receive written responses. You might also request an appointment with the Amherst College Writing Center for essay feedback..

Ask others to read it, providing the prompt and information about the aims of the foundation. Ask your readers: Do you think I answered the prompt? Is there anything you are left wondering about? Were my ideas easy to follow? How do I come across to you in this essay as a person? Would this essay make you interested in talking with me further? Be prepared to start from scratch if their answer to many of these questions is “no.”  

Be your own critic! Allow enough time to write your essay, sleep on it, and come back to it a few days later with fresh eyes. You'll be suprised by how clearly you'll see ways to clarify or enliven your writing.

Savor the process. Many candidates for fellowships discover their goals, or at least come to recognize them as such, in the writing of their essays. Whereas before, their ideas and aims were vague, the discipline of writing made them clear and concrete. Allow time and space for this process to unfold.

Types of Essays: Personal Statements and Project Proposals

Most fellowships will require a project proposal (where you outline what you intend to study or research and how you will go about it) and a personal statement (where you describe how you came to be interested in the project). Some, however, ask you to write separate, smaller essays about your leadership, service, current events, or other topics. Below are some brief tips on the two main types of essays required, and a combination of these.

Personal Statements

A personal statement explains who you are, what are your interests and goals for the future, and why winning this particular fellowship would be a critical, and even necessary, component toward achieving those goals. Your effort to persuade the reader, however, should not be explicit, as in “You should award me this fellowship because I am XYZ.” The goal, instead, is to use the narrative form to demonstrate your fitness for the fellowship by revealing how and what you think, and how it fits within their mission. For instance, you can show your fascination with biology through a description of your research, or your enthusiasm for literature by discussing how you chose your thesis topic. Or you might recount the moment during an internship when a “why” question occurred to you that set you on a new academic trajectory. Your intellectual curiosity will be more evident if the reader sees you exercising it. The personal statement should tell enough about you that is unique to you that it is distinguishable from any other person’s essay. It should make the reader want to meet you and talk with you further.

Most personal statements contain four components, which answer the following questions:

  1. Who are you now?  What interests you and is important to you?  What personal qualities (skills, abilities, attributes) do you want to convey as your strong points?
  2. What experiences have been important in your development?  These could be classes, internships, work experience, personal episodes—moments that contributed to and illuminate who you are now.
  3. What are your future goals, and what is your larger mission or purpose in pursuing these goals? Be assured that foundations know you are answering to the best of your ability as of now. It is not a contract!.
  4. Why do you want this particular fellowship opportunity?  This is where it all comes together, the bridge between your personal narrative and the fellowship.

In addition to these questions, use the Reflection Questions for Personal Statements guide to generate ideas more broadly for your essay. These questions are useful for periodic reflection throughout your undergraduate years and beyond. Remember that a personal statement is just that—personal—and you need not be limited to the questions or the order outlined above. Within the boundaries of the prompt, you should write about what feels authentic to you and compelling about you.

Project Proposals

Project proposals for independent research typically include the following

  • A brief review of the context for the research (what has already been done)
  • An explanation of what you are trying to learn (research question)
  • A description of your methodology, itinerary, and budget (what and how)
  • Justification for why it must be done in the intended location
  • Evidence that you have the necessary preparation (coursework, skills)
  • Identification of partners/mentors/affiliates in the intended location for the study, with affirmations of their support
  • Discussion of why this pursuit matters to you and to anyone in the field
  • Indication of what you will do following the research project

Project proposals for pursuit of graduate study typically include the flowing

  • An explanation of your previous academic work
  • A discussion of the chosen program including your specific track within it, if applicable
  • Commentary on why you have chosen to pursue this course at this institution in this country
  • Evidence that you have the requisite academic preparation and skill set to succeed
  • Identification of partners/mentors/affiliates in the department, if required (usually only for research degrees)
  • Indication of what you will do after achieving the intended degree

Combined Statements

Some fellowship applications require one statement, in which you combine an explanation of your intended project with a personal reflection. Usually, two paragraphs devoted to the academic proposal portion are sufficient, but the balance of these components depends on what best represents you, and what the rest of the application includes.

Questions? Please contact:
Christine Overstreet, Director of Fellowships
212 Converse Hall, 413-542-2536, coverstreet@amherst.edu
Carter McClintock, Fellowships Specialist
213 Converse Hall, 413-542-5079, cmcclintock@amherst.edu