While everyone has their own way of working, here are some general strategies that are often helpful and effective for writing fellowships essays.
Begin working on these essays as soon as you think you might be interested in applying for a fellowship; they’re harder to do well than you think. Every good essay goes through a process of drafting, reviewing, rethinking, revising. And revising again. Applicants often work on applications until the day they’re due, at times writing upwards of a dozen versions of their essay. We suggest beginning several months in advance ideally, or at least six weeks.
Begin by reading the question and any supplementary guidelines carefully. Are there any specific questions or points you are asked to address? What are your page limits or formatting requirements? Some students like to write the prompt, and even the selection criteria, at the top of the page to keep it all fresh in their minds while they write.
Sometimes the hardest part is getting started, figuring out what story you want to tell.
One helpful way to get started is to make a list of all your ideas – the expected and the unexpected, the solid and the outlandish. Include examples of significant events in your personal, academic, and professional life. Don’t censor yourself – no one need see these ideas except you. This will likely be something of a mess, but it will also serve as a bucket from which you can draw the content of your essay.
Another way you might get started is to ask yourself critical questions:
- Most people think/do X … I, however, think/do Y.
- Most research in my field focuses on X, yet I’d like to pursue Y because…
- What errors or regrets have taught you something important about yourself?
- When does time disappear for you? What does this tell you about your passions, your values?
- What ideas, books, courses, events have had a profound impact on you? How so?
- To what extent do your current commitments reflect your most strongly held values?
- When have you changed? Consider yourself before and after; what does this change mean?
At this point you’ll have something of a mess, with lots of stories, notes, possibilities, some of which will lead you in very different directions. That’s exactly where you want to be.
Sort through your preliminary ideas to identify the good, the bad, and the ugly. Try not to fall in love with one storyline just yet. Instead, plan to experiment and try completely different versions of your essay. Think about what the different stories might say about you to someone who doesn’t know you – and don’t be afraid to toss out versions that aren’t working. You’ll know you’re on the right track if you’re learning something about yourself while you do this.
Begin to organize the best of these ideas into a “Shitty First Draft,” as the writer Anne Lamott calls it. Sharpen and winnow your ideas until you have one central claim, ideally one that is interesting and non-obvious. You want to find something that will be honest and unique to you, as much as possible, without being too gimmicky, and one that reflects some positive quality of yours relevant to the award you are applying for. Ideally, this is a story that not everyone who is applying would be able to tell.
At this point, don’t worry about making it sound pretty, about crafting sentences that flow nicely together. You are still developing your main idea. That’s why it’s always a shitty first draft.
When you have a version that feels honest and that you think represents you well for the purpose of the application you are working on, it’s time clean it up a bit and get other readers to take a look.
- Have a friend read your draft and ask them to tell you what they think your main idea is and what they found to be your most interesting point. Is it what you intended? Is it effective? If not, it’s back to the drawing board.
- Ask your readers to tell you what questions your essay raises for them, especially ones that you might not have considered, and to tell you what they remember most about the essay after they read it.
- Ask a faculty mentor to read for the substantive ideas. You want to be sure your essay is both accurate and intellectually interesting to someone in your field.
Remember that different readers may have different, sometimes even conflicting, advice – your job is to sift through the advice to produce a coherent whole that both represents you well and feels honest.
Once you’ve got the central idea or story nailed down, one that is interesting and compelling, that feels honest, unique to you, and fits in with what you propose, it’s time to clean it up. These essays are writing samples; all the rules of good writing (clarity, coherence, correctness, conviction) apply. They are read as indications of clear and organized thinking and effective communication.
- Refer back to the program website for any essay guidelines and advice, including length, spacing, and formatting guidelines. Be sure you have followed all the suggestions and recommendations.
- Essays (especially personal essays) are typically read quickly and often in bulk; yours should be a pleasure to read. Your opening should be accessible and should pull the reader into the heart of your discussion.
- It can be hard to write about your own accomplishments effectively. You want to avoid both false modesty and bragging. Strive for a tone that is honest, that shows yourself, but that shows your very best self.
- Aim for economy, enthusiasm, and directness in your language. Avoid pretension or flowery writing.
- Find out who your evaluators are so you can write for their level of knowledge of your field. Ask the Drexel Fellowships Office if you’re unsure.
- Make key information easy to find by using clear topic sentences. Think of these as signposts to guide the reader effortlessly through your ideas. Consider putting all the relevant information in an initial paragraph. (I propose to do X with Y at Z institution. This is important because ABC.) Fellowships reviewers generally grateful for this directness. If you like, you can use formatting such as headers, bold, bullets, or underline to draw attention to important points or sections of longer essays, but don’t overdo it.
- Take a look at a guide such as Revising Prose for helpful advice on sentence-level revision.