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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Writers Workshop: Writer Resources
Writing Tips: Personal Statements
Overview of the Personal Statement
Personal statements are sometimes also called "application essays" or "statements of purpose." Whatever they are called, they are essentially essays which are written in response to a question or questions on a graduate or professional school application form which asks for some sort of sustained response.
Some applications ask more specific questions than others. There is no set formula to follow in shaping your response, only choices for you to make, such as whether you should write an essay that is more autobiographically focused or one that is more professionally focused.
From application to application, requested personal statements also vary widely in length, ranging from a couple of paragraphs to a series of essays of a page or so each.
Personal statements are most important when you are applying to an extremely competitive program, where all the applicants have high test scores and GPA's, and when you are a marginal candidate and need the essay to compensate for low test scores or a low GPA.
How are personal statements read, and by whom? It's most likely that your personal statement will be read by professors who serve on an admissions committee in the department to which you are applying. It is important in developing your personal statement to carefully consider this audience. What are the areas of specialty of this department, and what might it be looking for in a graduate student?
Additionally, since personal statements will most often be read as part of your "package," they offer an opportunity to show aspects of yourself that will not be developed in other areas of your application. Obviously, it is important that personal statements are not simply prose formulations of material contained elsewhere in the application.
It may be helpful to think of the statement as the single opportunity in your package to allow the admissions committee to hear your voice. Often times, committees are sorting through large numbers of applications and essays, perhaps doing an initial quick sort to find the best applicants and then later reading some of the personal statements more thoroughly. Given that information, you will want your statement to readily engage the readers, and to clearly demonstrate what makes you a unique candidate--apart from the rest of the stack.
One Process for Writing the Personal Statement
- Analyze the question(s) asked on a specific application.
- Research the school and/or program to which you are applying.
- Take a personal inventory (see below). Write out a 2-3 sentence response to each question.
- Write your essay.
- Revise your essay for form and content.
- Ask someone else - preferably a faculty member in your area - to read your essay and make suggestions for further revision.
- Revise again.
- Proofread carefully.
Personal Inventory Questions
- What makes you unique, or at least different from, any other applicant?
- What attracts you to your chosen career? What do you expect to get out of it?
- When did you initially become interested in this career? How has this interest developed? When did you become certain that this is what you wanted to do? What solidified your decision?
- What are your intellectual influences? What writers, books, professors, concepts in college have shaped you?
- How has your undergraduate academic experience prepared you for graduate/professional school?
- What are two or three of the academic accomplishments which have most prepared you?
- What research have you conducted? What did you learn from it?
- What non-academic experiences contributed to your choice of school and/or career? (work, volunteer, family)
- Do you have specific career plans? How does graduate or professional school pertain to them?
- How much more education are you interested in?
- What's the most important thing the admissions committee should know about you?
- Think of a professor in your field that you've had already and that you like and respect. If this person were reading your application essay, what would most impress him or her?
- Answer all the questions asked.
- If you are applying to more than one program, you may find that each application asks a different question or set of questions, and that you don't really feel like writing a bunch of different responses. However, you should avoid the temptation to submit the same essay for different questions—it's far better to tailor your response to each question and each school.
- If you do find yourself short on time and must tailor one basic essay to fit a number of different questions from a number of different schools, target your essay to your first-choice school, and keep in mind that the less your essay is suited to an application's particular questions, the more you may be jeopardizing your chances of being admitted to that school.
Be honest and confident in your statements.
Use positive emphasis. Do not try to hide, make excuses for, or lie about your weaknesses. In some cases, a student needs to explain a weak component of his or her application, but in other cases it may be best not to mention those weaknesses at all. Rather, write an essay that focuses on your strengths.
Write a coherent and interesting essay.
Make your first paragraph the best paragraph in your essay.
Develop a thesis about yourself early in the essay and argue it throughout.
Each piece of information you give about yourself in the essay should somehow support your thesis.
Pick two to four main topics for a one-page essay.
Don't summarize your entire life. Don't include needless details that take space away from a discussion of your professionalism, maturity, and ability to do intellectual work in your chosen field.
Use the personal statement as a form of introduction.
Think of the essay as not only an answer to a specific question but as an opportunity to introduce yourself, especially if your program doesn't interview applicants.
- Ask yourself the following questions as you edit for content:
- Are my goals well articulated?
- Do I explain why I have selected this school and/or program in particular?
- Do I demonstrate knowledge of this school or program?
- Do I include interesting details that prove my claims about myself?
- Is my tone confident?
- Make sure your essay has absolutely perfect spelling and mechanics.
Use technical terminology and such techniques as passive voice where appropriate.
You should write clearly and interestingly, yet also speak in a voice appropriate to your field.
- Write what you think the admissions committee wants to hear. You are probably wrong, and such a response is likely to make you blend into the crowd rather than stand out from it.
- Use empty, vague, over-used words like "meaningful," "beautiful," "challenging," "invaluable," or "rewarding."
- Overwrite or belabor a minor point about yourself.
- Repeat information directly from the application form itself unless you use it to illustrate a point or want to develop it further.
- Emphasize the negative. Again, the admissions committee already knows your GPA and test scores, and they probably are not interested in reading about how a list of events in your personal life caused you to perform poorly. Explain what you feel you need to, but emphasize the positive.
- Try to be funny. You don't want to take the risk they won't get the joke.
- Get too personal about religion, politics, or your lack of education (avoid emotional catharsis).
- Include footnotes, cliches, or long-winded and slow introductions.
- Use statements like "I've always wanted to be a…" or any other hackneyed phrases.
- Use gimmicks—too big of a risk on an application to a graduate or professional program.
- Allow any superficial errors in spelling, mechanics, grammar, punctuation, format, or printing to creep under your vigilant guard.