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7 Tips for Writing Fulbright Essays

  • Kimberly Collins
Oct 31, 2017

All Fulbright applications include two critical essays: a personal statement and a statement of grant purpose, one single-spaced page each. In theory, it shouldn’t be too bad, right? One little page talking about yourself? Wrong. They’re torturous. You have to explain who you are, why you are worthy of this grant, and why you stick out from all the other hordes of qualified applicants. And when you have only one page, every single word counts.

These two essays are hands-down the linchpin of a Fulbright application, so in this post we’ll zero in on seven primary strategies for writing them.

 

1. Demonstrate why they should pick you, as opposed to all the other qualified people. We can safely assume that everyone who's putting in the time and effort to apply would love to be accepted – the desire is clear. Fulbright rocks. The question is why the Fulbright committee should pick you over everyone else. You need to present a compelling case for how this grant would be a perfect fit not just for your interests, but for you as a person – your skills, your experiences, the actual value you will add. Saying “I’m interested in Latin American politics” means nothing. I, for example, am incredibly interested in quantum mechanics, but would be 100% useless in a laboratory if assigned to measure the movement of photons.

 

2. Demonstrate why you are ideal for this grant in this country, as opposed to all the other options. Don’t do a ten minute google search and then say you picked Argentina because you’re interested in tango and gaucho culture. Dig deep and do your actual research. Read books, read BBC articles, talk about personal connections. If you don’t have a worthwhile case for why you picked this country, rethink why you’re applying there in the first place. Note: you can also include why they are a perfect fit for you – but you must always hit their perspective first, since they are the reader. Once you have already shown your value-add (i.e. what’s in it for them), then – and only then – you can show what’s in it for you. Mention your short- and long-term career goals, personal interests, etc. 

 

3. Show, don’t tell. There's infinitely more value in a story that shows what you've done and what you're capable of than in a statement that tells what you would like to do. Tell specific, personal anecdotes of measurable, meaningful outcomes you’ve elicited. Anyone can say "I want to go here and do this," but only you can say "I conducted X project at X location that had X outcome." These people have no idea who you are and no reason to believe you when you say "I am capable." You should aim to so effectively prove that you're capable that you eliminate the need to even say it. We can trust that the reviewers are smart humans who can then infer certain facts from your persuasively demonstrated qualities – which brings us to our next point.


4. Don’t state anything that can be inferred
. Again, we can assume that anyone who’s assigned to review Fulbright applications has an intelligent, insightful mind at the ready. If you tell them a story in which you started a program for 100 students that improved their language abilities by 60% over one year, you absolutely do not need to then round off your impressive story with a flat statement such as “This experience will help me in Spain because it taught me the value of hard work and how rewarding it can be to help students with language.” That sentence is weak, adds no additional value, and takes up 1.5 lines that could be repurposed elsewhere.

 

5. It’s too long if you can make it any shorter. You have one page. Every single word should bring value, otherwise cut it and add something better. Even swap out words for shorter synonyms if it means wrapping up a paragraph at the end of the line versus dangling onto the next. This page should be exploding with compelling content. Often in writing, we want to be descriptive, flowery – we want to decorate our prose with smells, colors, music. I am the first to get that. However, personal statements are never that time. In an early draft, one of my advisors said to my face, “Kimberly this is not poetry, this is a Fulbright essay. Take out all this paper throat-clearing and put in some actual content.” And she was right – I sliced the poetry and squeezed in three more stories demonstrating relevant, specific qualities. I still treasure her advice.

 

6. Speak assertively. Remove any phrasing such as “I think” or “in my experience.” Obviously all of your essay is what you think, based on your life experiences. You are the writer here. Those phrases are useless to your essays. Similarly, use active rather than passive voice. Instead of writing “this experience taught me,” write “I saw firsthand,” or better yet just make your statement.

 

7. Write, revise, rewrite. You will likely write double-digit drafts of your essays. I lost count on draft #17 of mine. By the time you’re crossing your t’s on that final version, your essay will look nothing like your first several drafts – but that should be a freeing thought. So often in writing (and in life), the hardest part is just starting, just putting any kind of sensible words on the page. So if you go into it already assuming that none of those original words will make the cut anyway, it takes at least some of the pressure off.

“But wait, wait, wait,” you say, “why should I take your advice when you yourself have some extraneous words here?” Well, because I didn’t write 17+ drafts of this blog post – but I promise you my essays were stellar.

This is not an official Department of State publication. All the views and information presented are Kimberly's own and do not represent the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, the Department of State, the Fulbright Commission, or the host country.

About the Author

Kimberly Collins

Raised in Indianapolis, Kimberly now writes and travels from Montevideo, Uruguay. After studying global politics, she worked for a small tech company until a 2016 Fulbright grant plopped her in Uruguay. She’s since finished the grant but opted to stay abroad, continuing to advance her Spanish, bop around South America, and soak up all the learning and dancing she can.

Read more of Kimberly’s blogs

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