Tips for Writing the The Ideal Fulbright SOP
I never believed I could get Fulbright. I refused to apply until my dad almost forced me to. That’s because I hung over my academic performance during my undergrad and my recent experience of straight rejections from UK universities I had applied to. Morale was low, and I didn’t want to set myself up for any more disappointment….
But then I applied, and by the grace of Allah, my life was transformed by the experiences that followed! Since then, I have spent several years mentoring other aspiring applicants for Fulbright and helping them see that there is much potential and promise that they hold, regardless of their grades and/or other apparent failures.
After having guided many applicants, and having spent countless hours providing feedback and editing people’s essays, I’m writing this blog post. If you would like a basic overview of Fulbright essay writing process, I recommend reading this, this and this.
The purpose of this blog is to give some more advanced pointers on how to write Fulbright essays.
In this first part of this blog, I’m going to focus on tips for the Personal Statement essay.
Give Yourself a Month
Please set out ideally a month to write your essays, and expect to revise them very significantly at least 8 times each. Do not go to a million people for feedback, everyone has a different idea of what a great essay is like. Instead, show your drafts to two or three trusted people max.
The Purpose of the Personal Statement
The Personal Statement and Study Objective essays have to complement each other like vocals to the instruments in a piece of music. In the Personal Statement, you need to talk about your ‘story’ and why you are motivated to study your chosen program. In the Study Objectives, you have to talk about how your academics and extracurricular and professional experiences have prepared you to be successful in your studies and long-term goals afterward.
Imagine you’re in a stereotypical desi love rishta conversation scenario, and you want to convince the girl of your dreams and her parents. To the girl, you’re going to appeal to emotions and how your experiences and memories together have convinced you that she’s the one for you. You’ll make her see your dream of what your life could be like together. To the parents, you’re going to make the rational case. That you’ll be a good husband as evidenced by your career progression, education, and well-thought-out executable plan for the future. The case you make to the girl is a bit like what you’re going to do with the Personal Statement, and the case to parents is the Study Objectives.
A Personal Statement should not be a summary of your CV! There is a CV section in the application for you to fill that up. Through the PS, the reader is trying to get a sense of who you are beyond your test scores and qualifications. They want to see what inspires you and why. Being a Fulbrighter means being more than just someone who is academically accomplished; it means being driven with a desire to change the world, and being a powerful cultural ambassador.
Tell stories. ‘Since my childhood, I have loved engineering and so I became a mechanical engineer’ is not a story. It is a dull executive summary. ‘In my childhood house among the peaks of mountainous Chitral, I would often watch my father at work as a mechanic fixing the engines of the Suzuki Bolans…’ is the beginning of a story. It’s a sentence that creates images in the mind and helps ‘show’ you what life was like for the applicant. Here is a great resource that elaborates on the merits of ‘showing’ and ‘telling’.
Another Example: ‘I spent a week teaching at a slum school during my undergrad’ is not compelling if you present it as the main reason you want to become an education policy expert. Instead, if you say ‘On day one of teaching, I found myself unable to communicate with the thirty children in my class with my limited Urdu and Punjabi skills. Many of the children primarly spoke Pashto and Seraiki as well, and I was at a loss as to how we are all going to get through the English on the first page of their math exercise books…’ the reader won’t reflect so much about the fact that you only taught for a week. Instead, the reader will be won over by the insight, observation, and richness of your experience.
Avoid Clichés (Which is Cliché Advice, but Important to Emphasize!)
Be genuine in your essay, and avoid using cliché expressions. If I had a Rs. 100 for every essay that says ‘broaden my horizons’ I wouldn’t need to work for a living… Here is a great resource on how to avoid cliché expressions. The problem with clichés is that they don’t create impact and that they sound like there isn’t much genuine passion for what you are writing.
Easy on the Buzzwords!
Do not toss in buzz words thoughtlessly into your essays. Do not use phrases like ‘inclusion’ and ‘empowerment’ without knowing what they mean! You are using these essays to show that you have thought deeply and that you care deeply, about certain social issues/academic matters. ‘Show’ rather than ‘tell’ what you mean by these buzz words.
For example, if you want to champion the cause of ‘inclusion’, please elaborate more specifically on what that means. Does that mean you want to help students with physical disabilities get better support and integration in school? Does that mean you to ensure that women in workplaces are treated more equally? Does it mean you want to create job opportunities in the tech sector for people with low income?
Do not assume that because you have chosen a ‘hot trending issue’ like inclusion, that will automatically create favor with the reader (I can’t help expressing annoyance at this, because inclusion matters a lot to me, and have read many essays in which this word has been abused). There will be over 1000 essays written by applicants, and many of them will likely have chosen the same broad issues to tackle. It is the depth and nuance, and how you relate it to the personal experiences from your life, that will make the difference in terms of the reader judging whether this cause actually matters to you or whether you’re playing the buzzwords/buzz topics game.
No Need for Statistics
Please don’t toss in statistics and random UN report quotes for the sake of it into your essays. This is not an academic paper you are writing. It doesn’t matter even if you’re applying for a degree in education policy or big data. We all know that education is a huge crisis in Pakistan; you don’t need to spend the first 100 words summarizing numbers regarding the number of children out of school. Instead, use your life’s personal experiences and observations to make the same points. Same thing with the Study Objectives essay. You don’t need to cite authors and intellectualize about an academic issue for paras and paras. Use that precious space to instead talk about your experiences and how they have shaped your insights and why they have equipped you and motivated you to bring change around the issue.
On Personal Tragedies and Failures
As Tyrion Lannister said, “Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.” Here is a talk by a Fulbrighter who went to Harvard University talking about how his personal fight against drug addiction has shaped his life.
We all have personal tragedies in our lives, and if they have shaped your current course of vision, please do mention them. But in a way that shows that these experiences have also helped you grow, and have informed your vision for the future. It is important that in the essay you do not try to play the ‘pity’ card, rather instead show that your hardships have made you stronger or have motivated you to now tackle a social issue.
Don’t let insecurity about your GRE and GPA hinder you from applying and putting your best and authentic foot forward in the essay. If you didn’t do well in your test scores, then explain why. It’s all right if you’re just a poor test taker; many, many people are. And the GRE isn’t necessarily a measure of intelligence or your ability to excel at university or life. If you do poorly on standardized tests, then mention that it. If you’re applying for a degree in education or psychology, you can use your intelligent critique of why the GRE is a ridiculous metric to show the reader how intelligent you actually are.
On Future Plans
Your personal statement should give the reader an idea of why you want to pursue what you want to pursue in life (you need to give a clear picture in this regard, even if on the inside you’re not sure at all where you are in life). Of course in real life, many Fulbright scholars end up changing their career paths and take many turns that lead them in a vastly different direction from what they wrote in their original essays. That’s absolutely fine. But showing the reader that you have to ability to make a coherent strategy and case for your future shows them that even if you change your path, you know how to get somewhere. As that phrase from Lord of the Rings goes, ’Not all those who wander are lost’.
Remember that the purpose of the essay is to show that by investing in you, Fulbright will help create long-term social impact in Pakistan. So it doesn’t matter whether you want to pursue an MBA or a degree in Engineering or Folklore – it matters what your plan of action is once you get it. You have to make the case that your chosen degree will equip you with the skills, academic linkages, industrial connections, perspectives and insights to create change in Pakistan upon your return. Talk a bit about your plan in the short term – will you rejoin the organization you were working with before? Will you launch your own startup? Will you work with the government? Will you work with any specific NGO? Saying something like ‘Upon my return, I will join an international NGO like the World Bank or UN’ shows a lack of thought, direction and genuine passion for creating change. Saying something like ‘I intend to get involved with UNESCO in their effort to promote the preservation of historical sites in Bahawalpur, as this will allow me an avenue to directly implement what I have learned from my degree in folklore about preserving oral histories in rural Punjab…’ shows that you’ve done your research, that there is a strong link with you are going to study, and at the same time convinces the reader that you’re going to do cool stuff upon your return.
Talk About You Beyond Just Your Academics
Flaunt your diversity, but with authenticity and tact. If you are from a remote part of Pakistan, definitely do highlight that. If you are a religious/sexual/ethnic minority, please feel comfortable mentioning it. Fulbrighters are diverse, and that’s why they make great cultural ambassadors; they break stereotypes and through their stories invite you to think more deeply about how diverse lived experiences can be across Pakistan.
Do not in your essay only focus on one thing you have done in your life. Make it a narrative that weaves in together many different things you’ve done. If you want to do a degree in computer science, but you only got interested in CS during your undergraduate studies, no problem. Talk about some interesting personal experiences from your childhood that reflect your diversity. Another thing you can do is talk about habits or interests that you had in your childhood that connect with your now academic interests. For example, I used to play Pokemon on the Nintendo Gameboy a lot during my childhood. And I mentioned that in my personal statement, which talked about how I want to now pursue a degree in curriculum and teaching. How did the two connect? Pokemon was all about training your team and experiencing the joy as they leveled up and evolved. This kind of connection helps convey, without ‘telling’ directly, that I have always had the makings of teacher because I was passionate about many of the things that teachers find meaning in.
If you haven’t written any academic papers or won any academic competitions – no problem. Talk about your extracurriculars. Talk about how you won a sports completion and what you learned from that experience about life. Talk about how you volunteered your time to do food drives during Ramzan, and how that made you think deeply about what ‘sustainable development’ means.
As I said earlier, you’re applying to be a cultural ambassador. So if you’ve interacted with foreigners, ever been a cultural ambassador before, or found yourself among a different community of any kind before – you can and should talk about it. Talk about how you learned about empathy by getting into tough but rich conversations with someone with a different set of life experiences and identities from you. You’ll be doing it non-stop for many months in the US once you’re there, and use your essay to highlight that you’ll be a promising candidate.