Criteria for Success

  1. You are eligible for the Fellowship, relating to both your personal background and research interests, as well as clerical aspects (age, citizenship, etc.).
  2. Your personal statement convinces a panel of academics that you are qualified to receive the Fellowship, especially with respect to any key criteria of the organization (e.g., “Intellectual Merit” or “[relevance] to the Defense mission”).
  3. You show only those skills and experiences that demonstrate how you fit those criteria.
  4. The skills and experiences that you show are concrete and quantitative.
  5. Your personal statement meets the formatting and page limit criteria and is submitted on time.

Structure Diagram

NSF Example: 

NSF Structure Diagram

NDSEG example: 

NDSEG Structure Diagram

Figure caption: 

NSF GRFP and NDSEG are just two examples of popular fellowships that people apply for at MIT. The general ideas presented in the above two figures can be extrapolated to any fellowship. If you need help framing these suggested structures in the context of another fellowship or formulating a new structure entirely, you can always talk to a Comm Lab Fellow.

Some remarks:

  • The narrative should be cohesive and the section boundaries are not rigid: weave key themes about your goals and match throughout. Sizes of sections are approximate.
  • As of 2021, NSF GRFP asks for three pages, whereas NDSEG asks for 500 words (about one page). Your writing goals and prose will be very different as a function of length (see the examples).
  • As you plan out your Personal Statement, try color coding your different sections similarly to the above two figures. How long are the sections you have written? Does the distribution make sense based on your narrative?

Identify Your Purpose

Your personal statement is part of an application that should convince the selection committee to award you the Fellowship. The personal statement is the only part of the application where you get to lay out the experiences you’ve had, the goals you intend to pursue, and how those experiences and goals qualify you for the Fellowship. All materials in your application package should have a consistent theme; use the personal statement to tie together disparate experiences or strengthen your eligibility by elaborating on experiences that are particularly meaningful.

Reflect on your short and long term goals as you think about your personal statement. Do they align with the fellowship? Short term, you would like to win the funding award. What story or image about you and your research should this document convince them of? Long term, consider the following: What is your professional trajectory? How will this award further your professional goals? Be honest with yourself: your Personal Statement should be authentic. It is often easy to tell when someone is stretching the truth or doesn’t believe the narrative of their own Statement.

Analyze Your Audience

For most fellowships, your entire application will be reviewed by a panel of scientists or engineers (often with representatives from your field, though sometimes interdisciplinary) and other professionals with experience relevant to the fellowship mission. These can include academics, usually from your broad area of science (e.g., “mechanical engineering”) but not necessarily from your specific area (e.g., robotics and controls), as well as (PhD) subject matter experts from companies, the government, or other organizations. They will judge your application using some combination of (a) the official criteria for the Fellowship and (b) their own ideas about what makes good science or a good scientist (depending on whether the fellowship is more geared toward funding people or projects).

The people on the committee read many, many applications. Make it easy for them to figure out that you are qualified for the award by referencing and key words that you know to be part of selection criteria (e.g., “Intellectual Merit” and “Broader Impact” for NSF GRFP). Creating a strong narrative with a unified “brand” across your application package will make it more memorable.


Appeal to the criteria of the fellowship

Your Personal Statement is the place you can most clearly identify why you are a qualified match for the fellowship you are applying for. If selected, you will likely be a public representative of your fellowship organization (citing them in your published work and resume or attending conferences with their funds). By demonstrating that you understand what the funding organization is looking for in their fellows, and you meet this criteria, you will make the selection committee’s job easy for them!

Step 1: Identify what makes a fellowship unique. Many fellowships will assess you on a combination of your technical/scientific merit (grades, publications, awards, etc.), and your potential for “impact” in the fellowship area of interest (as a science educator, as a researcher in the defense community, for your potential to transform a specific area such as food and agriculture, etc.). While the NSF GRFP is the most explicit in its division and definition of these two sections, look for comparable categories in all fellowships you apply to. 

In order to compare the “calls” from different fellowships, try the following exercise: 

  1. Bring up the descriptions of what two fellowships ask for in your personal statement.
  2. Highlight words that repeat within each description individually.
  3. Highlight similar words between the two.
  4. Highlight words that only appear in one of the descriptions.

It is easy to overlook small differences in language when you aren’t paying attention. However, to a funding agency, each word they chose to use will have significance (and may even have a line on their internal rubric). Write your personal statement in a way that makes it as clear as possible that you meet these unique criteria. 

Show what you know about the fellowship through your language. Echoing the language of the call for applicants in your Statement is a good way to demonstrate that a) you understand the unique criteria and b) your narrative is a match for the criteria. It might be against your instincts to repeat the same words verbatim, but judicious repetition will strengthen key points and make your “match” to the fellowship criteria memorable. 

See also the forthcoming MechE CommLab blog post on the NSF criteria of Intellectual Merit and Broader Impact.

Step 2: Customize the experiences in your Statement so that it addresses these criteria. This should not require you to invent a new “personal brand” for every fellowship you apply for, only to be selective in what you choose to highlight. 

For example: you may be able to demonstrate your track record for “impact” through both the makerspace you started and taught at 10 hrs/week in your living community, or through the 500 PPE units you designed, made, and distributed to local first responders at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Your first experience might be a better match for a fellowship expressing an interest in education and teaching, while a fellowship emphasizing hardware realization might value the second example more. 

Create a personal narrative and brand

The narrative: Your personal statement is your opportunity to show the selection panel that your personal goals (e.g., ‘collaborating with foreign scientists’ or ‘mitigating coastal erosion’ in a community you care about) align with the program’s goals (e.g., ‘creating a globally-engaged workforce’ or ‘resilience in the face of a changing climate’). Tell a narrative about yourself that is honest, that you’re excited about, and that shows this alignment. 

Use this narrative through your entire personal statement. It should help you avoid writing a personal statement that is just a resume in essay format. 

Your brand:  You should have a unified “brand” across your whole application package. Draft a mission statement early in your writing process, and refer back to it as you work on each component of the application. Consider including this mission statement verbatim in your application (even bolding or underlining if the formatting criteria allow). Use this mission statement as an anchor and echo it in later parts of your personal and research statements to create a unified message throughout your application. 

Describing your mission statement to your reference letter writers may also help them to make sure their letter parallels what you plan to convey in other parts of your application. Some students even email draft versions of their Personal Statements and Research Proposals to their recommenders.

Concretize and quantify your experiences

Your experiences are the “what” of your essay. Which experiences led you to develop your skill set and passions? Where have you demonstrated accomplishment, leadership, and collaboration? Research, teaching, and relevant extracurriculars are all relevant. State concrete achievements and outcomes like awards, discoveries, or publications.

Quantify your experience or impact to make them more concrete. How many people were on your team? How many protocols did you develop? How many people were in competition for an award? As a TA, how often did you meet with your students?

Remember, when concretizing your experiences, describe your actions rather than changes in your mental or emotional state; your personal statement is not a diary entry.

Vague experience Concrete experience
During this project, my mind was opened to the possibility of using different programming languages together to create code that is faster to run and easier to understand and modify. During this project, I collaborated with other group members to develop a user-friendly Python wrapper for a 10,000-line Fortran library.
I showed initiative in my second project in the lab. Frustrated with the direction of my first project, I consulted with other faculty and proposed an entirely new project.
During my first year, I became a more curious and capable scientist. I explored the literature and proposed two alternative procedures to make the experiment efficient.
I won the de Florez prize. For my work on XXX, I won the Mechanical Engineering department’s prize demonstrating “Outstanding Ingenuity and Creative Judgment” among a field of 50 entrants.

Explain the meaning of your experiences

The meaning of your experiences is the “why” or “so what” of your personal statement. It’s good to have quantitative and concrete experience; it’s even more important to attribute meaning to those experiences.

Every set of experiences should speak to the selection criteria. For most graduate fellowships these will include:

  • How has this experience prepared you to seek a graduate degree?
  • Why was this experience important to your growth as a scientist?’
  • How will it help you become a knowledge expert or leader?
  • How will it help you contribute to research, education, or innovations in science and engineering?
  • What did you gain from or demonstrate during that experience?

The connection between your experiences and the fellowship’s goals may feel obvious to you, but you should make these connections explicit for your audience: this will make it easy for them to put you in the “yes” pile.

Experience only (schematic) Experience and Meaning
  • Sophomore year, I coded an image-processing algorithm to track streamlines.
  • Junior year, I studied biological fluids from Okra.
  • Senior year, I received an A in a graduate-level CFD course.
  • During my undergraduate career, I realized that I was most excited about applying interdisciplinary approaches to fundamental questions of non-Newtonian flow.
  • I gathered complementary perspectives and skillsets from diverse research experiences.
    • Sophomore year…
    • Junior year…
    • Senior year…
  • I look forward to applying my interdisciplinary background to new research questions in the dynamics of complex flows as a graduate student.

Style your statement so it is easy to read, and easy to re-read. Use statements about the meaning of experience as transitions between experiences or “wrappers” around individual experiences. A great strategy is to open each paragraph with the forthcoming take-home message of that paragraph. The benefits of this are twofold:

  1. For reviewers who are reading your Personal Statement in detail, this will let them know what to expect. They will anticipate this take-home message as they read through the paragraph, making it easier for them to understand what you’re getting at.
  2. For reviewers who are just skimming through your Personal Statement (perhaps as a re-read), they might glance at the first sentence or two of each paragraph. In that case, they won’t miss the key point of each part of your story. 

Reviewers (or reference writers) will have an easier time recommending you for the fellowship if you give them the language to do so. Some reviewers may even directly quote you in their justification for acceptance (or rejection). Putting the meaning at the beginning and end of a paragraph makes it easy for a reader to understand what they should be taking away from the details in the middle.

You can also use meaning as a device to segue from one experience to the other. For example, if you state that experience X “launched your career in the field of Y,” you can flow into the next experience you discuss by saying something to the effect of, “Leveraging the momentum from X, I dove headfirst into my next project on Y, where Z was the personal outcome.” Here, Z might be the take-home message of that new paragraph.

Important Tips to Remember

Write about you, not your role models. One of the most common pitfalls we see in the Comm Lab is students writing touching Personal Statements about family members or role models who have inspired them. There is nothing wrong with including personal stories about people who have helped you understand yourself better or positioned you to succeed in graduate school, but it is important to tread very carefully. Don’t leave the reader wondering why they are reading about someone else in a document that is meant to be about you. If you take time to talk about someone who positively affected you, make sure to be very clear about how that experience with that person molded you into a strong graduate student researcher.

Be judicious with childhood stories. A brief mention of some childhood experience that shaped your interests in STEM is probably okay, but if you talk about it at length (more than ~2 sentences), you are taking up space that should probably be used to talk about who you are today, not who you were over a decade ago.

Don’t simply restate your resume. Your Personal Statement should be a technical document (having evidence, numbers, and supporting facts) with personal outcomes (talking about your motivations, ambitions, and ability to succeed as a researcher who is a match to the fellowship). Of course, you will reiterate parts of your resume in your Personal Statement, but what uniquely makes it a “Personal Statement” is the discussion of how those professional experiences affected you, as a researcher and person well-suited to the fellowship-granting organization’s goals.

Don’t try to squeeze everything in—focus on being concise and insightful. As we discussed in the section about tailoring your application, show what you know about the fellowship by being highly selective about the experiences you choose to share. Trying to squeeze your entire story into your Personal Statements will result in a document that is cluttered and has no room for deeper insights. You can avoid this pitfall by thinking carefully about which experiences best illustrate that you are a qualified match for the fellowship and honing in on those.

Meet formatting requirements. Funding agencies receive more applications than they can fund. Failure to follow simple formatting guidelines is an easy way for your application to be rejected without review.

A final note of reassurance

In general, grants fund projects; fellowships fund the professional and scientific growth of individuals. That said, fellowships are competitive and alignment of your research plan with the fellowship goals may contribute to the final acceptance or rejection. Search out fellowships where your personal and professional (research) match is clear in order to give yourself the best chance of success. The NSF GRFP is historically project-agnostic (with some change in language around this beginning in 2020). By contrast, NDSEG emphasizes the alignment of your proposed research with the DoD mission as a main selection criterion. 

Present your qualifications and match, but understand that even the most qualified applicant might be rejected for a lack of match on the funders side for a specific application cycle. This is out of your control and reapplying (when allowed) with very similar personal statements and research proposals can be successful.


In reading this document, we hope that you have seen that one cannot simply put together a fellowship application and hope to succeed. In order to write a strong Personal Statement, you must be thoughtful, proactive, and knowledgeable about the fellowship program and its goals. A strong resume alone is not enough—you must translate your experiences into personal outcomes and program goals that you can achieve, and that the reviewers can understand. Likewise, a comparatively sparse resume does not preclude you from winning a fellowship. If you are able to take the experiences that you do have and demonstrate a qualified match with the fellowship program criteria, you might find yourself in the “yes” pile. It is all about communication.

Acknowledgements: This content was adapted from the ChemE and NSE Communication Labs’ CommKits for fellowship personal statements.

Resources and Annotated Examples