Writing Personal Statements for Scholarship or Graduate School Applications

If you plan to apply for admission to a graduate program or for a grant or fellowship, you will need to write a personal statement. While all applications contain specific instructions, and you should definitely pay attention and tailor your statement to the program for which you are applying, there are some general principles that govern writing personal statements. Remember that you are writing an essay, and like any essay, it should have a clear purpose, strong organization, and impeccable grammar and syntax.

The personal statement should do the following:

Tell the department or organization:

  • who you are
  • what makes you tick
  • what separates you from other strong candidates
  • what special things you have done
  • what problem have you solved or challenge overcome, finishing with resolution.

Try to say something interesting about yourself, because people like stories and will use their perception of your story to evaluate your application. The structure need not be framed chronologically. Consider what might be a good point of entry.

Explain what has led you to consider your choice of degree (which will lead to some career outcome, e.g., Ph.D. in Rocket Science so I can train NASA astronauts). For a grant or fellowship, talk about why you want to do whatever it is that the grant funds.

Explain what is special (perhaps this is who) about the department that has caused you to apply to them. This means you have to do some homework and tells the department that you’ve done your homework. Consider if your story arc is relevant to the department. A Ph.D. in Rocket Science is not relevant to a department of history. On the other hand, don’t waste space on statements of the obvious, such as “Oxford is one of the greatest universities in the world.”

The answer to the first portion should be well over 50% of your statement; addressing the second will be perhaps 10-20% and the final response will be the rest.

After you have done a few drafts, ask someone who knows you reasonably well (or several such people), “What strikes you about me?” Ask yourself, “What is the most difficult obstacle I’ve overcome?” Or, “What was my watershed moment?” The answers will produce seeds of what’s interesting about you.

Show your draft to mentors or friends who can help you refine it.

When reading the final draft, ask, would a reader want more, or respond, “We’ve got to get this person here” ?

Keep in mind the following points:

  • Do not repeat things that are found other places in your application.
  • Essays are not lists. Be sure you are telling a story, not writing a list of your accomplishments.
  • Use the essay to talk about the development of your mind, your interests, your ambitions and your priorities. The details of your childhood are generally not relevant.
  • When you make big generalizations, it is a good idea to give an illustrative example.
  • Stay away from broad statements, unless you can explain them. For example, saying “My time in Antarctica changed my life” is not useful unless you can explain how it changed your life, and how that change is relevant to your application.
  • Avoid clichés or jargon of any kind. For example, it is generally not helpful to say that you value diversity, or that you are looking for a challenge. While these things may be true, you need to find a more specific, less clichéd way of talking about them.
  • Consider talking about books, experiences or ideas that have shaped your interests.
  • Remember that many programs do not conduct interviews, and so will not be able to ask you follow-up questions. You must explain yourself fully in your essay. Consider carefully the details you choose.
  • On the other hand, if the program does conduct interviews, you must be ready to expand on anything you mentioned in your application. If you are not prepared to discuss any element of your life in an interview, you should not include it in your application.

 

One approach to beginning the personal statement: Create a story board using post-its, which you can then move around until they are in the right order; then begin composing your story.

Alumni Feature: Tara Tappert, Ph.D.

tappert-taraTara Tappert ‘73 may have graduated from Hope over 40 years ago, but her enthusiasm for learning and teaching hasn’t waned.

I am continually making and re-making the focus and direction of my career—teacher, writer, curator, editor, events planner, and advocate.

After getting her undergraduate degree in History, Dr. Tappert received an M.S.L.S. in Library and Archives Administration from Wayne State University before going on to earn her Ph.D. in American Civilization from George Washington University.

For the past six years, Dr. Tappert’s main research has been on the arts and the military in the U.S. She is particularly interested in how the arts were used for rehabilitation and vocational training during and after the First World War; how arts and crafts continued to play a role in soldier well-being and efficacy during and after the Second World War; and how art making positively impacts military service members and families today.

tappert-arts-and-militaryDr. Tappert has launched a grassroots initiative called The Arts & The Military, a program which offers learning experiences, community-based arts making workshops, and provides access to a collection of contemporary artwork available for exhibitions. The ART-ifacts collection offers “nearly 300 objects made by contemporary veterans, military family members, and civilians interested in issues of war, violence, and trauma.”

At the core of my work is an interest in the cultural role of art making as a way to deal with war trauma and violence.

IMG_1051_2.JPG_croppedIn 2014, Dr. Tappert was the David B. Larson Fellow for Health and Spirituality at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, where she continued her research on arts and crafts making as a creative response to war trauma. At the end of her fellowship year she presented an illustrated lecture—Art from War: Documenting Devastation/Realizing Restoration.

During the summer of 2014 Dr. Tappert participated in an National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Summer Institute, World War I and the Arts: Sound, Vision, Psyche, at the University of Cincinnati.  And this summer, she will be participating in another NEH Summer Institute on Veterans in Society, at Virginia Tech.wwi-psyche

 

Internships with Dr. Tappert are available for current students. Check in with the Career Development Center to set up a meeting to discuss opportunities or contact the History Department chair, Jeanne Petit.

Student Feature: Rebecca Fox

By Rebecca Fox

Me in front of Dolbadarn Castle.

I knew that I wanted to study abroad almost as soon as I came to Hope.  I even knew exactly where I wanted to study: Wales.  Since I love Welsh literature and history, I longed to explore the breathtaking Welsh mountains, to see where my favorite stories took place, and to finally be able to practice my novice Welsh!

There was one hitch in my plan:  Hope doesn’t have any study abroad programs in Wales.

Dr. Baer, my advisor for my history major, encouraged me throughout the process of tracking down and applying for a suitable program, and even helped me in my research.

For several months we weighed options together to find the best program for my interests. I was so glad to have a guide, especially since I was nervous about courses that would meet my goals and also transfer well back to Hope.

Downtown Bangor.

Finally, we set on a semester-long program in the city of Bangor—a college town on the coast of Northern Wales which was nestled in a valley between the high peaks of Snowdonia and the Isle of Angelsey.

You know, Wales–pretty much Middle-earth.

At Prifysgol Bangor (Bangor University), I took courses in Welsh language and history, medieval literature and Celtic and Anglo-Saxon archeology, all of which transferred seamlessly back to Hope.

While most of the classes I took were in familiar fields, I had never taken an archeology course before.  Hope doesn’t offer any courses in this area, but Prifysgol Bangor considers archeology to be a sub-field of historical studies.

At first I felt very much out of my depth, but I quickly fell in love with British medieval art.  The knowledge of British literature and history that I had acquired at Hope had primed me to deeply appreciate the intricate artistry of the Celts and Saxons.  The highlight, though, was certainly traveling to see several 1,000-year-old carved stone crosses in various fields and village squares.

A cuddly wild pony near the waterfall at Abergwyngregyn.

I spent four-and-a-half months studying Anglo-Saxon reliquaries, sculptures and jewelry—at least, when I wasn’t hiking in the mountains, visiting crumbling castles, burying myself in the university’s wood-paneled library, drinking tea in cozy pubs on rainy evenings or hunting down a few of Merlin’s legendary haunts.

I’m so grateful for the students who welcomed me into the Bangor Christian Union.

It wasn’t all fun and games, though. I’m not really the poster child for studying abroad.  I don’t have wander lust or anything like that–I’m a home-body who loves to build community.  I also had a really great boyfriend, roommate, church, and academic community back at Hope College.  Despite the hospitality and kindness of people I met in Bangor, leaving home was really hard for me, and I had lots of tear-filled Skype sessions and times of loneliness and frustration while I was abroad.

However, it was absolutely worth it.

I learned that travel is not just for the “free spirits” among us, but is also for anyone who has a deep longing to learn.

Hope’s History department offers a variety of classes and offers an excellent education, but it can’t cover everything. That is why I’d encourage anyone with a specific academic passion to take advantage of the opportunity that they have here; rarely will you find so much support for whatever you want to achieve. In fact, I’d say that the best thing about Hope’s History department that its faculty go above and beyond in helping students pursue their individual goals—whether on campus or abroad.

Faculty Feature: Albert Bell

By Al Bell

I guess it’s appropriate that I should be the first faculty member to introduce myself since I’m the senior member of the department, both in age and in terms of service. I came to Hope in 1978. I’ve had the children of some of my first students in my classes.

If someone had asked me in 1978 to list five states where I would like to live, Michigan would not have appeared on that list. But I have enjoyed living in Holland and being part of the Hope community. Three of my children and both of my grandchildren live in Michigan. I have lost one daughter to California (she hates cold weather).

History has always been interesting to me for two reasons: 1) People’s lives in other times and other cultures have an intrinsic fascination. I want to understand why they do/did things the way they do/did. 2) Everything that happens in our world today is the result of what has happened in the past. Understanding the past gives us a fuller understanding of what we’re seeing and hearing in the news today.

Everything that happens in our world today is the result of what has happened in the past.

The first page of our website says that “historians are society’s storytellers.” I’ve taken that more literally than most people and have written several mystery novels set in ancient Rome. I use a real person, Pliny the Younger, as the detective in the novels. Pliny wrote a number of letters which show him as an inquisitive, skeptical person—just the sort to investigate crimes. His two letters on the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD are the basis of the modern study of volcanoes. The books are based on research I’ve done throughout my entire academic career. Reviewers have said they learned a lot about life in ancient Rome while enjoying a good read.

Check out my web site.

Hope History in the News

Inventing America, Episode 1 (“Making a Nation”), a “live” interview with four of the nation’s Founding Fathers filmed before a live audience at Hope College in December 2014 will be featured on PBS stations around the country this July 4th. “Making a Nation” highlights the origins of the Declaration of Independence.  If your local PBS station does not carry it the program is available online.

Professional actors portrayed Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and John Dickinson, while Hope History professors Marc Baer served as moderator and Fred Johnson as interviewer in a followup Q & A session.

Student Feature: Katelyn Kiner

katelyn-kinerAs a History and French major with a special interest in French history I was over the moon to take French history courses taught in Paris during my year abroad!

I expected to learn loads in the classroom and by visiting historical places. I however never expected I would take part in history. Never did I imagine I would be there for an event that people ask “Where you where when you heard?” I’m talking about the terrorist attacks on the 13th of November.

From inside the cafe during the attacks.  They closed the metal door shutters and moved everyone to the back.
From inside the cafe during the attacks. They closed the metal door shutters and moved everyone to the back.

I was at Café du Marche in the Marais, a mile from the Bataclan. A distance that becomes very short when no one knows what exactly is going on.

Unsurprisingly it was an emotional experience for me. I love France and to have French citizens hurt like that made me angry, but I was also scared because this was a random attack. That is to say these people had done nothing in particular against ISIS, besides living freely. Parisians were all faced with the realization that there was nothing we could do to protect ourselves in the future.

Eiffel Tower lit up in the French flag a week after the attacks.  Before this the Eiffel Tower had been dark.
Eiffel Tower lit up in the French flag a week after the attacks. Before this the Eiffel Tower had been dark.

Any sort of intercultural preparation you’ve had in the past doesn’t prepares you to experience an event like this. Not only are you trying to process the depths of this evil, but you’re trying to do so through a cultural filter. The French were reporting this event through their cultural lens. A lot of culture comes from history and shared experiences. While I don’t have many shared experiences, I do have a solid grasp of their history and that was enormously helpful for me. The post-attack experience wasn’t easy, but I could at least understand how we had gotten here.

Among other areas, I’m interested in the rather troubled religious history of France. In part because I have ancestors that fled France in the late 17th century due to religious persecution and personally as a Christian wishing to move there in the future. Many events played a roll in shaping the religious climate of today in France, but here are a few of the main ones.

The altar of the church the Sunday the 15th of November.  Many churches had little groupings of candle that people lit in memorial.
The altar of the church the Sunday the 15th of November. Many churches had little groupings of candle that people lit in memorial.

In 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 thesis to the church door, and less than 50 years later the French Catholics and Protestants were already at war with each other. The French Wars of Religion (1562-1598) proved to be a very bloody conflict and was finally ended by the newly crowned Henri IV, a protestant turned catholic king.

The Edict of Nantes created in 1598 allowed for protestants to worship freely. This edict lasted until 1685, when Louis XIV revoked it. This created a period of renewed conflict as protestants were forced either to convert or flee, in both cases losing property and social standing. It was during this period when my ancestors fled to what would become Germany.

The next important event was the French Revolution in 1789, which fueled by Enlightenment thinking and a distrust of the monarchy-backed Church, created the beginning of French state secularism. In 1905 this state secularism was formalized with the law of December 9, 1905, where religion was put strictly in the private sphere. This means that in any government building, including public schools, you cannot wear anything that identifies you as Christian, Muslim, Jewish, etc. After the deportation of French Jews during the second World War this law applied even more strictly.

The law of December 9, 1905 was born out of the desire to make everyone equal, by doing away with outward features. What I saw after the attacks was a floundering of the French public. Their secularism had failed. Some the attackers were French and they had attacked other French in the name of religion.

A few weeks later during Hanukkah and Christmas military men guarded the entrances of houses of worship. In short, following the attacks, the government now had to protect the divisions they claim don’t really exist or matter. In my humble opinion, strict secularism doesn’t work because it fails to realize for genuinely religious people, religion is all consuming, it doesn’t just exist at home.

As France continues to adjust to the new threat of terrorism and influx of Muslim refugees it will be interesting to see how the French public react and how the question of separation of religion and the state continues to be answered.

After the attacks I had a new answer to the age old question “What will you do with your history degree?”. My response: You will know the complex and often centuries old history behind today’s conflicts. By knowing, you will understand the event on a more in-depth level, which makes you an overall more engaged and productive member of society.

Colonial Food in Interwar Paris: The Taste of Empire

By Lauren Janes

This past January, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani was touring European capitals after the completion of the nuclear deal opened Iran to European investment.

On his visit to Paris he met with French President Francois Hollande, but not over a meal. The two leaders were originally supposed to share an upscale lunch, but the Iranian delegation demanded a meal prepared to Halal standards (something easily acquired in France) and with no wine served. The French president refused.

Rouhani and Holland were both constrained by popular concerns in their home countries that “outsiders” (be they Westerners in Iran or Muslims in France) were a threat to national identity, symbolized so viscerally by Halal dietary restrictions and French wine. The cultural meaning of these foods kept these two powerful world leaders from sharing a meal.

janes-colonial-foodMy new book, just published by Bloomsbury Academic Press, starts with this notion that foodways — what we eat, how we eat it, and how we talk about it — are powerful markers of identity. In Colonial Food in Interwar Paris: The Taste of Empire, I use this lens of food and identity to better understand France’s relationship with its empire during and after the First World War.

Colonial Food tells the story of how the French first tried to start shipping foods from the French colonies in Africa and Indochina to France during the First World War. This effort was an utter failure, but it inspired the French colonial lobby to start promoting the idea that the colonies could and should feed France. The rest of the book analyzes the promotion, reception, and rejection of colonial foods in France. I argue that the distrust of colonial food, from Indochinese rice to tropical fruit to curry powder, reflected French society’s disinterest in the empire.

You can learn more about the book and read a preview on Google Books.

Student-Faculty Collaborative Research: The United War Work Campaign

By Jeanne Petit

JeannePetitDuring the Summer of 2015, I and four Hope College history majors had the opportunity to spend 10 days at the Library of Congress to complete an intensive research project.

We set out to create a research-based website about the 1918 United War Work Campaign, a World War I fundraising campaign by religious and secular organizations to raise money for work with United States soldiers.

The students completed preliminary research at Hope College, and when they arrived at the Library of Congress, they began to explore the extensive collections. They explored many of the library’s divisions, including Prints and Photographs, Manuscripts, Newspapers and Periodicals, Rare Books, and Music Collections.

uwwc-studentsStudents also got the opportunity to work in the beautiful Main Reading Room and tour behind the scenes at the library. They had tremendous success in finding material that would create a strong foundation for a website, including propaganda posters, sheet music, photographs, advertisements in foreign-languages newspapers, and letters by presidents, generals, and other national leaders.

When the students returned to Hope, they completed work on a website titled: For the Boys over There: The 1918 United War Work Campaign. This website includes interpretive essays about the different organizations involved in the United War Work Campaign as well as analysis about the ways race, gender, religion and ethnicity shaped the campaign. This website will be of interest to the general public who want to learn about a fascinating story about the World War I United States as well as researchers who want to dig deeper into the primary sources of the campaign.

The benefit to students went beyond their research experience.

They also got the opportunity to interact with student scholars from John Cabot University in Rome and Forman Christian College in Lahore, Pakistan. They learned about the research of those students and also got to know them as friends and learn about their cultures. Overall, this experience reveals the benefits of moving the research experience out of the classroom and allowing history students to take up the work of historians.

You can see the results of their work here: www.unitedwarwork.com

uwwc-image