What to Include

Selecting Meaningful Content

The best personal essays reflect the values (convictions, ideals, identity) and competencies (talents, knowledge, experience) that form an important part of who we are and what we are able to accomplish. 

If you were to sketch out a map of your competencies and values--those that you currently possess, and those that you hope to attain--what emerges will likely to be a rather messy and fragmented version of yourself.  In everyday life, we are much more streamlined creatures, strategically and selectively mobilizing specific pieces of this puzzle. Imagine the different combinations—the different "selves"—you unconsciously create when you talk to your mother, yell at a sibling, go on a date, approach a professor, apply for a job, or fill out your study abroad application.  

These varied "selves" point to an important truth: we don't exist as an additive whole; rather, we exist at the dynamic and evolving intersection of these various facets of self. In personal essays, the process of selection and combination is raised to a more conscious and thoughtful level. Which self--culled from those values and competencies, and aligned with your past experiences and future goals—do you want to create today given the audience and occasion?  

The most successful narratives answer this key question clearly and confidently by focusing on 2-4 representative experiences from the past few years that, taken together, aptly and variously reflect a strategically chosen and limited set of key values (who you are) and competencies (what you can do) in a rich and textured narrative. If tackling so many distinct experiences seems like too much to manage in the space of the essay, you might also focus on representative facets of a single, significant experience, only briefly hinting at other, supporting experiences along the way.

Some of these experiences might be obvious: major research projects you've undertaken; a meaningful summer service or study abroad experience; a sustained community engagement project; or key leadership experiences. But you can find important values reflected in seemingly mundane actions as well. Indeed, it is our reflection on these things—whether momentous or mundane—that makes them monumental. Before you begin your essay, then, strategically select the experience or experiences that will lend substance and heft to your essay.

The key word here is strategically: the narrative that you compose should be carefully pitched towards the opportunity at hand. This means, first, that you should make sure the content you select adequately addresses the terms of the relevant essay prompt. One size does not fit all: while some prompts (such as the one Fulbright uses) are very broad, others (check out the Critical Languages prompt) are much more specific. Your narrative should also subtly reflect the values of the granting or reviewing institution. Clearly, the personal and professional values you foreground for a study abroad scholarship focusing on water resource management would be very different from the ones you might emphasize for a domestic public policy fellowship.

Though it can be complicated to decide what to include in these narratives, the goal is simple: give your reader a coherent sense of who you are and what you value, or what you have done and what you will do. Though we often call the product a "personal essay," it is often best to think of it as "professional narrative"—one that reveals and provides evidence for one's core values and capabilities. Those values and capabilities will be personal not necessarily because they will be overflowing with emotion or reveal private details, but because they are uniquely yours. 

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