A personal statement for a fellowship or graduate school application is your opportunity to express to the selection committee who you are and why you are a great candidate for the program. In particular, an eye-grabbing lead sentence or opening paragraph is your most important tool for maintaining the reader’s attention. Here are some examples of powerful personal statement openings of winners of highly competitive fellowships.
- “My parents are acupuncturists who made the long trip from their tiny cluster of villages in Guangzhou, China, to the quaint suburbs of Northern California, two years before I was born.”
By a winner of a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) in Macau. The applicant draws the reader to something memorable – her parents’ unique vocation – paving the way for an interesting story about her childhood and interest in working abroad. Read more.
- “Every morning at 10:00 a.m. I come face to face with the power of language to free; it happens in a classroom. The students I teach at Seattle Central Community College come from night work in an industrial bakery, from a Vietnamese refugee camp, from a 9-to-5 job in a car wash, or from the day care center where they’ve left their children.”
By a graduate fellowship applicant to the University of Washington. This opening paragraph begins to tell a story that reflects on the applicant’s work with a diverse community. Read more.
- “My grandparents have touched many lives: former drug addicts, refugees, neighbors, and my own. They have an uncommon ability to build relationships; they are a paradigm of service— where service is more than what you do and is also defined by who you are.”
By a winner of the Fulbright U.S. Student Grant. The lyrical nature of this stand-alone opening paragraph exhibits an advanced ability to use both words and punctuation to express the applicant’s personal values and how they originated. Read more.
- “Thirty years ago, my dad boarded a one-way flight to the U.S. Unlike the people he left behind, he was coming to a new country filled with educational opportunities his homeland could not provide. He was not limited by his place of birth.”
By a successful applicant to Teach for America. Immediately, the applicant has built a framework to describe his interest in education and equal opportunity, and his personal experience as a child of an American immigrant. Read more.
- “In the sixth grade, I took a test to see if I was left- or right-brained. To my elementary eyes, the result of that quiz would be the truth from on high—a resolute word that would define the man to come as either analytic or artistic.”
By a Marshall Scholar to the U.K. The applicant masterfully opens with a story to describe the early beginnings of his intellectual curiosity, a key characteristic that the selection committee seeks in applicants. Read more.
A common aspect of these opening statements is their ability to draw the reader in to a unique and memorable story that begins to describe why the applicant is applying to the fellowship. You can identify more personal statement samples like these online by Googling “personal statement example pdf” with the name of the fellowship.
For more tips on writing a compelling personal statement, see our Step-by-Step Guide For A Competitive Fellowship Application.
© Victoria Johnson 2016, all rights reserved.
Do the Same Rules Apply for Fellowship as for Residency?
The answer is yes, though following the same rules naturally leads to differences.
Generally speaking, the personal statement should/could touch on the following items:
The first time the applicant realized his or her interest in the particular field or specialty;
Times since then when that interest was refined, reinforced or redirected;
Any particular outstanding accomplishments achieved so far in following that path;
The direction the applicant now sees himself or herself taking; and
If possible, how the program would be a particular match for that direction.
What Should These Items Accomplish?
Each of these items should elucidate a particular quality or particular qualities about the applicant, and should be ones that are particular to the applicant, as opposed to being able to be said generically by anyone applying for the program. This is important.
What Are the Similarities?
Both the fellowship personal statement and the residency personal statement should describe the specific path/specific reasons that has/have led to the decision to apply for the desired position, as well as what the candidate hopes to achieve through the position from the point of view of how the candidate anticipates it will edify his or her future career.
What Are the Differences?
Answering these questions is where the differences lie between the fellowship personal statement and the residency personal statement.
For the residency personal statement, the general format is to describe the candidate's initial interest in medicine and how that was shaped into a desire for the particular field (e.g., internal medicine) being applied for. This is fleshed out with details that are relevant to the candidate's pursuit of the program (e.g., research experience, community involvement), and it is directed toward a view of the future career.
The fellowship personal statement should take this a step further by demonstrating both the personal and professional maturity that comes with having already completed significant training in the candidate's field.
How Does a Resident Applicant See His/Her Future Career?
Because candidates for residency are writing the personal statement for residency before having begun the training, it is often difficult for them to have a precise view of what they want in their future careers. While he or she may already have some inclinations of what his or her future career will be, many of those choices will be made through the course of the residency.
How Should a Fellowship Applicant See His/Her Future Career?
When it comes to applying for a fellowship, the candidate should know precisely what he or she anticipates for his or her future career, and how the fellowship training (and often the fellowship training offered at the particular institution receiving the application) is the necessary next step in that direction. The candidate should have a clear idea of who he or she is as a doctor and the specific path he or she sees his or her career taking.
The focus in the fellowship personal statement is therefore centered less on the part of the candidate's path that came before residency (e.g., original interest in medicine) and more on specific experiences that have come during residency (e.g., particular cases of interest, particular research accomplishments or involvement) or after.
What Should Be the Focus of the Anecdotes?
The anecdotes should demonstrate relevant academic and clinical competence. They should point squarely in the direction of the specialty being applied for, and any particular research interests.
How long should my personal statement be?
Generally speaking, a fully developed personal statement will be approximately 750. Some programs (e.g. dentistry), though, may require shorter word counts. With few exceptions, if your personal statement is over 850 words, it is too long. If it is under 650 words, it is too short.
The Electronic Residency Application Service (ERAS®) allows up to 28,000 characters with spaces, which is approximately 5,200 words. However, no program director will read a personal statement that long. Most won't even read any of it.
What do you mean by "be specific"?
First is to be specific to your story. If everyone else writes it in their personal statements, then you should not, unless it is particularly relevant to you.
An example of this is an IMG who writes, without any obvious reason for doing so, that she wants to pursue residency in the United States because the U.S. is at the forefront of medicine. A second example is a candidate who writes that he wants to pursue residency in a program that will give him the knowledge and training he will need to succeed in his chosen field. These are both vague statements that should be included only if they relate specifically to your personal career path.
Second is is a rephrasing of the first: to write only of your particular experience. This is your greatest strength and what will set you apart. If you write that you want to pursue a career in medicine in order to serve the community, we will ask what kind of community and what way do you see yourself serving. We will ask where this desire has come from and how you have pursued it.
If you write that you want to be a leader, we will ask where you want to be a leader, why you want to be a leader, what kind of leader you want to be, and in what way specifically you plan to lead others.
What are the most common mistakes that you have seen?
I want to "hook" the reader. What is the best way to do that?
Start with a simple, straightforward statement with how you started on the path that you are on. An example of this is: "The first time I saw how medicine can help people was when I was five years old and visited my mother in the hospital."
Second is to write of your particular experience. This is your greatest strength and what will set you apart.
I am having trouble getting started. Can you help me write my personal statement?
Absolutely, but we won't write it for you. For those needing assistance with developing a personal statement, we offer our Personal Statement Consultation service. With it, we will review your resume/CV if provided and, in one-on-one consultation with one of our personal statement editors, guide you through a series of questions and feedback to develop a concise plan for drafting your personal statement.
After you have drafted your personal statement, we will then review your personal statement with our Personal Statement Revision & Critique service for any adjustments needed to make it as polished and successful as possible.
I have followed all your advice. Do I still need to have my personal statement edited?
Yes, you should still have it edited, specifically for feedback/critique (see our Personal Statement Revision and Critique service) regarding how successful you are in communicating your points. It is our opportunity to help make what you have started as successful for you as possible.
Get More Advice on Our Blog
For more advice on personal statements, see the personal statement articles we have posted on our blog.
Sample Personal Statement
and Palliative Care
Sample Personal Statement
IMG with Leave of Absence
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