You should view your personal statement as a narrative that paints a portrait of you as an individual and demonstrates your passion for your field of inquiry. An important aspect of this narrative is a strong “hook”. Fellowships are competitive and individual reviewers may be looking at hundreds of applications at a time. Anything that captures a reader’s attention and makes you stick out in the pile can make a real difference. The personal statement is not just a story about your trajectory. It is a place to show your creativity. For example, you can start with a story of how you became interested in science (avoiding clichés of course) or give an example of an obstacle you had to overcome. In any event, you should craft the statement so that the reviewers see you as an individual and not just another applicant in the pile.
Within the personal statement, you should synthesize your life experience, personal history, family background (and how it influences your intellectual development), the education and cultural opportunities (or lack of if there is a desire to learn more) to which you have been exposed and the ways in which these experiences have affected you. This being said, real estate is limited for many of these applications, therefore the price of each word is valuable. Although the personal statement is a place to include the things mentioned above, you should only offer information relevant to the fellowship’s goals, your research and your career path, nothing more. Every word counts and how the statement is organized and how you use the limited space available is often part of the review criteria.
A fellowship application is not a collection of individual documents. It is an application package and therefore everything should be tied together. The personal statement should demonstrate that you are organized, strategic and have a clear thought process thereby justifying that you are qualified to carry out the research you are proposing in your research proposal. The statement should also demonstrate your career goals and show how you plan to use the skills you will develop while supported by the fellowship. Lastly, if the fellowship is looking for applicants that can achieve stated goals or live by certain ideals, you should be certain to address these in the personal statement. For example, the NSF GRFP’s two-part criteria states that their applicants and their research are of intellectual merit and will make a broader impact on society.