February 22, 2022

Career Services Blog

Keep Personal Statements for Fellowships “Personal”

by Jessica Peterson, Career Services Graduate Assistant

Writing a personal statement is a standard part of the legal fellowship application process. However, it is easy to feel stuck on what to say and how to talk about yourself. What are fellowship directors hoping to read in a personal statement? What do they want to know about you? What is the difference between a personal statement and a cover letter? How do you balance personal disclosure with professional experience and goals?

Before digging into what to include in the content of a personal statement, there are a few nuts and bolts to make sure you have squared away: 

  • Carefully read the application instructions to see if there are any specifications about the personal statement. Is there a particular topic you are being asked to speak to? Is there a word count or page limit to keep in mind? Just like reading a recipe, read the application instructions thoroughly first to avoid having to double back and correct or change something later, or worse, realizing you’ve submitted an application that didn’t follow directions.
  • Use active voice to convey authenticity. Use an active voice when writing a personal statement. This makes your writing clearer, seems more confident, and is more personal than a passive voice. It shows that you can articulate yourself well and that you mean what you say. And, importantly, also comes off as more authentic, since you are writing in your own voice. An example of a sentence written in an active voice would be, “I dream of starting my own nonprofit legal clinic one day,” whereas this same sentence in a passive voice would sound like, “Starting a nonprofit legal clinic is something I dream of doing.”
  • As with any kind of professional writing, it is crucial to watch for spelling or grammatical errors. Submitting a document that isn’t written cleanly appears careless, and it may tell the reader that you lack attention to detail. To ensure that your statement is free of these kinds of mistakes, ask a friend or colleague to read it and provide feedback. You can also try reading it out loud to yourself, which will bring to light any awkward-sounding sentences and make any misspelled words stand out.

Now that these basic rules have been covered, there are a few guiding principles for what to include in your personal statement and how to write it. Note that a personal statement is not a traditional cover letter but they do share some characteristics. Generally speaking, you are sharing why you are interested in the opportunity and what you will contribute to the program based on your experience and skills.

When writing about the “why” behind pursuing the fellowship, keep in mind that this is a personal statement; they want to get a sense of who you are. Why are you passionate about this particular practice area? What led you to narrow your focus to it? Show that you are dedicated to the work and talk about anything that demonstrates a personal connection to it. Also, while talking broadly about what interests you is great, keep in mind that you should also talk about how you will specifically use your law degree to create change. As suggested by Vanderbilt Law in their article about writing personal statements for public interest fellowships, “Make sure that your personal statement also reflects your intention to use the law to address the issues you are passionate about. While you may have always known that you wanted to help poor or marginalized individuals… legal fellowship funders will be paying you to use a very specific tool – your law degree – in service of those communities.”

In terms of how to talk about the professional experiences that will lend themselves well to the fellowship, think about your achievements and the work you’ve done to get where you are. How might the skills you’ve learned contribute to the work you would be doing at the fellowship? What experiences outside of school help you to stand out amongst applicants? Do you possess any knowledge or proficiencies that would add something special to the program? The key here is to think of what knowledge and skills qualify you for the position based on what the fellowship directors are looking for in all applicants, as well as showcasing the traits you possess that make you unique and exceptional. You can also discuss what you hope to do after the fellowship, and how the experience will serve that goal. This illustrates ambition, as well as a deep commitment to the communities and issues you want to work with. It lets the fellowship directors know that choosing you for this position will be in service of their mission beyond the span of the fellowship itself; they are investing in someone who is committed to the same cause.

In sum, express enthusiasm for the mission of the organization offering the fellowship and personalize your passion by explaining how it developed and led you to where you are. Also share what you will contribute to the project based on your experience, and why choosing you specifically will add something special to their program. Speak honestly about who you are and what you are passionate about, and let this couch what you share about your professional and academic experiences.