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Advice on Responding to Personal Statements from Mandela Washington Fellows

Owen Okoko, a 2018 Mandela Fellow from the Republic of Congo, worked with Fellow alumni (Esther Mark, Chola Lungu-Mutoni, Izzo- J Virtue Lalemi, Jennifer Agunloye Tim-Okoliko Agunloye, Wata N. David, Mahlet Alemayehu, Sunday Seno Agbonika & Adepeju Jaiyeoba) to break down the six sample personal statements and offer their tips for quality responses. Owen stresses the importance of ensuring your answers naturally flow and connect across the six responses. He also notes that you should tie your present actions with your future goals.

Please note that personal statement topics change each year.

1. Please give a brief description of your professional background and current work, including any specific professional accomplishments within the last year. Why have you chosen this work? (150 words)

Your response here will set the tone for all your other responses in the application. Spend one line talking about your professional background (what you studied in school or former titles you have held) then transition smoothly into telling where you work, what you do there, and how you found yourself doing your current work. Make clear how your current job impacts lives.

Next, detail your achievements with your biggest accomplishment first. While international awards and courses are examples you could list, don’t be afraid to think locally! An accomplishment doesn’t just have to be an award or certificate but could be how your intervention helped better an entire community. Next, explain how you solved a particular problem/need through your job.

2. Nelson Mandela said, “It is in your hands, to make a better world for all who live in it.” What role do you want to play in your community/country in 5-10 years? What steps are you taking now to achieve this? (150 words)

Question one focuses on your past while question two focuses on your present and future. Explain your five to ten-year professional goals. It could be to increase impact, it could be to reach more people in your business or organization. More importantly, explain how what you are doing now is setting you on a path to achieve your goals. Who are you meeting and collaborating with? Are you taking courses? What investment opportunities have you sought? Have you joined boards or associations in line with the role you want to play in the next five to ten years?

3. What do you consider to be your most significant achievement as a leader or most innovative idea? Explain the accomplishment or innovation, why it was important, and what obstacles you overcame to achieve it. (150 words)

Ensure you have a precise or particular experience. You may be tempted to state more than one achievement but it is advisable to pick the one award, fresh idea, or project that had the most impact in your community.

Explain how you implemented your new idea or reached the accomplishment. Who did you meet? How did you go about it? Who did you talk to and collaborate with? People come across problems every day and complain about them without doing anything. Why was it important for you to solve this problem? Let the reviewer know what was at stake, and how you were able to avert that. Research statistics to explain that if your innovation or skill is absent, the problem will continue to linger.

This is your opportunity to share the challenges you had to overcome to achieve your goals. If you faced problems like poor electricity, language barriers, bureaucratic bottlenecks, or family commitments share them. After mentioning the obstacles you must explain what steps you took to overcome them.

4. Learning from mistakes is a part of professional development, and strong leaders are able to effectively handle challenges. Describe a specific instance when you made a mistake or encountered a setback that helped you grow as a leader. What did you do and how are you applying those lessons learned in your current work? (150 words).

Do not be afraid or embarrassed to share your mistake because each time we make mistakes, we are provided an opportunity to redefine our path and improve our work. The mistake or setback should not appear too abstract or invented. Write your truth and show that you take responsibility for what happened.

You should focus more on your growth rather than your fall, so don’t spend too much time detailing the mistake itself. After discovering you made a mistake, how did you pull through? What steps did you take to overcome or correct the mistake? How did you handle the aftermath? This question is meant to show how you grow from your mistakes, so your answer should end in a positive light.

5. Please explain a situation where you have worked with people from different backgrounds, identities or perspectives of your own and had to use your leadership skills to resolve a conflict or disagreement with others. What actions did you take and how did you encourage respectful discussion? (250 words)

Preferably, share an instance that relates to your work or along the line of the experience you have been sharing since you started your application. Personal problems are not the examples expected here. Briefly explain the conflict that arose but focus more on the actions you took and how you encouraged respectful discussion. Who did you talk to? What plan did you come up with? After drafting your plan, how did you ensure that they did not resort to insults and derogatory words? The response should reflect your perspectives on conflict resolution.

For instance, you could talk about a course you took with people from different backgrounds. Share how you helped the group set governing rules and ensure only relevant topics were discussed. You can also add how the situation improved your leadership, although this question isn’t directly asked, the assumption is that as a leader, you learn with every situation.

6. Based on your understanding of your preferred track, what skills and knowledge do you hope to gain from the Fellowship that you would not be able to develop through other education or training? How will you use those skills and that knowledge to adapt your activities in your home country within the next 3 – 5 years? (250 words)

To answer this question effectively, you must research the Mandela Washington Fellowship. Include some of the unique selling points of the fellowship and why you believe this fellowship stands out from other opportunities. Talk about the skills you want to learn and whether this skill can be learned elsewhere. If you acquire this skill elsewhere, would there be a difference? This is the time to convince the reader about the potential you see in the fellowship.

You should NOT have an individual goal of relocating or studying in the US. The point of the fellowship is to bring back the knowledge and skills you learn to better your community. Follow the SMART objective: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timebound.

Bad goal: I want to open a school.
SMART goal: I want to train ten girls from one community in Lunda Sul province, Angola in menstrual health management each year. By the third year, I intend to start a social enterprise in making of reusable pads. I will start with 100 units and increase the numbers as I sell the pads.

Ready to apply for the Mandela Washington Fellowship? Visit the Fellowship application page for submission deadlines, application instructions, and more.