Demystifying the GRFP: Personal Statements

This is the fifth and final post in our Demystifying the GRFP series. See also: IntroductionGeneral Information and TipsLetters of Recommendation, Research Proposal

People have mixed feelings on personal statements, but I believe it is the most important part of your application. It is the only place where you get to ‘talk’ to your reviewers and tell them why you deserve the fellowship. You can also contextualize anything that might look strange in your resume. If you are able to write something interesting and meaningful, you will come across as more human to your reviewers. If you take the route of listing out what you’ve done without careful editing, you will only be a list of accomplishments that blend in with other applications. Use the space wisely!

Here are my tips for thinking about how to write a personal statement:

  1. Read examples before starting to write. As many as you can get your hands on! I read mostly successful applications, but I also read a few applications that received an honorable mention or were unsuccessful. Notice the similarities between winning applications and differences with unsuccessful applications.
  2. Think like a reviewer. Reviews begin during the holiday season and most reviewers spend only 10 minutes on your entire application. Make it easy for them to immediately find the rubric items they need to deem you an amazing applicant. 
    • Label your sections ‘Intellectual Merit’ and ‘Broader Impacts’
    • Underline/bold/italicize important sentences about significant achievements
    • Avoid any fluff – every sentence should have a purpose
    • Get to the point quickly so reviews don’t need to scan as much
  3. Don’t repeat your resume – create a story instead. There’s a difference between giving context to items on your resume and just stating what happened. Tell them a story, it will be more meaningful to you and them. Here’s an example from my application:
    • I competed in a poster competition where I was a finalist (underline!). What you don’t know from reading my resume is that it was meant to be a competition for graduate students and postdocs, but I was encouraged to compete as an undergraduate anyways. That makes the accomplishment way better.
  4. Reflect on your journey as a scientist. I personally thought the best story would come from some self-reflection. Every story I wrote focused on a different piece of my development as a scientist. Here’s an example of what I wrote about:
    • I used 2D NMR in my undergrad research but didn’t learn it in class – I learned it independently by talking to other scientists and reading textbooks and websites. I demonstrated that I am not scared to tackle a new technique and am able to quickly pick up something new. I told a story about how learning NMR led to success on a project and publication of my first paper (underline that accomplishment!). 
  5. Demonstrate your passion for science. Reviewers want to know that giving you the fellowship is a worthy investment. A good way to demonstrate worthiness is to show you are committed to your future as a scientist. In my application, I painted a story about how much I enjoyed the process of thinking through problems. 
  6. GRFP awards people not projects. The most important thing you can do in your application is demonstrate how you think as a scientist and a deep interest in bettering the world with your science. Convince your reviewers you will be a future leader in science.
  7. Find a unifying theme for the achievements you will talk about. This might be difficult if you have some varied research experiences. Can you identify a broad topic that connects them? I used structure-function relationships as my unifying theme. 
  8. Show don’t tell. Pick some representative stories to share. Be specific, you want to create an interesting narrative. What writing components make your favorite story a good read? 

Recommended structure:

  1. Introduction (1 paragraph, ⅓-½ page). You are trying to create an interesting hook in this section. Lots of people talk about how they got into science, but I heard some advice that talking about what you plan to do with your love of science in the future can often be a better hook. It shows reviewers that you are committed already to a goal in the future, not just doing something you think you like. 
    • Ex. “I have always been curious about human health.” v.s. “I have a strong desire to fight antibiotic resistance by furthering my education as a chemical biologist.”
  2. Intellectual Merit (~1.5-2 pages) The bulk of your statement will be here. Make sure to hit everything on the rubric. Do it by demonstrating stories about yourself. Don’t forget future goals too!
  3. Broader impacts (~1 page – if you can! I could only fill ⅔ a page) Remember, there is no such thing as too much broader impacts. Talk about not only past experiences, but also your motivation and what you see for the future. Find a common theme in the types of broader impacts activities you do. I had a reviewer write that a ‘5’ ranking for broader impacts should talk about something you could not do without the fellowship. I agree this is difficult to do – think about time, money, research freedom, etc. you receive with the fellowship.
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