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Writing a Good Essay

Nationally Competitive Fellowships and Scholarships

  1. Read the essay prompts very carefully. Answer every single aspect of the question completely. You should consider answering the question in the order that it is posed and even utilizing some of the language of the question in your answer to indicate that you are directly answering the question. (When submitting essays to the fellowship advisor, always include the full essay questions.)
  2. Use all of the words made available to you in the word count limit. Do not make things up to fulfill the maximum, of course, but you should have enough to say about yourself to fill the very small number of words they allow.
  3. Use every single word well. There is no room for inefficient prose or statements of the obvious.

    Things you do not need to tell them include:
    The importance of the fellowship in general
    The importance of the field they fund
    The story of your innocence or ignorance before becoming a scholar/artist/scientist/activist, etc.
    Honors you won in high school
    Elaborate descriptions of a teacher who inspired you (unless that happens to be the exact question)
    A quote from a famous scholar (many fellowship programs actually advise strongly against this cliché)

  4. Focus on your intellectual project and promise.
  5. Use every single sentence to tell them something about YOU, not your school, teachers, family, national history, etc. If it doesn’t tell them something interesting about you, then cut it out or rephrase it so that it is clear what implications that information has for who you are.
  6. Make the first sentence of every essay, especially the first essay, count. Readers may not pay much attention past that part.
  7. Remember that the readers are reading 70 or more applications, so their first job is to make a stack of applications to say no to. Do everything to avoid getting cut in the first round. Only after the first round will they have time to read your application carefully.
  8. Imagine the selection committee trying to describe you to the other committee members – what words do you want them to use to describe you? They’ll want to be able to create a shorthand for you – the modern day slavery scholar, the carbon footprint girl, the Girl Scouts historian. Make sure to paint that concise picture of yourself for them.