Comments from the Churchill Competition
The director of the Churchill Foundation sent these (edited) comments to fellowship advisers after the last round of competition.
If I could identify the single greatest weakness in many applications, it would be the quality of the writing. I make that comment not solely because I taught expository writing as a graduate student but also because the reviewers made the same comment again and again. With so many strong applications, it is often the clarity, precision, and elegance of the prose that distinguishes one wonderful student from another. One reader commented over and over again "incoherent," "mediocre writing," "unreadable," "poorly written," etc. and made an anthology of examples of poor writing in his reviews: "Through having done so much research, I have glimpsed into what being a scientist actually entails." "I believe that physics holds key breakthroughs in research on..." "By fulfilling my own potential, I will be in a position where I can..." "This is also not an essay about how my professor made me into a scientist by being mean to me." "Positive results inexorably precipitate." I will be the first to admit that writing an application is not easy, but I will also be the first to admit that without presenting outstanding plans of work and coherent personal essays no one will succeed.
I should note also that you might do well to advise your students when they write to directors of laboratories not to address their emails with "Hey, Professor Smith" or "Hi, Dr. Jones" or "Dear Bob." I myself received an email that asked, "What do you guys expect in the Personal Statement?" I am not joking; the level of informality appears rude and is certainly inappropriate.
I hope that you find these comments useful. As always, please do not hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions.