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Most of the competitions require of candidates one or more essays written specifically for the purposes of application. Whether as several separate documents or as one composite essay, these writings are the most important component of the application package and as such demand your most diligent and sustained efforts. Other information pertinent to the scholarship in question may be requested.

Application essays usually include the following elements:

  1. A personal statement with autobiographical information
  2. A description of your academic objectives and, usually, a plan of study for achieving them
  3. A broadly-contextualized defense of the importance of your proposed work and career goals
  4. A justification of your preferred site for post-graduate study
  5. An account of your qualifications for undertaking the work
  6. A brief indication of why you want the scholarship and how you are well-matched to its purposes

Of six elements in this list, responses to 1, 2, and 3 are normally of nearly equal weight, with the next a close fourth. 1 is of supreme importance because offering the only opportunity for you to establish yourself as a unique personality. You will share academic and career objectives, values, and to some degree planned programs of study with other applicants; other candidates will make good matches with the scholarship. But nobody has your personal history. This is the place to draw on that unique resource for distinctive facts, anecdotes, challenges, triumphs, screw-ups, or other distinguishing experiences that memorably identify you as an individual not only worthy of further attention but irresistibly demanding it.

…and are reflective of three basic types of experience:

  1. Formative – those experiences that have *formed* you into the person you are today
  2. Transformative – those moments that caused you to change the way you thought about or responded to things/ideas/people, etc.
  3. Performative – those experiences or accomplishments you look forward to in the future
You might want to begin, then, with a “defining moment” from your past, a pivotal occasion after which you were a different person; an “ah-ha” revelation that changed your direction or radically altered your thinking patterns; an encounter that reconfigured the way you perceived yourself and the world; a person who turned you around or offered the unforgettable counsel that affirmed your own convictions. Your chosen moment need not be explosively dramatic; it might be a quiet, low-wattage illumination. But it should be distinctive. Its substance and consequence, and the voice of its narration, should excite curiosity and urge inquiry. And it should lead, easily and logically, into a description of your academic objectives.

“…other candidates will make good matches with the scholarship. But nobody has your personal history.”

In other words, it must be relevant to and continuous with the remainder of the essay. It should not be cute although it might be witty; it should not be over-written. It should not begin: “I have always just adored animals, starting with my teddy bear.” It should not begin with a hee-haw effect: “I have wanted to be a large animal veterinarian ever since my pet elephant got its trunk stuck in a milk can on Uncle Billy’s dairy farm and stove in the cab of my daddy’s old ’57 pickup with it.” It might begin: “Why would a Birmingham debutante choose to spend her life studying ostrich knees? Our Molly had hers replaced when I was six.”

Such a narrative or anecdotal beginning is not mandatory but stories usually snag attention. Experiment with openings until you find a suitable one (but retain the rejects, pending OHS review of your draft).

Academic Overview

Your academic objectives may be plainly, succinctly stated: you wish to obtain these degrees in this or these disciplines, with related studies in such and such, and then move on to a post-doc in whatever for entrance into the workplace at such a time for the purpose of doing thus and such. You expect to conduct research particularly on this and that. Your plan of study should be detailed enough to demonstrate your serious investigation of the question but not so atomistic as to become boring. Plans of study in American institutions will be simpler to describe than those to be undertaken overseas. For foreign institutions, you must research the institutional site, consult the web resources available from OHS, and review other data on overseas study in OHS. (See especially “Web Resources on Post-Graduate Study in the United Kingdom”.) For both domestic and overseas institutions, it is useful to know something about the faculty in your discipline and their research interests, especially those specializations that match or approximate your own. OHS recommends that particularly when considering universities abroad, you e-mail selected faculty members, well before September, with expressions of interest in their work and in pursuing graduate study at their institutions under their supervision. The strongest scholarship applications frequently cite encouraging correspondence from overseas faculty. But your inquiries of these persons must be brief, few, and without requests for favors.

Strong applications often cite exchanges with faculty in the university of choice

Defining both the individual significance of your proposed work and its potential contribution to human well-being is as important for you as for the committees screening your application, since that significance is likely to become clearer to you as you contemplate the question. Contextualize your project by framing it relative to current concerns within the discipline: that is, how does your planned study or research extend or expand or enrich the field? How might it change understanding in the field? How will it address current limitations or repair current deficiencies or open new doors in the field? How does it reach beyond the field to affect the culture at large? In other words: (1) why is it important to do what you propose to do? (2) why is it important that you do it?

Where you do it may be determined by a combination of personal and professional considerations. There should be compelling academic reasons for your choice: are the institution and the program well-ranked and well-respected by professionals? What do your major professors think of it? Where do its enrollees come from? What is its record of job or post-doc placement? For what specializations is it particularly known? Who is there? What do they write and who publishes it: first-rank journals and presses? How many years of financial support, and in what amounts, does the department provide? And especially: Why is it a more suitable place for you and your academic interests and career goals than its competitors? This last question may be addressed briefly in your essay but a full answer should be prepared for the interview.

Beyond the C.V.

The account of your qualifications for undertaking the proposed study program should go beyond the data given on your cv. It might include, for example, evidence of any research skills or employment training relevant to your anticipated graduate studies. Advanced language skills reinforce credentials for foreign study. Governmental internships, tutoring, editorial experience, emergency-room volunteerism, “shadowing” professionals, publishing and writing, travel, and similar activities may have distinctively formed you to pursue your chosen educational and professional paths. Make the most of these correspondences.

My work, my values, and me.

Consideration of the professional factors shaping your identity leads naturally to a description of how your disciplinary program of study and the career it foresees reflect your character, your values, your personhood. The scholarship you seek should enable the development and expression of your total self, and its aims, along with those of your academic program, should help to articulate the representation of your moral principles and convictions, your fundamental motivations, your guiding purposes and highest aspirations. In one way or another, explicitly or implicitly, the essay should provide a clear sense of your human character.