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Applying for the Mandela Washington Fellowship: Pitching yourself in the personal essay
October 9, 2015

Whether you’re writing an essay to apply for admission to university, graduate school or the Mandela Washington Fellowship, your job is the same: demonstrating to the decision-makers that you’re the person to choose. That’s the essence of a “pitch,” whether in business meeting or a personal essay.

In the case of the Mandela Washington Fellowship, focusing on “how to write a personal essay is the most important,” according to Edward Monster, public affairs officer in Malawi who reviews applications for the Fellowship. “Too many applicants used the essays to describe ‘big-picture’ problems in their country or region,” said Monster, “but failed to describe exactly what they as individuals were doing to confront the specific challenges in their communities.”

Emphasize outcomes

“Sometimes we focus on things we’ve done” — an initiative or a job we undertook — “but we don’t talk about what the result of that was,” said executive coach Patty Beach, who is a managing partner of Leadership Smarts. By describing the tangible benefits created by your previous work, you can overcome what Beach calls the “’So what?’ factor,” which leaves the decision-makers uncertain whether your work had any measurable value or not.

Albert Muragijimana, a 2016 Fellow from Rwanda, said that when he first applied he made the mistake of telling stories about himself and his hard work in the essays without demonstrating the impact he was having on his community.

“If possible show the numbers,” he advised. “How many people are going to be reached? How many lives are you going to change? If you are running a school for example, how many kids are you going to take at school? If you are looking to improve access to education or access to health, how many people are going to have access to those services? So always make sure that you have demonstrated both the action and the impact,” Muragijimana said.

Remember three things

Beach suggests thinking about three things before writing an essay: what you’re good at (your natural and cultivated talents), what you’re passionate about (the area to which you’ll direct your talents), and how what you’re applying for will help further your goals. “If you can effectively communicate those three things, you put yourself in the best position to be selected.”

Enough but not too much

Shawn Abbott, dean of admissions at New York University, has seen more than enough admissions essays to know what works when it comes to selling yourself to an admissions board. He suggests limiting your personal statement to one page. “Admissions officers are reading hundreds, if not thousands, of applications. We have to be able to read quickly, and you want to capture our attention. One page is enough.”

Think before you share

Abbott also advises giving thought to what parts of your worldview to emphasize in a personal essay. The Fellowship application emphasizes what you have done and plan to do to support your communities, so focus on your actions and outcomes. There may be different taboos for you to avoid for different types of applications, so think hard about what they might be before you put pen to paper.

Ask for Feedback!

If you are having trouble, don’t be afraid to contact Mandela Washington Fellowship alumni and those who are familiar with your work for advice. As Agang Ditlhogo, a 2016 Fellow from Botswana, said, the encouragement she received from previous Fellows “kept me going.”