The 2019 Fulbright Foreign Student Program


USEF/ Fulbright Advice
for the Personal Essay and Statement of Purpose


General Guidelines

Never forget:

  1. Writing essays is not easy and takes time! It's a difficult process that everyone finds challenging.
  2. There is no one right way to write essays. There are many right ways. As Yale University puts it, "The challenge is to find the best way to say what you want to say in your own way.” See Yale's advice on writing essays: Webpage
  3. Be honest and be yourself!
  4. Besides excellent content, we look for essays that are 1) well structured, 2) effectively formatted, and 3) clearly written. In addition to content, pay close attention to structure, format, and writing.



    1. The classic essay structure has these components
      1. an introduction (sometimes proceeded by an attention-focusing "hook")
      2. short body paragraphs (watch out for long, unfocused paragraphs)
      3. a conclusion summing up main point or main point
    2. It is likely that a statement of purpose will follow this structure more closely than a personal essay, which can be more free form.
    3. You can vary structure by mixing in stories or examples to pull in readers or illustrate your points.



    Formatting your essay effectively is extremely important but often overlooked. You want your essay to be organized, logical, and (most important) easy to read.

    1. Either use indents at the beginning of the paragraph OR skip a line between paragraphs.
    2. Selective use of lists can be very effective. For example: I have three main objectives. First, to develop A and B. Second, to test C and D. Third, to publish my results in E and F. (Be careful to not overuse, but most people don't use enough numbered lists.)
    3. Be creative with your content and thinking, not your capitalization and grammar.


    Tips for Clear, Compelling Writing

    • Clear, concise, and compelling writing matters. Make each word count.
    • Organize your essay into a story or argument, not a list (but lists within paragraphs can be a useful organizing tool.)
    • You don’t have to start at the very beginning of your story. You can mix up the order. Perhaps start in the middle or end of your story and then go back and work your way forward.
    • Make sure the main points of your essay are crystal clear. This is crucial. The point of writing is not to show off, but to create understanding.
    • Your points should add up to an overall message. It’s good to state the overall message at the beginning and remind your readers of it at the end.
    • Show don’t tell. Saying you are committed again and again won't convince anyone. Show us with proof. Saying Nepal has “bad roads” doesn’t say much. Show us these things. Make it real and convincing.
    • Don't embellish your achievements. Don’t overstate or exaggerate.
    • In the last paragraph remind readers of the opening story or key idea at the beginning of the essay.
    • Wordiness can kill a proposal's effectiveness. Make each word count. Cut the rest.
    • In general, avoid the passive voice. Write with strong verbs in active voice. See here: Using Active Verbs to Summarize Achievements and Describe Phenomena
    • Use short simple words, not long complicated words. Misuse of the thesaurus is a common problem.
    • Edit! Edit! Edit!
    • Resources: The Purdue Owl page on writing is EXCELLENT.


    Statement of Purpose

    Here are some questions to think about. No need to answer all of these in one essay. If you get stuck writing, just generate several bullet points under each question. Keep collecting and processing information and thoughts.

    1. What is the project you are working on? It can be very specific (i.e., understand the role of social media in the lives of girls between the ages of 13 and 15) or much more general (i.e., girls education). Explain the significance or larger meaning of the project.
    2. How is your work important for Nepal?
    3. What is the main problem you are working on? How does the problem affect real people? How would you finish this sentence: “Because of this problem, many Nepalis face these problems: X, Y, Z.” What are the best examples or stories related to the topic/problem that can help make it real for people -- so they can see, feel, taste and hear it? Are there any statistics you can give related to the topic you are interested in? Why is it a challenging topic to work on? What issues are involved?
    4. How did you learn about and get interested in the problem? What made you care about the topic? In general, you want to show your reader (not just tell them about) your passion for a subject or commitment to it.
    5. How have other people thought about the problem? How have they misunderstood the problem? How is your approach to the problem different?
    6. What work or research or other experience do you have related to the problem? How has your thinking on the problem changed? What training or exposure do you need to advance your understanding of the problem?
    7. What are 3-4 of your short and long-term goals? Make a list.
    8. What kind of graduate program will help you achieve these goals? Be as specific as possible. Explain. In grad school, what kind of learning environment do you hope to be in?
    9. What excites you about studying in the US (or the program you hope to join)? What are the good aspects of the program? Why is it the right place for you? Apart from the program itself, what excites you about the place?

    Tip: Look for example SOPs online. Read 8-10 examples to decide what is effective. But be VERY careful to use your own words and thoughts in your essay. But, before you look at other examples, make a serious attempt at your own draft. It can be very hard to hear what you have to say when other people’s voices are in your ear. (From Yale Fellowships Webpage)


    Personal Essays

    Here are some questions to think about. No need to answer all of these.

    1. Find your voice. If you are not genuine in your tone, examples, and motivations, your readers will doubt you. Write about the best in you, but not about the person you only wish to be. Embrace the most basic advice about personal statements: Be yourself.
    2. Tell a story about yourself that tells us something crucial or unique about you. What do readers have to understand to understand who you are? It's best but not mandatory that your story reveals something about you that relates to your topic of interest or research or education.
    3. What is the impression most foreigners have of Nepal? How is this inaccurate? What's missing? Can your personal background and interests help people in other countries get a more accurate understanding of Nepal?
    4. Where are you from? Where are your parents from? What is the geography like where you are from? What's the food like? What do people do there? What castes and ethnic groups live there? What makes that place similar to or different from other places in Nepal?
    5. What was your school like? What were some of the key educational experiences (or work experiences) and key lessons you learned?
    6. What people, events, or experiences have inspired you and why?
    7. What are major achievements you have attained or challenges faced? What are some of your major lessons learned in life?
    8. How did you learn about the main problem you want to study? What made you care about the topic? (This info could go here or in your Statement of Purpose, but you don't want to repeat the same info in both places.)
    9. What made you get interested in studying in the US? Why do you want to go? What are some of the places or experiences you want to have there?
    10. Besides your school and study goals, what personal or other goals do you have for studying in the US?
    11. Do not stress how a Fulbright grant will benefit only you or your career ("I always wanted to go to a prestigious university. This grant will help me be at the top of my field.") Remember that the program is intended to foster mutual understanding between cultures and nations, and to help Nepali society.
    12. Tip: Check out these really excellent tips about "Selecting Detail" for essays. They are VERY helpful:


      Common Problems with Essays

      • Exaggeration
      • Wordiness, too many unnecessary words
      • Making claims without proof or explanation
      • Not enough depth (to get deeper, keep asking yourself why this or why that)
      • Not enough detail
      • Repetition
      • Formatting that makes the essay hard to read; no indents or skipped lines
      • Too much about you wanting prestige or the best schools, not enough about the project that explains your need for great education


      Advice from U.S. Colleges and Universities about Application essays.


      Preparing to Write
      Brainstorm ideas: unique experiences, stories behind accomplishments, and "light-bulb" moments.
      Reflect on key ideas and experiences that have shaped you as an individual.
      Demonstrate your personal qualities which fit into the program's goals.
      Know your audience. Committee members from diverse backgrounds of all ages will read your statement.
      Describe what you are passionate about. Show your authentic self.
      Do not restate your résumé.
      Share your ideas/plan with a mentor or friend (or both). Saying your ideas outloud will help you refine your thinking and word choice. Getting feedback will also help. (Very important.)


      Writing Advice
      In your first draft, don’t worry about staying within word limits, but get all your ideas down.
      Prize honesty and clarity above rhetorical flourishes.
      Think of every word and sentence as an opportunity to portray yourself to the selection committee.
      If you are telling a story, employ elements of story-telling, including action, sensory detail, even dialogue, to make your essay compelling.
      Don’t embellish your achievements.
      Show. Don’t tell. Do include specific details, examples, reasons, and so on to develop your ideas and to show your real personal qualities.
      Write. Write. Rewrite. Repeat!


      General Advice
      The essay should be pithy—brief, forceful, and meaningful in expression.
      Your essay must reflect your personality.
      Refrain from lacing your essay with jargon.
      Avoid clichés and platitudes.
      Read your statement aloud to help you “hear” what it will sound like to others.
      Make a unique case for yourself.
      Edit! Edit! Edit!