Seven things to avoid:
1. Responses that resemble a talking family tree. Reviewers are interested in the applicant, not his or her great-great- great-grandfather who was a Justice of the Peace in the Kansas Territory. Mentioning mothers, fathers, brothers, and/or sisters is OK if doing so provides greater insights about the applicant e.g. “Having been raised in a single-parent household …”
2. Not-so-thinly-veiled or unapologetically trumpeted reasons why the applicant deserves, more than any other living person, to get the prize or scholarship e.g. “So, as you can see, my whole life has prepared me to be a Rhodes Scholar. ”
3. Boasting about particular accomplishments, especially relatively unimportant ones e.g. Ever since I won the school spelling bee in third grade, I realized the importance of hard work!”
4. Gratuitous or otherwise inexplicable revelations about personal attributes that aren’t connected with anything else that applicant has said. Such revelations are OK if they are relevant to the applicant’s identity and/or long-term goals e.g. My abiding passion for civil rights stems from the fact that, as a gay male, I have been the victim of bigotry and discrimination.
5. Comparisons between the applicant and a famous person, living or dead e.g. "I was happy to see that my views are the same as John Dewey’s, inasmuch as we both believe that ‘The best education is the best education for everyone.' "
6. Don't use a sports analogy.
7. Don’t write why your whole life leads up to winning the award.
Six things to target:
1. Sincerity and authenticity. The applicant should speak from his or her heart. Applicants should not say what they think reviewers want to hear. This includes encomia about the namesake of the award, honor, etc., if there be one. Talking about a personal flaw or defeat (with proper finessing) is OK.
2. A consistent tone. Applicants, particularly on items that ask for personal information, should try to maintain the same tone that exists throughout the rest of the application. Otherwise, that response/section might sound flippant or ghost written.
3. Mentioning something significant or telling that has not been revealed elsewhere in the application. Such references should be gratuitous (see #4 above) or trivial, e.g. “Most people don’t know that my favorite color is blue.”
4. An “aha” moment.
5. Highlighting (when appropriate) the connections between the applicant’s personal characteristics and the topics/issues that he or she has investigated (or wants to investigate).
6. Prompting this reaction from a reviewer: “I want to meet this person!”
Pointers for advisors:
1. Resist the temptation to write or overly-edit personal statements/comments.
2. Don’t steal the applicant’s thunder in your endorsement/ recommendation of him or her. Also, be careful to avoid revealing information that the applicant wants to keep private (even Harry Potter hasn’t tamed the FERPA and HIPAA beasts ).
3. Devote substantial time talking to the applicant.
4. Gently encourage the applicant to reveal important aspects of his or her life/character.
5. Write a personal statement yourself; it’s a humbling experience.