Good Graduate School Application Essays

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(By Tracy Bennett, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures)

A filmed personal statement might have helped Elle Woods get into Harvard Law School, but in the real world, you’re better off sticking to these tips.

If you have seen the 2001 film, Legally Blonde, you might remember that Elle Woods, played by Reese Witherspoon, creates a video for her admissions essay to Harvard Law School. As she sits in a hot tub, she states that she will be an “amazing lawyer” because she can discuss important issues, such as the brand of toilet paper used in her sorority house, and she uses “legal jargon in everyday life” to object when men harass her. She can also recall details at the “drop of a hat,” including the recent events on a soap opera. (If you haven’t seen the movie or simply want a good laugh, you can view the clip on YouTube.)

Although the Harvard committee granted Elle admission, you will probably want to take your essay in a different direction. While you cannot change your grade point average or entrance exam scores, you have complete control over the contents of your personal statement. There are many applicants and few spots, so work diligently to persuade readers that you fit their program given your qualifications, interests and professional goals. Use the tips below to prepare and refine your essay.

1. Just get started.

Yes, your first sentence should be compelling and attention-grabbing, but if you attempt to identify your opening line immediately you will probably induce writer’s block. Make an outline or free write. You can tweak the introduction later once you are more aware of your noteworthy accomplishments or the defining events that have led to your career interests.

2. Articulate your reasons for selecting your chosen career.

Although these essays are often called personal statements, they are not an autobiography. Instead, view it as an essay about your journey as an emerging scholar. Provide evidence to demonstrate that you have actively confirmed your interests and that earning an advanced degree will help you achieve these goals. Describe the courses, articles, professors, research, service projects, internships, shadowing or co-curricular activities that have shaped your aspirations. Avoid references to high school accomplishments, gimmicks or clichés such as, “I have always wanted to be a _________.” Cautiously address controversial topics. It is one thing to demonstrate your knowledge of the field by referencing a current debate. It is quite another thing to offend your readers with excessive political or religious rhetoric.

3. Be specific.

For example, it is not enough to say that you aspire to be a social worker because you want to help children. You could do this in a variety of occupations. Similarly, anyone can say that they are interested in law. Earn credibility by demonstrating this passion. Have you worked at a law firm or participated in student government, Model UN and/or mock trial?

4. One size does not fit all.

Unless it is a common application system, such as those used by law, physical therapy and medical schools, you should describe your rationale for selecting the program among other alternatives. By the way, most of the schools that use a common application system will require supplemental essays that inquire about this. For the time being, you may omit it from your initial personal statement. Each institution has its own values, mission and faculty. What led you to select its particular program over others? Was it an emphasis in a particular area (e.g., rural practice, technology) or the research interests of a professor? Was your interest heightened by a conversation with its alumni?

5. Whatever your reasons for applying, be sincere.

Briefly mention any noteworthy and appealing features that attracted you to the program or institution, but do not go overboard. Committee members already know the prestigious awards that they have won, and most of your competition will mention these same attributes. If you offer excessive praise, you may only appear disingenuous.

6. Describe your professional interests, particularly as they relate to research.

If you identified faculty members who share your interest in a topic, describe your desire to work with them. Be specific, but keep your options open, too. Committee members will roll their eyes if you say you are interested in every research area of its faculty. On the other hand, if your interests are too narrow, they may question your ability to collaborate with professors.

7. Demonstrate your motivation and capacity to succeed.

Graduate schools are not only selecting students, but they are also choosing future ambassadors of their program. Persuade them that you will contribute to their reputation as an institution throughout your academic studies and professional career. Avoid summarizing other parts of your application. Instead, you should provide them with concrete examples including relevant publications, presentations, classroom assignments and employment experiences. For example, describing a service project could demonstrate your compassion, which some medical schools value. If you collaborated with others on a research topic, describe your specific contribution. Research in particular is valuable to your readers because you will more than likely need to immerse yourself in this activity during your graduate studies, especially if you are a Ph.D. candidate.

If you have any blemishes in your application, such as low test scores, criminal convictions or poor grades, think carefully before you offer a rationale. If you were to survey career coaches and faculty, some would advise you to describe anomalies because, if you do not, you leave it open to imagination. Others, however, would only encourage you to share details if the graduate program requests it. Advisers on this side of the camp fear that graduate programs may perceive such descriptions as potential liabilities or excuses, especially if your grades were repeatedly low. For example, while committee members may empathize if you reveal that you struggle with test anxiety, they may still question your ability to succeed. Most graduate programs entail tests, and many occupations require individuals to pass licensing examinations before they can enter the fields. Applicants’ inability to perform in this arena may jeopardize the professional standing of the institution.

If you elect to include this information, be brief and positive. Keep it simple and do not be defensive. Perhaps your academic ability improved once you discovered your passion. Maybe you persisted despite a serious illness or death in your family. If you decide not to address these anomalies yourself, consider asking one of your trusted references to include the topic from a positive standpoint in your letter of recommendation.

8. Be concise.

Personal statements are generally no more than two pages. If the sentence is not essential to your thesis, remove it. Also eliminate unnecessary words, such as “in order to,” “I believe” and “the fact is.”

9. Carefully proofread and refine the essay.

Any errors reflect your ability as a writer. Confirm that you used transitions, diverse sentence structures, first person and active voice. Substitute weak words, such as “love,” with a more professional, powerful alternative. Let it sit overnight. Then, read it aloud or backward. Have a consultant at your campus writing center or a professor critique the essay.

10. Enjoy the writing process.

Preparing a personal statement confirms your desire to attend graduate school and clarifies your interests or goals, which is why professional schools require it. A few years from now, this will prove helpful in your professional job search as you write cover letters and respond to interview questions.

Billie Streufert is director of the Academic Success Center at the University of Sioux Falls in South Dakota. With nearly 10 years of experience in career and academic advising, she is passionate about helping individuals discover and achieve their goals. She is eager to connect with students via Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and her blog.

Billie Streufert, grad school, Harvard, personal statement, University of Sioux Falls, CAMPUS LIFE, CAREER PATH, VOICES FROM CAMPUS 

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As any graduate school admission officer will tell you, numbers don’t always tell the complete story. If that was the case, students would be admitted or denied solely on their numerical grades and test scores. Instead, graduate school applications usually require an essay component so that school officials can get a sense of a student’s personality, ideals, and commitment to their studies.

Depending on the type of program you wish to enter and the essay question itself, the writing portion of your application could be a chance to tout your achievements, offer a lighthearted glimpse into your personality and writing style, and/or explain what contributions you’d make as a student.

Don’t fret: you don’t have to write the great American novel to get into grad school. On the contrary, you probably have to share your thoughts in 500 words or less. Here are six ways to make those words count.

1. Don’t become a graduate school essay cliché

Grad school essays may require you to answer a specific question (i.e., Discuss a piece of literature that changed your life.); ask you for a general statement (Tell us about yourself.); or about your goals (What do you hope your graduate studies will help you achieve?). No matter the question, you don’t want to end up boring the admission committee with a clichéd response. They have already read thousands of submissions detailing how a traumatic childhood experience influenced your career goals or how a volunteer endeavor changed the way you see the world. Don’t write about lofty ideals or brag about academic triumphs either, just because you assume it’s what admission officers want to hear. Instead, write about something that’s honest, reveals your personality in some way, and makes you a standout applicant.

2. Follow the directions

Forget about the content of your essay for a second. The quickest way to blow it is to ignore the directions. If there is a suggested word count, aim to come as close to it as possible. If there is a direct question, answer it without veering off on a tangent. If you are asked to submit the essay as a single-spaced document in Comic Sans font (okay, probably not, but you never know), then so be it.

3. Keep it clean

You should have impeccable spelling, grammar, and punctuation throughout your essay, and avoid texting slang or vulgar language unless there is an absolutely compelling reason why it needs to be in your story. (Hint: there’s probably not.) If you’re sending in a hard copy, it should be on also be on crisp, white paper without fold marks, crumples, or pizza stains. If you’re e-mailing or attaching a file, be sure it’s named appropriately, and keep the formatting simple (or as directed).

4. Tell your story, in your words

Ditch the thesaurus. Admission folks will not be impressed by a litany of 14-syllable words or Shakespearean quotes, unless there is a reason why they tie into your story. Use conversational language and a consistent, friendly tone. Try reading your essay out loud to make sure it sounds natural. And this probably goes without saying, but it’s a good reminder anyway—never, ever plagiarize or lift words from another source in your personal essay. With the exception of a quote, which you’ll attribute appropriately, the words in your essay must come from your brain. Better yet, they should come from your heart. Try these brainstorming techniques to help get past writer’s block.

5. Take the Instagram approach

No, we’re not saying to use photos and hashtags in your essay. It’s just a modern way of telling you to “show, don’t tell” (remember that from creative writing 101?). In other words, be descriptive and detailed, use colorful metaphors, and avoid superlative terms. You want to try to take your reader to a place or time, and help him or her understand who you are and what makes you tick. Generalized statements like “attending BLANK University will help me achieve my dreams” or “BLANK made me the person I am today” are throwaway sentences.

6. Know your audience

You should never write a one-size-fits-all essay if you’re applying to multiple programs and schools.  Even if the topics are similar, you still want to tailor your writing so that each university your applying to feels like you’re writing it for them. For instance, you might take a different approach for a small Christian university like Olivet Nazarene in Illinois as opposed to a large, urban public institution like New York University or a more specialized program like at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Now that you’re armed with these prose pointers, put them into practice and wow some grad school admission officers. Happy writing!

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