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Writing Personal Essays For Graduate School

If you are hoping to read this article and find the path to effortless personal essays, you're in for a surprise.

Samuel Johnson was quoted as saying, "What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure." Likewise, if you are hoping to read this article and find the path to effortless personal essays . . . you're in for a surprise.

However, we will dissect the process in hopes of helping you find the necessary tools to write compelling and informative essays that will enhance your graduate school application.

Preparation/strategy

Before you can begin writing your essays, there are some basic steps you should take to prepare.

Research the school you are applying to carefully. There is a wealth of information available on-line as well as through talking to people who attended a particular school or talking to school faculty. Most schools will provide information about what they expect from applicants, and knowing all this can help you to structure your essay.

Understand your audience and the purpose of your essay. A graduate admission committee generally consists of professors in the specific program to which you are applying and sometimes some students who are currently enrolled in the program. Your essays will be read in context with the rest of your application, but they are really your opportunity to set yourself above your fellow applicants. Understand that what the committee is looking for may vary based on your field of study. (For example, applicants to a literature program will find their style and diction much more closely examined than the average applicant to a physics program.)

Know the question being asked. The importance of this cannot be overstated, but it is still often overlooked. While you want to express your unique attributes and talents, always remember that you are doing so within the framework of the questions on the application.

Brainstorm fully and narrow down your topics gradually. You need to identify your unique experiences, influences and abilities. This should include a consideration of your long and short-term goals, what characteristics describe you and what transferable skills you possess, and an examination of your background and accomplishments both personally and academically.

Select your topic based on all of these factors. You want a topic for your essay that will paint a complete picture of you and help you to stand out. The more specific questions may only require one topic, but more general personal statements usually cover two to four subjects. You are seeking to say something meaningful in your essay that will actually help the reader to know you better by the time they are finished reading. It is vital in your quest to accomplish this that you stay grounded in details that are concrete rather than using vague generalities.

Themes

The next questions you need to ask yourself are more specific.

  • Why have I chosen to attend graduate school in this particular field and why have I chosen this particular program?
  • What are my qualifications for admission?
  • What is different, unique or note-worthy about my life story?

Not only should you know the answers to these questions for yourself, but also it is invaluable knowledge in the process of writing your essay. In this section we will discuss some of the themes that work well with different questions and how your answers to the above questions may fit into those themes. Though I have broken this down by different questions, realize that as your essay develops these categories will overlap, and you should structure by topic and expound on insights as they develop.

Why graduate school?

Early exposure to your field: Pursuing graduate school in a particular area may have been a long-term goal, and you certainly want to mention what led you to that goal. However, avoid cliches and generalities such as, "I have always wanted to" Instead focus on specific events that encouraged your interest. You also do not want to focus solely on your initial reason, but include more recent experiences that have caused your continued interest.

Goals: Obviously, graduate school is a way of accomplishing certain goals, and admission committees generally like to see that students know what they plan to do with their education. If like many people your long-term goal is to work in academia, differentiate yourself by stressing your particular interests or research goals. If your goals are not academic, once again stress the specifics of what you would like to accomplish.

Research interests: Here again be careful to read the application carefully. Some schools may want a statement of purpose describing your specific research interests instead of, or in addition to, your personal essay. You can assume here that a faculty member will be reading such a statement, but be careful to still make it accessible to non-specialists as well. Write in such a way that your enthusiasm for the subject is clearly communicated.

Particular school/program: This is where your research into the school becomes vital. While most schools will tend to have similar curricula, different schools have different strengths. Knowing the research interests and work of various faculty members may influence your decisions in selecting a program as well as particular organizations or activities that are available to you. By including these motivations in your essay you not only demonstrate that you have thoroughly researched their school, but you emphasize why you will be a good fit and a valuable addition to their program.

Why are you qualified?

It is very important when considering this question to avoid regurgitating facts listed elsewhere in the application. Details of your active roles are vital.

Research experience: Because research will be foundational to your time in graduate school, focusing on your research experience is very important. Be specific. Your experience need not have been a massive undertaking. If you worked with a professor for a year, you could focus on a single project in depth. The vital thing to remember is to demonstrate your enthusiasm for the subject and to focus on your growth or success.

Field experience: If your program is more practically oriented, field experience can be as important as research experience. Once again the goal is to focus on specifics and describe a particular challenge or project that you faced, how you met that challenge and the skills, and perspective you gained through your experience.

Unrelated work experience: There are various skills that overlap different fields or are universally applicable. If you have strong experience in a different field you should discuss it though it is beneficial to tie it back to your current objectives as much as possible.

Extracurricular activities: The same idea applies here as with unrelated work experience. Use your experiences to demonstrate specific qualities that will help you in your graduate work.

What makes you exceptional?

Admission officers are generally trying to assemble a diverse class so it is important to highlight your differences. While all types of diversity may help, your goal should be to identify how your unique background will allow you to contribute to the academic community.

Since this is what is unique to you, I cannot break it down into four or five categories as easily as the other questions. However here are some ideas that may help you get started.

If you have an unusual background ethnically or religiously for example, you could consider what you have learned from those experiences or beliefs that may contribute to your academic goals. If you have particular hardships you have overcome that have given you a unique perspective or goals you could describe those. Be careful when discussing past difficulties or mistakes, however, that you end on a decisively positive note. If you have extensive experience in a field different from the one that you are pursuing graduate work in you could explain how this gives you a unique perspective and possibly a specialization within your current academic endeavors. Finally, it may be enough to simply provide a detailed account of a personal experience. By telling a story that is personal, you can communicate something that could only be written by you.

In all of this, it is important to not focus only on the past. Tie everything into the future. Clearly communicate your goals as a participant in the program and what you hope to do with your education after graduate school.

All of the things we have looked at in this article are really only a general overview. So much more could be said about structure and tone and the mechanics of writing your essay. For more comprehensive help, please visit our website. And remember Samuel Johnson's admonition. With some diligent thought and effort you can no doubt produce essays that will enhance your application and communicate more than a list of accomplishments. You have the opportunity to really introduce yourself and show your school why you belong there. So take advantage of it.

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Remember when you sat down to write your undergrad application essays? It was your chance to show colleges the real you—and the world was your oyster! You could talk about your favorite book character, a beloved hobby, or a cause near to your heart.

Now you’re ready to apply to grad schools, with another application essay (or 10) to write. Like so much of the application process, grad school essays are similar to undergrad…but not quite the same. You need to take a more strategic approach. Here’s how, plus an awesome real-world graduate admission essay example.

The grad school application essay—aka letter of intent, personal statement, statement of purpose, etc.—is your chance to breathe some life and personality into your application. But unlike your undergraduate essay, where you might’ve offered a quippy story, your grad school application essay should be more focused on your academic and professional goals, and why grad school is essential to achieving them. Oh, and it should also give the admission committee a good sense of who you are and what you value at the same time. (No big deal, right?)

All that being said, a lot of the advice that helped you write your undergrad essay still applies: tell a unique story, use vivid examples, be genuine, and, perhaps most importantly, explain why you’d be an asset to the program—and why the program would be an asset to you.

Essay requirements will vary from school to school, but you will likely be asked to write 250–750 words. Common graduate application essay prompts include the following:

  • Describe a situation where you overcame adversity/exhibited leadership/learned from failure/experienced an ethical dilemma.
  • Why do you need this degree at this juncture in your life?
  • What are your short- and long-term career goals?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • And the big one: why this school? 

Regardless of the prompt you choose, the graduate admission committee should come away from your application essay knowing these three things:

  • What you want to study in grad school
  • Why you want to study it
  • Why their institution is the best place for you

Dedicate a paragraph to each one of those ideas, add an attention-grabbing opener and a tidy conclusion, and you’re almost there! The following best practices will take you the rest of the way to a winning grad school application essay.

Be specific

Stay focused on your academic field and use specific, discrete examples. Was there a clear moment when you knew you had found your calling? Did a particular class assignment, volunteer experience, or work project solidify your interest? Why exactly do you need grad school to achieve your goals? 

Demonstrate passion

You’re trying to give the graduate admission committee a sense of who you are and what you value. Show them your passion for your field of study. Why do you love it? Why do you want to contribute to it? What about it challenges and excites you?

Know your audience

Thoroughly research your potential graduate programs (if you haven’t already!), and tailor your essay to each school. Admission counselors want to know why you want to enroll in their program, and you can’t speak to the merits of their program if you don’t know what their program is all about! What specifically attracted you to the school? What would you contribute to the program as a graduate student and eventual alumnus? Take a look at press releases, blog posts, and big events on campus to get to know the school’s personality and what it values.

Stand out

In a crowd of candidates who also love this field (presumably), what sets you apart? As you consider possible graduate admission essay topics, look for the story only you can tell. Just remember, even some personally meaningful experiences, like the loss of a loved one or a life-changing volunteer experience, don’t really stand out in graduate admission—they’re too common. So if you are considering a potentially well-tread topic, try to approach it in a unique way.

Show, don’t tell

Whenever possible, use stories to illustrate your interest. You shouldn’t fill your graduate personal statement with anecdotes, but you can be straightforward and still infuse some personality into your writing. After all, what’s more engaging: “I frequently left the campus CAD lab just as the sun was rising—and long after I had completed my architecture assignments. I got hooked on experimenting with laser cutting and hardly noticed as the hours passed” or “I really love working with Auto CAD”? No contest.

Be relevant

You can talk about special skills, like a foreign language, computer programming, and especially research in your essay. And you can talk about your academic achievements, internships, published work, and even study abroad experiences. They all make great graduate personal statement fodder. But relevancy is also key. Before stuffing your application essay with every accomplishment and experience from your time as an undergrad, make sure you’re only highlighting those that pertain to your intended graduate studies and future goals.

Explain any gaps

Your grad school application essay is also an opportunity to explain anything in your academic record that might raise an eyebrow among the admission committee, like a semester of poor grades, time off in your schooling, or a less-than-perfect GRE score. For example, if you worked part or full time to help fund your undergrad education, that lends some important context to your experience and achievements; maybe your undergrad GPA isn’t quite as high as it might’ve been otherwise, but graduate admission counselors will likely appreciate your hard work and dedication.

You can also use the essay to own your mistakes; perhaps you didn’t take college as seriously as you should have freshman and sophomore year, but you got your act together junior year. But whatever you do, don’t use your essay to make excuses or blame others.  

Strike the right tone

You’ll have four (or more) years of collegiate writing under your belt, and your grad school statement needs to reflect that. Use active language, smooth transitions, an attention-grabbing opening, and a strong conclusion. And even though your graduate personal statement should be focused on your academic goals, it’s not a research paper—and it shouldn’t be full of jargon. Your essay’s tone will ultimately depend on the prompt you choose, but don’t be afraid to infuse it with personality, even humor. People relate to stories; tell yours and tell it well.

Edit—and have others edit too

Set aside time to edit your graduate application essay, checking for style, tone, and clarity as well as grammatical mistakes. (Here are my copyediting tips!) Is your graduate personal statement clear, concise, and well organized? Also revisit the essay prompt to make doubly sure you’ve answered it fully and accurately. Then have other people read your essay to check for these things too. Undergrad professors or mentors are great for this, but you can ask trusted friends too. And don’t forget about any career, writing, and/or tutoring centers at your undergraduate institution; they may be able to review your essay and application, and their services are often available long after you graduate.

Final tips

For a truly polished graduate essay, remember the little things too, like making sure your files have easily identifiable names. And it might go without saying, but make sure you follow the directions! If the word limit is 600, don’t send in 750. And last but never least: don’t forget that the essay is about you! Any examples or experiences you cite should relate back to you and why you want to go to grad school.

BONUS! Grad school personal statement don’ts

Beyond following the advice above—all do’s, by the way—keep these grad school personal statement don’ts in mind.

  • Don’t volunteer potentially damaging information. If you were suspended, arrested, etc., you probably don’t need to discuss it. Why cast aspersions on your character?
  • Don’t repeat other parts of your application. Your GPA, test scores, and most activities are covered sufficiently in the rest of your application.
  • Don’t be negative. You want the admission committee to see you as an enthusiastic addition to their program, not a grouch.
  • Don’t write about controversial topics. You don’t want to risk offending the admission committee. And touchy subjects rarely make good personal statement essays anyway.
  • Don’t go for gimmicks. Even though you want to stand out, a gimmicky essay isn’t the way to do it. (For example, submitting a song instead of a personal statement…when you’re not studying music.)
  • Don’t stuff your essay with big “smart” words, and don’t use flowery language either. Use clear language to tell a compelling story.
  • Don’t lift your personal statement from an existing academic essay or—worse—from someone else entirely. Besides plagiarizing being, you know, wrong, if you can’t get through your personal statement, you definitely aren’t cut out for the writing demands of grad school. Fact.

PS You can apply these tips to scholarship and grant application essays too...

Graduate letter of intent: a real-world example

Danielle Dulchinos
Master of Education in Instructional Design
University of Massachusetts, Boston

Danielle completed her master’s in 2016. Her studies in Instructional Design were heavily influenced by one of her life’s great passions: Girl Scouts. In fact, while in the midst of earning her graduate degree, she accepted an offer to join the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts full time as their Associate Director of Volunteer Support—a role that distinctly benefits from her graduate studies.

BTW: you'll find even more great grad school application essay examples here.

I wish to pursue graduate study to build a stronger foundation in a skill set I love. I have been using Instructional Design in my volunteer role with Girl Scouts as a Council Facilitator for nearly four years. However, I am only mimicking the best practices set forth by the organization. Working toward a graduate degree in Instructional Design will give me the background knowledge to answer the “why” of creating and delivering adult trainings. I am also interested in UMass Boston’s program specifically because of the strong media and technology focus. Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts (GSEM) volunteers would benefit from greater variety and flexibility in our training offerings, and I would like to help bring that to them. One key area that I would like to work on is creating and delivering more online webinars or hybrid trainings, which would meet the growing demand for more diverse and accessible content.

Aside from my volunteer interests, I believe that an MEd in Instructional Design will also help my current job. I work full time for a small independent financial research company. In addition to research reports, we offer daylong training sessions to our clients in our proprietary analysis methodology. My company’s account management team has expressed interest in modifying some of our core training sessions into an online format. With the skills and knowledge I will acquire through this program, I will be able to help my company expand and diversify our training business line while reducing our capacity constraints.

However, my passion for adult learning truly blossomed through my work with GSEM. As a lifelong Girl Scout, I knew I wanted to stay involved after I graduated from Northeastern University, where I was the President of Campus Girl Scouts and a troop leader. I became involved as a Council Facilitator because I knew each adult I got excited about and prepared to volunteer with Girl Scouts could reach five or 10 more girls.

I remember the day I realized I truly loved this work. After a particularly long day in my office reading reports, I had to deliver a three-hour course on leadership essentials. As I took the subway across town to the training location, all I could think about was how I’d rather be doing anything else. But after I got there and the attendees filed in, I could feel my energy rising. Sharing my knowledge of Girl Scouts with them and watching their enthusiasm to help their girls recharged me. I left the training with 10 times more energy than when I started. I’m looking forward to following this passion and developing a more robust understanding of how adults learn and what makes the content “sticky” so it stays with them when they go back to their girls.

This year I was also selected for a national-level Girl Scout committee, Girl Scouts University Leadership Cadre. The Cadre is comprised of some of the most talented Girl Scout facilitators nationwide and charged with creating personal, professional, and career development learning opportunities for Girl Scouts’ staff and volunteers across the United States, especially online learning assets. We recently had a weeklong conference where I was able to take some video production and storyboarding for webinar sessions that whet my appetite for more learning in this field.

When I chose my undergraduate major, I picked journalism because it was practical. Now that I have more life and career experience, I am ready to go back to school for something else, something I love. I have a passion for learning and sharing that learning with others, as I’ve demonstrated by volunteering my time doing it. There’s nothing more rewarding than helping someone have an “aha” moment or rekindle a lost spark. I know in my heart that adult training and development is my calling because nothing makes me happier than helping others get excited about learning.

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