Khazanah Scholarship Personal Statement

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No matter how strong your record of activities and achievements (Items 2-6 of the Application) and your grades, nor how well-prepared your Policy Proposal may be, together they are not sufficient to get you invited to an interview.  Through your responses to Items 7-13, you must convince the Truman Scholarship Finalists Selection Committee that you are a potential Truman Scholar deserving of an interview.  The Truman personal statement--collectively, the contents of Items 7-9 and 11-13 of the Application -- is a critical factor in determining your advancement in the Truman competition.

A compelling personal statement will enable you to stand out in a field with other high-achieving persons. It will help you overcome any gaps or inadequacies in your record. It can predispose the interview panel to want to give you a Truman Scholarship rather than to merely hear your case and then decide.

The passions, accomplishments, ambition, and creativity that you present in a carefully prepared personal statement will go a long way toward success in the Truman competition. Your ability to portray well these characteristics should be of enormous value in competitions next year for graduate fellowships and admissions to highly selective graduate schools.

Writing an effective personal statement is difficult. Points in this section should help you — but count on a lot of thought, effort, feedback from the Truman Faculty Representative, rewriting and editing to produce an outstanding personal statement. The skills that you develop in writing an excellent personal statement for the Truman competition will likely be skills that you will employ throughout your professional career.

Recognize that the people who read your Truman application and decide whether you advance in the Truman competition are pros. Veteran members of the Truman Scholarship Finalists Selection Committee have read hundreds of Truman applications. They distinguish easily between the sincere and the insincere, the truth and the puffery, the carefully prepared and the hastily prepared, the substantive and the superficial. Don't try to guess what they want to read. Just write honestly, simply, and clearly about yourself and your aspirations.

Understand your motivations for a career in public service. Think about why you want to be in the public sector as opposed to the potentially more lucrative and less emotionally challenging private sector.
Get a mentor/critic to help you with the Personal Statement. Generally, this will be the Truman Faculty Representative. If you are unable to work closely with your Faculty Representative, find a professor to assist you and to encourage you when you bog down in telling your story.

Before answering any of the items, think strategically about yourself and your candidacy. Ask yourself: "What are the most important characteristics and values, goals and ambitions, life experiences and service activities that define who I am?" Then decide which of these you wish to emphasize in your Truman personal statement. Don't try to cover every aspect.

Everybody has a special story - some people just tell their story better. Share those stories that have been formative in your development as a potential change agent. These stories are often interesting and compelling.

In telling your story, you want to use your responses to Items 7-9 and 14 to bring out some dimensions that are not obvious from reading your list of activities (responses to Items 2-4). Reveal why you are committed to public service.

Read some good personal statements to see how effective and revealing they can be. The Foundation's Advice & Guidance Page contains links to excellent examples from nominees of responses to Items 7, 8, 9, 11, and 14.   To the extent possible, develop a unified, integrated set of responses. The policy proposal should be related to the areas identified in Items 9, 11, 12, and 13.

General guidelines:
In completing items 7-9 and 11-13 of the Application, you should strive to:

  • Be absolutely honest.
    Don't overstate accomplishments, claim credit for what should be shared, imply something other than the truth, nor propose a graduate study plan or ambitions only for the Truman competition.
  • Be yourself.  
    In a "blind reading" (e.g., your name removed) of your application with other good applications, your family and your teachers would identify you. The set of responses to these items ought to be one that only you can write.
  • Make it interesting.  
    Consider having an approach that introduces some pertinent unusual features of you or your experiences to reveal your unique individuality and to help distinguish you from the other candidates.
  • Avoid undue repetition.  
    Don't make the personal statement a narrative description of all of your activities previously identified in Items 2-4. Highlight the most important.
  • Answer the questions concretely and specifically.  
    You should have precise, well-focused answers responsive to the Item. Depth is better than breadth.
  • Engage the reader quickly.  
    Have intriguing or compelling opening and closing sentences in your narrative responses to Items 7, 8, and 14.
  • Be current.  
    If you cite statistics or political developments or provocative writings, they should be up to date. Be careful about examples from high school days or early childhood.
  • Understand the goal of the personal statement.  
    The main goal of the written material is to get an invitation to the interview and to present some lines of questioning. An outstanding personal statement won't win a Truman Scholarship for you,  but a poorly prepared one will deny you the chance to interview for the scholarship.
  • Maintain a sharp focus.  
    Have precise responses to each item. Don't try to share every interest, every societal concern, every accomplishment, every ambition, every passion.
  • Maintain a degree of modesty, especially in Item 14.  
    Hold down the use of "I". If you have had a rare accomplishment (e.g., member of a National team, winner or high finisher in a national competition, board for an international organization), share it. Be careful in trumpeting high school accomplishments — many Truman Scholar candidates have been high school class presidents, varsity athletes, debate champions and the like.
  • Be realistic in Items 12 and 13.
  • Be bold but not unrealistically ambitious.
  • Reveal your motivations for a career in public service.  
  • Avoid repeating experiences.  
    Use different examples for your responses to Items 7, 8, 9, and 14 if possible. Let the Finalists Selection Committee members see your various dimensions.
  • Be thoughtful in discussing major challenges.  
    If discrimination, poverty, family breakdown, severe illness or another problem beyond your control has been a major factor in your development and the establishment of your ambitions, write about it. Avoid playing for sympathy. Truman Scholars are selected on the basis of accomplishment — not endurance.
  • Explain "understandable" gaps or weaknesses.  
    If you had a serious illness or unusually heavy family obligations that temporarily affected your grades or limited your participation in public service, please share it (or have your Faculty Representative bring it out).

Dos and Don'ts for the Truman Personal Statement
. . . and for others you will write someday


Have a consistent story line that focuses on your special aspects and interests.

Be positive. Be upbeat.

Be honest about your ambitions, accomplishments, and plans.

Say what you mean to say.

Write simply. Rely on nouns and active verbs, not adjectives and adverbs, to carry the story.

Take it easy on the readers. Make it interesting. Make it easy to read — both in terms of writing style and appearance.

Have lightness, color, and possibly something amusing or humorous.

Make the opening of each response engaging.

Take risks.

Have perfect spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

Get others to review your statement.


Leave blank more than one-third of the response space for items 7, 8, 9, 11, and 14.

Use qualifiers or imprecise words such as: very, quite, rather, little, many, great, somewhat, far, some, often, deep, broad.

Try to impress readers by using words which are not a part of your normal vocabulary or writing.
Repeat the question in the opening sentence of your response.

Overstate accomplishments.

Make a plea for financial assistance.

Use statistics without giving the primary source.

Use famous quotations — it's like name-dropping.

Be cute, flippant, profane, or glib.

Employ jargon, slang, or unusual abbreviations.

Use flowery language or cluttered imagery.

If you must write about them, use the following cautiously: how much your family means to you; how difficult or unjust your life has been; how smart, capable or compassionate you are; how much you got out of a short trip abroad; how much you learned about government from an internship.

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Yayasan Khazanah has several scholarships up for application: the Global, Watan, Asia, Cambridge and Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies Merdeka Scholarships. I am a Yayasan Khazanah (YK) Global Scholar, sponsored for both my Pre-U and Undergraduate studies. The process has not changed much since I went through the 4 stages (2 years ago). In the following I shall run you through how my interviews & tests went and make notes of how they have changed. Here goes:

Online Application:

The online application is pretty straightforward with the usual submission of information like name, DOB, interested field of study, extra-curriculars, etc. Applicants were also required to write an essay, “Why the Khazanah Scholarship is for you and how would you contribute to the good governance practices and leadership development of Malaysia”. From what I gather, the essay question has not changed. It is also in my opinion the most difficult part of the application. Also, I applied for the scholarship right after my SPM results came out. Take note of the deadlines. I submitted mine just before it closed. (That wasn’t a particularly good move)

Stage 1: Aptitude/IQ Test

A few weeks after the application, I was notified via email that I made it to Stage 1. When I arrived at the test venue, there were hundreds of others in attendance as well. This was a series of 4 timed tests, which tested us on skills ranging from math to spatial. This took an hour or two for completion. Tip: The test looks to assess your skills. Do not feel bad if you failed to complete every question from each section. I did not complete 2 sections too. When we were talking to our scholarship manager, she mentioned that each one of the scholars was better at some sections than others. Personally, it isn’t something you can fully prepare for. Being calm and confident is key. Since then, YK has changed this to an online test where all successful applicants would be given a link to follow and a deadline to complete the test.

Stage 2: More Written Tests, Group Interviews and Individual Interviews

The wait from Stage 1 to Stage 2 was an agonizing one. I remember hearing of people making it to Stage 2 and thinking I had failed. Lo behold, at 4 am one morning, I received the email telling me I made it. (YK people do work LATE into the night) During my time, it was a full jam-packed one-day Assessment. Now, it has been made into a 3-day Assessment Camp. 1. Group Presentation/Case Study: The Stage 2 attendees were split into 2 groups. Each group were asked to prepare a presentation ‘Should formal or informal language on social media be used by corporate companies to communicate with their customers’. One team was pro formal language and the other vice versa. During the presentation, actively answer and ask questions. Tip: Note that the assessors will be watching you during the discussion sessions too. Do not be afraid to voice your opinions and hear out the others. Take charge. After the group presentation the 2 teams were led to separate rooms. Essentially, both teams did the same thing albeit in a different order. 2. Group Discussion: In my team, we were broken down into smaller teams of 5. With a panel of 2, each of us in the team was given a different topic to think about. We did not know others’ topics. Tip: While the others are being asked on their topic, you’re given a chance to think about yours. However, do take note of what the others are talking about because the panel might choose to ask you what you think of what another person said instead of asking you about your topic. The aim is to catch you when you least expect it. Multitasking is important.3. Written Test/Questionnaire: We were required to answer a few questions based on a questionnaire (A-G). Some were straightforward whilst some required thinking and writing short paragraphs. Tip: Read through the questionnaire (A-G) and the questions given. Think before you write but also be aware of the time. There is no right or wrong, just your opinion. Remember to justify your answers.4. Individual Interview: This was done with one interviewee to 2 interviewers. They’ll ask basic questions like: what do you want to do, how do you see yourself in 10 years, explain one of your extra-curricular activities, etc. Tip: Carry yourself well (don’t be over-confident or too nervous), answer the questions honestly, do not be afraid to tell them you are unsure. If you NEED TIME TO THINK tell them to give you a minute and THINK BEFORE YOU SAY ANYTHING. Also, talking to the other people did help ease the nervousness. Be social, talking to others is good practice before an interview.  Once you’ve made it past the Assessment – be it in one day or 3 – give yourself a pat on the back and treat yourself. Kudos!

Stage 3: Interview

Stage 3 is a one-to-one interview with the Director of YK. In this stage, someone will give you a question to prepare. Once in the interview room, you will talk about yourself (based on the given question) within a time frame. The interviewer will not ask you any questions. You are permitted to ask a few questions about the scholarship. Tip: This session is largely about first impression and how you carry yourself. Since all the Director has heard and seen of you up to this point is based on your assessments (in a file), it is NOW time to convince him YES I AM THE ONE! Again be confident and remember first impressions DO MATTER.

Stage 4: One Last Interview

Rejoice! You’re almost there. This brief session is a casual conversation with the Board of Directors. Here, there is no fixed set of questions. The BOD will already have seen your previous assessment results. Now, they would like to know more about you. My conversation with them diverted to talking about Astro. Tip: Again, first impressions DO MATTER. Don’t be too put off by unexpected questions. Take your time to think. After Stage 4, you may breathe a sigh of relief and pray for the last email. An approximate break down of the number of people that made it past each stage in my year goes a bit like this: 1000+ applicants -> 1000 -> 400 -> 50-100 -> 8 -> 4 pre-u + 3 undergrad GOOD LUCK!

Valerie Ngow has just completed her A-Levels at KYUEM last July. She’s headed to University College London this  September to pursue Mechanical Engineering under the Yayasan Khazanah Global Scholarship Programme. She may be small but do not be fooled for she’s a little cili-padi. 🙂

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