Fulbright Essay Tips And Tricks

By Guest Author Sean O’Connor

Every year the Fulbright Program enables 8,000 people to travel abroad to study, research and teach. Fulbright fellowships fund individuals, not projects. As a program of the United States Department of State, the fellowships are a diplomatic tool.  When deciding on applicants, Fulbright chooses people who they believe will be effective cultural ambassadors.

The Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) is an opportunity to spend one year abroad working in a kindergarten to university-level classroom supporting English language learning for non-native English-speakers. These fellowships are not just any job – English Teaching Assistants are expected to represent the United States. 

Every applicant must submit a personal statement, which outlines their qualifications and why they feel qualified to apply for a fellowship. Too often I see people fumble on this step of the application. The personal essay is your chance to show the application committee why you are the best candidate for a specific project in a specific country at this specific time. 

Every sentence in your personal statement should reaffirm the fact that you are the best choice for the fellowship. It has to seem like the universe has conspired for your entire life to build to this moment. This means that you have to support your applications with examples of how you have spent years preparing for your proposed project.

If you’ve only recently thought of applying for the Fulbright, this doesn’t mean that you should lie. The application committees will see through that. You have to look back on your life and connect the dots forward. Craft a compelling narrative that shows how qualified you are. Make it obvious that the Fulbright fellowship is the next logical step for you.

When I applied for my Fulbright ETA to Sri Lanka, I reached back to my days in Boy Scouts to talk about how I hoped to find a Troop in Sri Lanka to work with as a side project. I used my experiences consulting on fair trade businesses in Kenya to talk about my desire to work on economic development issues in Sri Lanka. I also used my experience tutoring English while studying abroad in China as an example of my teaching skills. I talked about the Fulbright as a way to set myself in corporate America, and how I view business as a way of creating positive social change.

My essay took me weeks to write, but after extensive revisions I had an essay which weaved together a lifetime of experiences that supported my grant application.

To make your application as strong as possible be sure that every sentence reaffirms why you are the best fit for this project and country. Craft your narrative to show the application committee that you’re not applying for this grant on a whim; you’re applying as a result of applicable life experiences. Talk to former fellows from the host country to see what tips they can provide you about the feasibility of your project and other ways to strengthen your proposal. Keep tweaking your essay until it conveys who you are and why you’re extraordinary.

Sean O’Connor graduated from Fordham University in 2012. He received a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship to Sri Lanka, where he worked in the Eastern province of Trincomalee. He just finished an internship with Seth Godin and is looking for opportunities in the startup community.

Thinking of applying for a Fulbright? Check out all of our Fulbright articles.

Also, sign up to browse ProFellow’s free database of more than 800 funded fellowship opportunities, including hundreds of funding opportunities for research, study and teaching abroad.

© Victoria Johnson 2013, all rights reserved

Length: One single-spaced page

The Fulbright website provides the following description of the personal statement:

“This statement should be a narrative giving a picture of yourself as an individual. It should deal with your personal history, family background, influences on your intellectual development, the educational and cultural opportunities (or lack of them) to which you have been exposed, and the ways in which these experiences have affected you. Also include your special interests and abilities, career paths, and life goals, etc. It should not be a recording of facts already listed on the application or an elaboration of your statement of proposed study.”

The Fulbright personal statement is an opportunity for you to share with the committee information about yourself that is not available in other parts of the application. In it you can provide the committee with a sense of your personality and your interests. Ideally, your personal statement will complement your written proposal in some way. For example, if you are proposing a research project, you might discuss the origin and development of your interest in that field of research.

There is no one format or approach that will work well for every application. Some applicants choose to write an intellectual autobiography highlighting the key moments in their academic development. Others discuss their passion for travel, the topic of their proposal, or the host country, detailing the origins of their interest and how it evolved. Many students give an overview of significant experiences and reflections, while others tell one particular story as an example of a larger point about who they are.

Keep in mind that engagement with the community in the host county is an important criterion in selection as the primary purpose of the Fulbright Program is to encourage mutual understanding between people from the U.S. and people from other countries. Your application should indicate how you expect to become involved in the local community, whether through volunteer work, extra-curricular activities, and/or simply pursuing a hobby—sports, music, cooking, etc.—in the host country. The personal statement is the best place to include this information.


Writing a personal statement is an exercise in self-reflection. To write a good statement, you will first need to think about your accomplishments and past experiences. These can be personal, academic, or extracurricular, including any significant insights or experiences that relate to your interest in international exchange, the host country in which you hope to do your work, or the specific project or area of study you plan to pursue. Your goal in this personal statement is to give the committee a sense of who you are and how you became interested in applying for this particular project in the context of an international exchange.

A free writing process will help you sort through your experiences and narrow your focus to two or three central issues or experiences you can use to frame and anchor your essay. Consider the following questions:

  • What problems or questions intrigue you? How did you become
  • What sorts of things have you done outside of the classroom? What have you learned from your extracurricular or work experiences, and how have those experiences contributed to your growth?
  • Have you had to overcome any unusual obstacles or hardships (for example, economic, familial, or physical) in your life? If so, what were these obstacles and how did you face them?
  • What might be unique, special, or distinctive about your life story or past experiences?

You are encouraged to work with a writing proctor even at this early stage. Talking over your experiences and reviewing your initial thoughts with someone else can help you narrow your focus and determine what you really want to discuss in your personal statement.


Your personal statement should not be a narrative version of your resume, listing events, activities, and accomplishments one after the other. Rather, it should provide the committee with a snapshot of yourself that connects to why you want to pursue this particular Fulbright in the country you have chosen. Doing this in one page is no small feat. The best statements undergo multiple drafts and revisions over a period of time. Give yourself plenty of time to write your statement, and allow it to evolve along with your understanding of why you want to pursue the project you are proposing.

In general, your personal statement will contain the following three sections:

  • The opening paragraph will contain a statement, example, or anecdote that grabs the readers’ attention right away, while providing a solid frame for your essay as a whole. This is the most important part of your statement, and it will likely be one of the hardest parts for you to write. When drafting, don’t get stuck on the opening paragraph. You will revise it many times as you revise the essay as a whole.
  • The body presents more specific detail, building on the framework you have established. The rule of thumb here is to use concrete examples to illustrate your points. Show, don’t tell. Rather than simply telling the committee “I am curious,” “I love science,” “I am patient and dependable,” etc., consider using one or two anecdotes that can help you focus and bring specificity to the discussion.
  • The concluding paragraph can address your future goals and how your work/experiences as a Fulbright scholar fit into your future plans. Your personal statement should not repeat information already represented in your proposal; thus, you should not conclude your personal statement by making an argument for why you need a Fulbright to conduct your study. Instead, you should discuss more generally how your proposed Fulbright year relates to your future goals and aspirations. The scholarship committees want to award Fulbright awards to people who will use their Fulbright experiences as bridges from where they are now to where they are going. 
Students have a tendency to be too general and rely on abstractions or clichéd phrases when describing their experiences and interests. Show your passion for neuroscience through the experiences you’ve had and the skills you’ve developed, show them you believe in the value of being open-minded through a specific example, show them that you care about issues facing developing nations by talking about your experiences helping to develop new irrigation techniques in El Salvador one summer, etc. The more specific and concrete you can be about illustrating your interests, the better.

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