Chapter 5: Personal Statements and Application Essays for National Scholarships

A good essay must have this permanent quality about it; it must draw its
curtain around us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in not out.

—Virginia Woolf

Nowhere does a student’s ability to communicate well about personal attitudes and accomplishments become more important than in applications for national scholarships. With a mostly even playing field among scholars when it comes to GPA, personal statements and answers to application questions truly do help selectors winnow out the best choices, seeking a tidy match between individual candidates and available opportunities. A Marshall Scholar might not be right for an NSF Fellowship, and vice versa; a student activist might be a poor fit for many scholarships but perfect for the Truman Scholarship.

This chapter summarizes nine of the nation’s most coveted scholarships, with samples of personal statements and essays following each scholarship description. All of the samples here are strong, and about half of them come from scholarship winners and finalists, culled from about 100 students representing about 20 states.

Using the material in this chapter, educate yourself on your target scholarship and study its samples thoroughly, recognizing the rhetorical strategies employed as well as how carefully writers match their backgrounds to the scholarship criteria. Visit the scholarship websites and read the profiles of past winners when available, envisioning yourself as a featured student on the website in the following year. Most importantly, be prepared to spend 50+ hours studying, reflecting, and writing as part of the scholarship application process, as winners typically report they do. Whether you win or not, the time will be well spent.


In addition to the national scholarships discussed in this chapter, there are numerous other "prestige" scholarships available to ambitious and deserving students. The guidebook, "Prestige Scholarships for College," lists and explains the various prestige scholarships available, discusses how to make them a realistic option, and includes expert advice on increasing your changes of landing one.

Visit the "Prestige Scholarships for College" Website.


The Udall Scholarship

The Udall Scholarship honors Morris K. Udall, an Arizona Congressman who authored legislation to protect wilderness areas and demonstrated commitment to the Native American and Alaska Native populations. Sophomores and juniors are eligible for the scholarship, which covers educational expenses for one year up to a maximum of $5,000. Udall Scholars come from various fields, ranging from environmental science to engineering to political science, and share in common a commitment to preserving or improving the environment. Udall Scholarships also include special categories for nominees who are Native American or Alaska Native with a commitment to the areas of tribal policy and health care.

The Udall Scholarship Selection Criteria

Udall Scholarship applications are reviewed by at least two readers, ranging from professors of environmental science to scholarship directors to representatives from the EPA. Four principal categories are used to rank each applicant:

  • commitment to the environment, health care, or tribal public policy;
  • academic achievements;
  • nominee’s personal essay;
  • personal characteristics as revealed by such evidence as volunteerism and testimonials in letters of reference.

Answering the Udall Application Essay Questions

The Udall application is extensive, including short essays written in response to a series of questions. These questions invite detail in such areas as your professional aspirations, career goals, research experience, leadership, personal motivation, and service, and there’s even an open-ended question asking what additional information you wish to share. In answering these questions, former Udall applicants have described active membership in professional service organizations, a spring break Habitat for Humanity project, a life-changing semester of study in Ecuador, and a project using bird counts as a marker to assess the biological integrity of a local landscape. To answer the open-ended question, which the selection committee uses to sometimes award discretionary points, former applicants have emphasized an interest in environmental education outreach, discussed their role as the first member of their family to attend college, or noted their struggles as a single parent on financial aid.

Most important in answering these application questions is that you read the questions carefully to discern the desired criteria, that you use specifics and avoid unnecessary redundancy with other parts of the application, and that you avoid leaving any of the questions blank or providing answers that are out of proportion to your other answers in length or intent. Seek a balanced, efficient presentation.

Evaluation of Two Sample Sets of Udall Application Materials

The two sample sets of Udall application materials in the pdf below are richly detailed, with both writers thoroughly discussing research and field experiences. In discussing his environmental commitment, the first writer, an environmental engineering student, focuses on a field trip to a Superfund site where he witnessed remediation in action, while the second writer, studying mathematics and ecology, discusses a course she is taking on environmental issues in South Africa and a sailing adventure in the Florida Keys. Of note in the first writer’s essay is his creative answer to question #4, about leadership in his campus community, where he discusses his participation in an outreach service project. The first writer was put forth as a finalist but did not receive a Udall. The second writer did receive a scholarship, after winning honorable mention in the previous year.

The final application question is especially challenging, requiring you to compose an 800-word essay discussing Udall’s ideas and connect them to your own interests. Through the detail of the two samples, we sense that these writers are genuine rather than simply parroting back answers they anticipate the committee wants to hear, and that they studied Udall’s work carefully to inform their essays. The first writer focuses on Udall’s contributions to “the philosophical evolution of the environmental movement,” while the second writer takes the gutsy approach of discussing legislation that Udall fought hard for but later came to regret because of some of its impacts. This writer also draws an interesting case for simpatico views she has with Udall regarding her current environmental project.

Click here to download a pdf of two sets of Udall application essays by former students.


To apply for the Udall Scholarship, you must start the process online, where you’ll find everything from application materials to a video featuring former Udall winners.

Visit the Morris K. Udall Scholarship website.

The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship

The National Science Foundation (NSF) awards fellowships for graduate study in science, mathematics, and engineering to candidates who are expected to contribute significantly to research, teaching, and industrial applications. Fellowships support students for one year or several, and the stipend is generous (in 2009 each fellow received $30,000 for a 12-month tenure), with an additional cost-of-education allowance granted to the fellowship institution ($10,500 in 2009). Obviously these awards are highly competitive, and selection panels choose students who will have a great impact on their fields and bring further reputation to their institutions. The NSF program also includes special awards for women in engineering and computer and information science. Individuals can apply during their senior year of college as well as during graduate school.

The NSF Fellowship Selection Criteria

NSF applications are reviewed by discipline-specific panels of mathematicians, scientists, professors, and engineers. Reviewers attend specifically to two criteria:

  • intellectual merit, including the strength of the candidate’s academic record, the research plan and previous research, and ability to communicate and interpret research findings;
  • broader impacts, reflecting the review panel’s desire to encourage diversity and benefit society through NSF awards.

Once the review panel makes its selections, NSF staff further review the fellowship recommendations, considering additional criteria such as geographic region, discipline, and other policy-specific selection factors.

Answering the NSF Application Essay Questions

The NSF application includes almost 20 questions, four of which must be answered in the form of extensive essays. Essays must be uploaded online through a process called FastLane, with all essays typed in no smaller than a 10-point font size and strict adherence to the dictated page limits.

For the essay questions requiring full narrative responses, applicants must carefully determine the substance of the question and frame responses so that the answers complement each other rather than result in needless redundancy. In this regard, it is useful to think of these questions in the context of just one or two words (e.g., personal motivation, scientific commitment, previous research, proposed research), and frame your answers accordingly. Extrapolate from the lengthy wording of the questions to generate ideas for examples, keeping in mind the fundamental context of the question and sticking to that context.

Evaluation of Two Sample Sets of NSF Application Essays

The two sample responses to NSF application questions provided in the pdf below make for an excellent study in contrast. Also noteworthy: despite the great differences in these two approaches, both students did indeed receive an NSF.

The first sample essays are grounded completely in narrative and do not include any figures, tables, or references. The style is sometimes highly informal, to the point of what some might call a slightly hubristic tone, the use of an exclamation point (!), and even an admittance by the candidate that he has not yet decided on a particular graduate program. Nevertheless, if you read closely you realize that the informality is mostly placed within context of the personal motivation and scientific commitment discussions, while the discussions of previous research and proposed research are scientific and concerned with solving relevant problems related to microelectricalmechanical systems (MEMS). The research hypothesis and applications are also spelled out directly. Thus, we obtain a strong sense of the person (and personality) of this candidate, and we gain confidence in his abilities as a researcher.

In the second sample essays, discussions of previous and proposed research resemble formal literature reviews, each one citing numerous references from refereed journals and presenting figures generated by the author. The applications of the research, which has implications for rebuilding cartilage tissue and relieving musculoskeletal pain, are straightforward and beneficial to society. Meanwhile, we also get a sense of this writer’s personal character, as she cites examples of tutoring other students and her role as captain of a women’s soccer team sponsored by the Biomedical Engineering Society. In short, we meet both the scientist and the humanist—equal concerns for the NSF selectors.

Click here to download a pdf of two sets of NSF Graduate Research Fellowship application essays by former students.


When you apply for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship program, the process begins at the website.

Visit the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship website.

The Fulbright Scholarship

The Fulbright Scholarship provides funds sufficient to complete a proposed research or study abroad project for one year. Applicants submit written documents detailing their research or study plans, which may include a year of graduate study, original dissertation research, a creative or performing arts project, or a teaching assistantship. Because the study is undertaken abroad, applicants must have sufficient maturity, character, and literacy to work within the host country.

The Fulbright Scholarship Selection Criteria

Criteria that selectors use to award Fulbright Scholarships include:

  • likelihood of the candidate and project to help advance the program and promote mutual understanding among nations;
  • sufficient written and spoken literacy in the host country’s language;
  • feasibility and specificity of the proposed plan.

A final criterion is the ratio between the number of awards offered in the target country and the number of applications received—i.e., students applying to countries that receive fewer applications have a greater statistical chance of acceptance. Applicants can assess competition statistics and other details for a particular country by consulting the Fulbright website linked at the bottom of this page.

Composing a Personal Statement and Statement of Grant Purpose

The primary written portions of the Fulbright application are a one-page personal statement and two-page statement of grant purpose. As usual, the personal statement is your opportunity to discuss personal motivations, your experience and activities, and future goals. Though your examples should still be concrete, you have the room to reveal your personality—indeed many applicants view this as their chance to let the selectors know them as individually as possible, and they use lightly entertaining anecdotes to set themselves apart from other candidates. In plain terms, the goal is to write an essay that no other person could have written

In writing the statement of grant purpose, begin by making sure not to repeat material from other parts of the application unnecessarily, and present detail tailored as much as possible to the host country. If you can show that you have performed research on (or, better yet, in) the host country already and have made contacts with potential supervisors, you increase your odds of success dramatically.

The Fulbright website cautions writers against the use of discipline-specific jargon, and a good rule of thumb is to define any jargon that you do use in context, keeping the focus of your statement of grant purpose on addressing problems that will provide valuable contributions to society and within your field. Also, practicality and feasibility are principal concerns, so the best applicants provide a timeline, discuss their methodology and goals, and analyze such variables as the host country’s cultural and political climate and resources. Finally, of course, you must demonstrate as necessary your linguistic ability as it applies to the country and your proposed plan, especially if your primary goal is a teaching assistantship.

Evaluation of Written Materials from Two Sample Fulbright Applications

The first sample essays provided in the pdf link below do an excellent job of making the case for the writer’s personal and intellectual readiness for the proposed project. The personal statement focuses on the student’s experiences as inspired by his service-oriented grandparents—members of the Mennonite Church. These role models inspired the student to travel to Peru and contact the Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA). As we learn in the student’s statement of grant purpose, he wishes to work on a grassroots project in Peru related to rice farming, and he shows that he has earned the support of the MEDA Consulting Group, underscoring the feasibility of his plan.

The two essays in the second set of samples are also neatly intertwined, and the writer opens the personal statement with a delightful anecdote about her family puzzling over why a woman would be interested in geological research. The student uses the essay to detail her science background and educational travel, including a month in Thailand, where she plans to do her proposed seismic research. To underscore the urgency of such research, she opens her statement of grant purpose with a poignant narrative and statistics about the devastating effects of a 1999 earthquake in Central Taiwan. Some readers might have valid concerns over whether the statement of grant purpose is too technical at times, and whether its sources should be cited internally, yet these essays remain impressive overall. Indeed, the writer was named as a scholarship alternate.

Click here to download a pdf of two sets of Fulbright Scholarship application essays by former students.


The Fulbright Scholarship program website is extensive, including everything from statistics on the previous year’s competition to advice about how to prepare your personal essay.

Visit the Fulbright Scholarship website.

The Goldwater Scholarship

The Goldwater Scholarship (honoring Senator Barry M. Goldwater) awards sophomore and junior students up to a maximum of $7500 annually for tuition, books, fees, and room and board. Its aim is to provide a continuing source of highly qualified scholars to work as scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. Students are chosen based on their commitment and potential to make significant future contributions in their fields, and it is expected that Goldwater Scholars will pursue graduate degrees.

The Goldwater Scholarship Selection Criteria

Goldwater applications are reviewed by an independent committee appointed by the Goldwater Foundation, and the committee’s selection criteria include:

  • potential for a commitment to a career in the sciences, engineering, or mathematics, as demonstrated by the student’s overall application;
  • excellence in academic performance.

As with many other national scholarships, candidates for the Goldwater are nominated by their institutions, and final selection of Goldwater Scholars is made by the Goldwater Board of Trustees, which reviews the assessment made by both the nominating institution and the independent selection committee.

Answering the Goldwater Essay Questions and Writing the Nominee’s Essay

The last few questions of the Goldwater application invite narrative responses, with approximate length dictated by the size of the space available to answer the questions. These three questions involve the applicant’s professional aspirations, personal motivations, and diversity (broadly defined). Clearly, a lot of flexibility is built into answering such questions, and students tend to approach these questions accordingly, narrating personal anecdotes and information about their families to let the selectors know what kind of people they are. While still emphasizing science and research, past applicants have shared information about a childhood or other formative experience, the desire to become a professor or write a textbook, their ethnic background, and even information about hardships of their parents. In answering these questions—especially the question inviting comments on diversity—it is important to be genuine and sound natural in your examples. Readers tend to sniff out and suspect aspirations that reach too high, or motivations that are insincere, or diversity that is forced.

For the nominee’s essay (limited to two pages), you must describe an issue or problem associated with your field and describe any related ongoing or intended research. Most writers document any sources cited in APA Style (click here to visit the University of Wisconsin-Madison pages on APA Style), and they are especially careful to credit sources of information and graphics as well as clarify their exact role in the research project. Your aim is to show how you can excel in a research environment, or work as part of a design team, or contribute to the understanding of a technical problem. Remember, too, that members of the selection panel will have the expertise to understand a complex problem in your field, and be certain to present detail accordingly.

Evaluation of Two Sample Sets of Goldwater Application Essays

In the pdf link below, two sample Goldwater essay sets are provided. Note how both writers show a facility with presenting themselves as budding scientists.

In answering the narrative questions, the first writer stresses his aspiration to lead a team of researchers studying pollution control in industrial chemical processes, and cites specific problems he has encountered in his current research on bacteria growth. His tone is almost philosophical at times, discussing the rewards of both achievement and failure in the sciences, and he notes that he is the first in his family to pursue a technical degree. His nominee’s essay stresses the long-term goal of his research in bacterial adhesion, and he carefully describes his team’s use of video microscopy to record particles as they adhere to bacteria.

The second writer addresses the narrative questions by outlining her participation in programs related to women in science and her personal aspirations, ranging from serving as part of a NASA research team to working as a glass blower at a Renaissance Faire. Her diversity background is grounded in her hailing from a highly rural area (even her influential father is a “senior bank auditor but country man at heart”). Finally, her nominee’s essay, addressing the goal to improve the durability of window glass, offers precisely detailed information even to the extent of giving exact nanometer depths that yielded different data points. Such an approach closely resembles a technical abstract that would appear in a journal. Significantly, this student did receive a Goldwater Scholarship.

Click here to download a pdf of two sets of Goldwater Scholarship application essays by former students.


When you apply for the Goldwater Scholarship program, the process begins at the Goldwater website, which includes a transcript request form for your secondary school, a supporting documents checklist, and candidacy information and instructions.

Visit the Goldwater Scholarship website.

The Rhodes Scholarship

Each year, 32 Rhodes Scholarships are awarded to US students, supporting two years of graduate study at Oxford University in any field. In addition to educational costs, Rhodes Scholars receive a maintenance allowance for term-time and vacation expenses. The scholarships are viewed as long-term investments in individuals with “excellence in qualities of mind and qualities of person,” measured by their academic superiority and devotion to humankind. Selectors who compose Rhodes Scholarship committees come from fields including academia, law, government, medicine, and journalism.

The Rhodes Scholarship Selection Criteria

Standards by which Rhodes Scholars are judged include:

  • exceptional literary and scholastic achievements;
  • demonstrated devotion to service, moral character, and leadership.

An additional criterion that can weigh in a candidate’s favor is success in athletics or another demonstration of physical vigor.

The Rhodes Personal Statement

Given the prestige of the Rhodes Scholarship and the staggering competition, many applicants struggle with the fact that they are limited to two fairly short writings in their applications. Candidates provide a list, not longer than two pages and in a font size no smaller than 10 points, of activities and honors in college, and a 1000-word essay setting forth personal aspirations and detailing a specific plan of study for their proposed academic work at Oxford. Needless to say, these documents are scrutinized with great care by selection committees.

The list of activities and honors should be selective and grouped logically into categories, as in a resume or curriculum vitae, and some very brief description could be used amidst this list to give context as necessary. Most important, though—in that the writer has the opportunity to interpret and persuade—is the writing of the personal statement. Excellent Rhodes personal statements are infused with concrete examples, a self-reflective tone, a showcasing of priorities and service, and an overall picture of yourself as a person of accomplishment and character. Some applicants make the mistake of seeing the essay as an academic mini-thesis or a narrative resume, while others treat it as an exercise in purple prose. Some even seem to make a demand for the scholarship or grovel at the feet of the selectors. Such poor visions of what a personal statement should be explain why the Rhodes application calls for the essay to be “written in as simple and direct a manner as possible.” Meanwhile, remember the bottom line about the goal of the personal statement in the eyes of the readers: describing your specific area of proposed study and reasons for wishing to study at Oxford.

Evaluation of Two Sample Rhodes Personal Statements

The two sample Rhodes statements provided in the pdf below are interesting to contrast with each other, in that the first student aims to study health, disease, and culture and the second to study British literature. Also, one writer links herself directly to Oxford only in the final paragraph, while the other links herself throughout.

One of the most striking features of the first sample is its introduction, in which the writer places herself soaked in sweat and deep in thought on a mound of rock in northern Kenya, contemplating the fate of a Homo erectus woman who died 1.7 million years ago. This narrative leads the writer to an extensive explanation, including service-based examples, of the marriage between her degrees in Women’s Studies and Anthropology. Her second page is devoted to her research, including work at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History. We also find details evidencing physical rigor and athletic competition.

In the second sample, the writer opens with the simple phrase “I have found my mentor,” then describes the very person she wishes to study with at Oxford, making further references to this professor in five of the essay’s eight paragraphs. Amidst various literary references, we find examples of the student presenting a paper on Chaucer at a conference as a junior, and finally describing herself as one like Sir Gawain—an adventurer seeking a deeper understanding of self.

Though neither of these candidates received a Rhodes (which punctuates the keenness of competition), both were put forth as candidates by their schools and made it to the interview stage.

Click here to download a pdf of two sets of Rhodes Scholarship personal statements by former students.


Applying for the Rhodes Scholarship involves six steps and an extensive time investment. Begin the process and download the application at the website.

Visit the Rhodes Scholarship website.

The Marshall Scholarship

The Marshall Scholarship is awarded for two years of study in any discipline, usually at the graduate level, and is tenable at any British university. Only the best students who apply make it beyond a school’s internal selection committee to the regional review panel interviews, where about 130 students are interviewed out of 800 applicants, for about 40 awarded scholarships. Of these applicants, more than half typically have a perfect GPA. Marshall Scholars receive payment of tuition and travel as well as a personal allowance to cover living expenses.

The Marshall Scholarship Selection Criteria

Criteria used by Marshall selectors in awarding scholarships include:

  • evidenced distinction of intellect and character;
  • strong motivation and seriousness of purpose, as represented by the proposal of a specific, rigorous academic program.

Selectors also appreciate evidence that Marshall Scholars will view themselves as US cultural ambassadors to the United Kingdom and understand the United Kingdon's role on the world stage. Specifically, Marshall selectors have noted their disappointment in past applicants who seemed unaware that Great Britain is no longer an Empire and did not seem to acknowledge that it is a modern multicultural society. Therefore, applicants should be cautious about how they characterize modern Britain and avoid historical stereotypes.

The Marshall Scholarship Application Essays

Part of the Marshall application invites short written discussions about personal interests and non-academic activities, future career aims, and foreign travel and languages. Clearly, these discussions provide a great opportunity to present examples such as athletics, set some lofty goals, and demonstrate the maturity one needs to study abroad. Choose examples that don’t require much explanation and that are not repeated in the lengthier application essays.

The most significant writings in the Marshall application are a personal statement of up to 1000 words and a one-page summary of the proposed academic programme. The personal statement typically discusses personal motivations, experience in research or teaching, academic activities, and career goals. Most writers keep this essay focused on motivations and ambitions, while some focus more on academic examples such as senior thesis work or research, and some writers introduce their target program in the final paragraph. In their personal statements, former applicants have expanded on such details as their parents’ professions, an influential teacher or course they took, important texts they have read, theories and positions they uphold, future applications of their research, and conference presentations and publications. Stressing academic achievements here is of little to no value, in that academic excellence in Marshall candidates is a given.

In the one-page proposed academic programme essay, tie your experience directly to the target school(s) and provide a clear study plan. Although students list two preferred universities elsewhere in their application, most use the one-page summary to discuss their first choice only. Clearly, the best writers evidence their suitability for the program while showcasing details to prove that they understand the program’s offerings, especially if they have chosen specific individuals at the target program with whom they would like to study.

Evaluation of Two Sets of Sample Marshall Scholarship Application Essays

The first set of Marshall essays in the pdf below takes an interestingly creative approach, with the writer describing himself as a “biological anthropologist by day” and a “philosopher by night” in the personal statement. These two unlikely partnerships, wedded in one person, are exemplified by a paper the student wrote about a “consilience between Nietzsche and the theoretical work of Amotz Zahavi.” We also find affecting narrative in the personal statement, with the writer depicting himself standing waist-deep in a Costa Rican swamp and working with human cadavers in a gross anatomy course. The accompanying academic programme essay is dominated by connections between the writer’s background and his target program, the University of Leeds.

The second set of Marshall essays is generally more formal and research-based, but ultimately equally personal, with detail including the writer growing up as the son of two Presbyterian ministers and extensive descriptions about his physical activities, which he ties directly to the personal attribute of energy. As this student clarifies, his research concern is with fundamental principles of light and the philosophy of measurement, which he intends to study with a particular professor at Cambridge. Most importantly, the writer also notes in his academic programme essay that he aims to complete a third year of undergraduate studies followed by a one-year MPhil research program at the graduate level.

Click here to download a pdf of two sets of Marshall Scholarship application essays by former students.


The Marshall Scholarship process begins online, where you can set up an account for your application as well as read about profiles of past Marshall winners.

Visit the Marshall Scholarship website.

The Truman Scholarship

The Truman Scholarship awards up to $30,000 towards graduate study, and undergraduates apply during their junior year. Applicants must have extensive records of community service, be committed to working in a government or public service position, and possess excellent communication skills. Truman Scholars are also required to fulfill a special public service requirement, committing to work in public service for 3-7 years following completion of their graduate degree, as detailed on the Truman website.

The Truman Scholarship Selection Criteria

In culling from among about 600 candidates nominated by nearly 300 colleges and universities, the Truman Scholarship selection committee uses criteria including:

  • quality and length of community or government service;
  • leadership record, academic performance, and analytical skills.

Selectors give priority to candidates enrolling specifically in graduate programs related to service, ranging from public policy to environmental protection.

The Truman Scholarship Application Essays

The Truman Scholarship application requires extensive writing in the form of more than a dozen questions to answer with lists and short essays and a separate two-page policy proposal. The application questions include discussions of a specific example of your leadership, a recent service activity, a societal problem, influential courses you have taken, your target graduate program and future plans, and an open-ended question for “additional personal information.” There are two important pieces of advice in answering these application questions. First, don’t leave any questions blank—find creative ways to answer all of the questions based on your background, seeking advice from your school’s Truman faculty representative. Secondly, thoroughly scour the Truman website, linked in the “Self-Study” box below. Here you will find links to everything from a checklist to help you assess your potential to become a Truman Scholar to both satisfactory and unsatisfactory responses to application questions.

The website also details policy proposal tips and provides a sample proposal. In the policy proposal, your task is to choose a controversial, manageable, well-studied problem and write a recommendations-based proposal to a government official. Obviously, you are not expected to solve the problem—the committee is interested in how well you can analyze an issue and demonstrate both a passion and practicality for solving it. In writing this proposal, keep in mind the fundamental definition of a Truman Scholar: one who will be an agent of social change.

Evaluation of Two Sample Truman Scholarship Policy Proposals

Because the Truman website is so thorough in its advice about writing personal statements and answering the application essay questions, I do not offer any such examples for this particular scholarship here, instead focusing on presenting two sample Truman Policy Proposals.

In the two sample policy proposals that follow in the pdf link below, you will find some noteworthy similarities: both use the same basic form and headings; both use statistical data to demonstrate the problem; both provide a specific solution (the first in the form of a bill, the second in the form of an education program) to address the problem; both cite a variety of references. These similarities are significant in that every Truman policy proposal needs to have these attributes in order to be successful.

Considering the proposals individually, the first focuses on the controversial topic of discrimination faced by the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) community. This writer analyzes how members of this community experience problems ranging from employment to physician referrals, and correlates how such individuals might be protected in the same way that persons of color are protected under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The writer shows particular savvy as she reminds her target senator that he recently supported the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, but that she proposes a bill whose net of protection would be even wider. As we read the final section of the proposal, purposely even-handed in tone, we recognize that the writer is politically active, aware, and potentially persuasive. Indeed, this candidate did receive a Truman Scholarship.

The second proposal focuses on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), opening by noting the fate of the innocent victims, then branching into statistics about both binge drinking among women and low levels of FAS awareness. The writer’s proposal is to deliver FAS awareness programs within colleges through increasingly popular first-year seminar classes, and the essay’s end analyzes the considerable challenges involved in implementing this proposal. Some readers might find the proposal unpersuasive in that FAS problems themselves are not fleshed out and the relationship between cited data and proposed solution may be thin, but remember that the committee looks at this proposal in the context of the entire application, and fully intends to put a significant writing challenge.

Click here to download a pdf of two sets of Truman Scholarship application essays by former students.


The Truman Scholarship website is extensive and well-organized, including advice on preparing the personal statement, suggestions to candidates from a past participant, a sample Policy Proposal, and profiles of past Truman scholars.

Visit the Truman Scholarship website.

The Mitchell Scholarship

The Mitchell Scholarship is named to honor the former U.S. Senator George J. Mitchell, who served as Chairman of peace negotiations in Northern Ireland. The scholarship funds one year of graduate study at an Irish university and is awarded to approximately 12 students per year. The scholarship provides airfare, tuition, fees, housing, and a stipend for living expenses. The Mitchell Scholarship Selection Committee interviews 20 scholarship finalists in Washington, DC.

The Mitchell Scholarship Selection Criteria

The Mitchell website notes the criteria used to select Mitchell Scholars:

  • Academic excellence and intellectual distinction;
  • An outstanding record of leadership;
  • A sustained commitment to service and community.

No minimum GPA is required and no GRE scores are used in the selection process, but high academic achievement is a necessity in a Mitchell Scholar. Also, a student’s past experience in Ireland or previous acceptance into an Irish university program does not serve as an advantage, in that part of the scholarship’s mission is to introduce new future leaders to Ireland. Nevertheless, one of the necessities of the scholarship is that the student has a concrete plan and commitment to study at an Irish university

Preparing the Mitchell Scholarship Application

The Mitchell application process takes place completely on-line, even for the applicant’s recommenders. Thus, a good deal of time must be spent on familiarizing yourself with the on-line system. Note that much of what you input in the application is the sort of material one lists in a curriculum vitae or resume, and this material will be balanced with your personal statement by the committee as part of the selection process. The application also invites you to list at least three preferences for schools, and the website notes that failure to do so can seriously weaken an application, in that institutional balance is a factor in placing students at universities.

In relation to the personal statement, the FAQ section of the Mitchell website notes this advice:

The personal essay is extremely important. Members of the Selection Committee examine the essay for clues to the character, commitment, and interests of each candidate. This is the only opportunity for the applicant to convey a sense of his/her passions, personality, and intellectual drive. In addition, a well-written essay should provide the Committee with valuable insight into the applicant’s motivation and rationale for the proposed graduate study program that is not otherwise communicated in the rest of the application materials.

In composing the personal statement, which is about two pages (no more than 1,000 words) in length, the basic goal is to present a rationale for the proposed study program and provide concrete evidence of your readiness. Some students detail their achievements in academics, leadership, and service, while others focus heavily on the study program of their first school preference, trusting that their application as a whole will provide a balanced picture of their background. Still other students match themselves to Ireland or Northern Ireland as directly as they can, including travel abroad when relevant, and noting any Irish professors whom they have met or with whom they have had contact.

Evaluation of Two Sample Mitchell Scholarship Personal Statements

The two sample personal statements in the pdf link below are an interesting study in contrasts, in that the first focuses heavily on music performance and the second on political advocacy. While both are strong personal statements, it should be noted that neither student landed a Mitchell Scholarship, underscoring the competitiveness of the application pool.

The first sample statement opens with a narrative discussion of Irish dance performance, after which the writer fleshes out her background in dance and music performance extensively. Indeed, this student has already studied for a semester abroad at University College Dublin and received private lessons in performing Irish “trad” music. Thus, her goal of extended study in this area is well-grounded in experience, and after she discusses her three target programs, making it clear why the University of Limerick is her first choice, she forcefully notes: “I must study in Ireland if I plan to pursue my passion.”

The second sample statement—written by a woman born of Peruvian parents and raised partly in Japan—opens with the writer defining her unique ethnic background and cultural diversity. As we learn throughout the essay, this background has informed her distinctive and deep involvement as an advocate for marginalized voices. She directly links this passion to her three academic programs of choice, and ends by artfully defining herself as a “world student and future political activist,” making a brief reference to Senator Mitchell’s work, and citing her commitment to ultimately helping US Latino citizens.

Click here to download a pdf of two sets of Mitchell Scholarship application essays by former students.


The Mitchell Scholarship website allows you to view a sample online application, offers a printable brochure about the scholarship, and gives profiles of past scholarship winners.

Visit the Mitchell Scholarship website.

The Gates Cambridge Scholarship

The Gates Cambridge Scholarship program, created by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, offers various scholarships funding between one and four years of study at Cambridge University in England. Areas of funded study are graduate, affiliated (a second undergraduate degree), clinical, and MBA, and the scholarships are competed for internationally. Students apply directly to Cambridge through the usual procedures, with the scholarship award decision heavily driven by the target Cambridge department. About 500 US students per year apply for the scholarships, with approximately one-fourth of them being offered a follow-up interview. Nearly 100 scholarships are awarded per year, and about one-third of those awarded scholarships typically go to US applicants.

The Gates Cambridge Scholarship Selection Criteria

Gates Cambridge Scholarship applicants are evaluated by the following criteria:

  • exceptional academic achievement and scholarly promise;
  • aptitude for research, analysis, and a creative approach to defining and solving problems;
  • appropriate fit between candidate’s plans and Cambridge offerings, as revealed through the applicant’s written application and interview.

Gates Cambridge scholars will become leaders who address such global concerns as social equity, health, and technological advances. Obviously, evidence of an applicant’s ability to have such an impact leads to a more favorable outcome.

Preparing the Gates Cambridge Scholarship Application

Gates Cambridge application questions vary slightly based on the area of funded study, but commonalities are questions related to your intended course of study and a 500-word personal statement. When answering these and other narrative questions, detail should be given about how your past activities reflect both leadership and service, and for how a particular course of study at Cambridge will serve to help you attain your goals. A useful exercise is to browse through the Gates Cambridge website link below, where you will find ample opportunities to hear from past Gates Scholars about their work and background. For instance, one Gates Scholar notes the value of her volunteer work in Ecuador. Discussing research and future plans, one scholar describes his plan to work on neuron regeneration at the Brain Repair Centre in Cambridge, while another summarizes his long-term goal to serve in Pakistan as a financial advisor. There is also a 12-minute film on the website detailing the goal to create a network of scholars through the Gates Scholar Alumni Association, and featuring recent Gates Scholars discussing their motivations and goals. Obviously, familiarizing yourself with these scholars will help you decide how to present yourself so that you can stand tall among them.

Evaluation of Two Sets of Sample Gates Scholarship Application Essays

In the pdf link below, the two sample excerpts from Gates Cambridge applications show the depth and diversity of students who apply for this scholarship. The first student, studying colon cancer, shows interests in everything from Renaissance painting to technical writing, while the second, studying speech technology, discusses interests ranging from computer security to swing dancing. Both of these students were awarded a Gates Cambridge Scholarship.

The first writer uses her short statement of research proposal to demonstrate her thorough awareness of the program at the center where she aims to conduct research at Cambridge. In her accompanying 500-word essay, she strikes a bold and creative tone by representing herself as something of a modern “Renaissance woman” (she even explores her creativity by “reproducing an intricate Renaissance painting” at the age of 13)—one who sees the study of science as an outlet for her creative mind, and one who takes the initiative to co-found and edit a health journal as well as teach science to students in state custody. Her theme of creativity as the “driving force” in her development and eventually leading her to science is both rhetorically persuasive and stylistically elegant.

The second writer discusses the specific course of study he would like to complete at Cambridge, followed by research which he hopes would make computer technology available to a wider audience, “including those suffering from physical disabilities.” His passion for working in this area becomes further articulated in his 500-word essay, where he expresses concerns about sensitivity of personal information and “the safety and stability of the global economic community.” Like the writer in the first example, he sees education as an important vehicle for change, and he has taught computer literacy classes to the elderly as well as studied abroad during his junior year at Oxford University. He ends his essay affirming his desire to “take action to improve the condition of humanity.”

Click here to download a pdf of two sets of Gates Scholarship application essays by former students.


The Gates Cambridge Scholarship website provides information on applying for the scholarship, profiles and quotes from recent Gates winners and alumni, and links to the bi-annual magazine The Gates Scholar.

Visit the Gates Cambridge Scholarship website.