An Essay on the Essay: Writing Tips and Quips for the Fellowship Application


If you’re like most high school students, scholarship essays are the first time you’ve ever truly been asked to put yourself into words. The Honors College Fellowship application essay is a bit more specific in that it asks you to describe yourself in the context of the school’s own philosophy: Discover, Create, Serve. Each word was carefully chosen to embody a certain facet of the Honors College experience and the fellowship application essay gives you a chance to explore these ideas for yourself… for a handful of distinguished honors professors and administrators to read. No pressure, right?

Compressing your past, present, and future plans into 600 words might seem more than a bit overwhelming, but don’t be deceived; the fellowship essay is not meant to be a mini-manifesto. It’s a way to showcase one piece of your life experience that begs an explanation, something that has inspired your future plans and continues to shape you. If you’ve already submitted your application, stay calm!  These tips will come in handy for numerous essays that you will write in the future, particularly when applying for Honors College study abroad grants and research grants.

To help with the writing process, the fellowship application breaks down the three major themes of the Honors College motto into more tangible essay prompts, but the broad categories leave plenty of room for creative interpretation. I’m an honors college student myself, and though I have written COUNTLESS essays since coming to the University of Arkansas, nothing stirs my nerves like a personal statement. If I’ve learned anything in the last four years it’s that words matter. Your ideas are ultimately the most important part of the essay, but a clear and dynamic writing style will serve you well in any academic endeavor. Now on to the tips!

Take the essay seriously.

Your GPA and test scores matter, but the essay is very important, too. Stellar grades look great on an application and can testify to your impeccable study habits, but grades say relatively little about your personality. The prompt asks that you “avoid platitudes and checklists of accomplishments,” so be specific. What do you read about/write about/dream about that makes you unique? Have you been inspired by something spectacular? What is it that moves you to do the things that you do? The essay is designed to showcase your singular perspective on the world, so share it.

Speak in your own voice.

You’re asked to walk a fine line here —to find a writing style that’s not too casual, but also not too pretentious. Humor is tricky. You have a distinct way of thinking and speaking that should come across on the page, but don’t sacrifice your dignity. Jokes rarely cross cultures and generations, so it’s best to avoid them in your essay. That being said, you CAN have some fun with the material. If you’re passionate about your research/artwork/community, then your readers will be too.

Jump right in.

The best personal essays have powerful opening statements that pop off the page, bringing the reader into the story right away. Don’t waste time setting up your ideas with a stale overview of accomplishments or an attempt to define yourself in a single sentence. You have a small space to maneuver in, so take some chances. Start right in the middle of the action, use bold imagery, and make each word count. It’s okay to pack a little punch with your essay! There will be hundreds of fellowship applicants, so say something memorable. Leave an impression that lasts longer than a page turn

Ask the professionals.

You’ve been poring over this essay for weeks now and it reads like a dream; every grammatical error has been purged, every wayward thought brought into submission… right? Wrong. If you’re convinced your essay is ready for submission, it’s time to bring in the experts to check your work. Ask your favorite English teacher, your class valedictorian, your yearbook editor, or even your mom or dad to give it the once over. They can help you gauge the overall tone of the piece, find mistakes you’re too invested in to notice and make sure your ideas flow logically from one sentence to the next. The revision process can be daunting, but you won’t regret the extra effort.

Use a citation machine.

APA, Chicago, Turabian, MLA… they sound more like government offices than reference styles! Any published or web-based information referenced in your essay must be cited. If the fellowship application is your first encounter with academic citations, save yourself the heartache and use a source generator. As WorldCat, CREDOreference, and Chegg will attest, EasyBib is one of the best generators on the web with headings for each of the major style guides that make short work of difficult sources.

Once again, if you’ve already submitted your application, don’t stress. These tips will serve you well in any future personal statement and may become near and dear as you write hundreds of drafts in your college career. If you haven’t submitted, ask yourself the following questions: Have I identified myself in the text in a way that is interesting and easy to read? Is it clear how the research, activity, or work I have described has shaped my future plans? Do I seem passionate? Intelligent? Committed?

If you can answer these questions with confidence, then you’re well on your way to successful submission. If not, take time away from the computer screen. Walk a new trail, listen to an obscure band, or flip through travel magazines —whatever helps you get a fresh perspective. The words will flow more freely when you’ve relaxed your mind and muscles. Happy writing!

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