I’ve been intensively scrutinizing essays (my own and others) for the NSF GRFP. I feel like I’ve made huge strides in improving my essays this year by looking more carefully at how successful applicants have organized their essays. One big change I made this year is I abandoned chronology in my personal statement. Previously I described step by step how I was inspired and prepared to attend grad school. Not this year. This year it’s organized around a theme with subthemes and I mention experiences as appropriate regardless of chronology.
The other big change is that I’m focusing much more on concrete things I did, am doing, or will do rather than talking about touchy-feely passion for science. I am a passionate, touchy feely kind of person but I personally find it much harder to write convincingly about those things. I need to keep some passion in there somewhere but I'd got to figure out how to make it work.