How to Write a Grad School Application Essay
What Is a Grad School Application Essay? | What Are Admissions Officers Looking for? | Before You Start Writing | While You're Writing | When You've Finished Writing | Sample Essay | Grad School Essay FAQs
Writing a graduate school admission essay can seem daunting. However, students can make the process easier by taking time to develop and organize their ideas before writing their personal statement.
Students can apply several practices to write a compelling grad school personal statement that gets readers to take notice. These steps include developing a solid outline, conveying a strong and memorable thesis, presenting specific points relevant to the topic, and taking sufficient time to edit and proofread the essay before submitting it.
What Is a Grad School Application Essay?
Graduate school admission or application essays allow graduate programs to get to know applicants better as people. Although an applicant's grade point average (GPA), transcripts, and test scores tell part of their story, grad school essays allow students to show how their personalities, achievements, and past experiences inform their career interests and potential for academic success.
Graduate schools often ask for personal statements or letters of intent from applicants. Prospective graduate students should know what distinguishes these documents.
- A personal statement allows students some freedom to discuss how their past experiences, career goals, and interest in a prospective program have shaped their likelihood of success in and fit for graduate study.
- A statement of purpose describes a student's reasons for applying to a program. The student typically explains how their career goals, qualifications, and research interests will affect their future beyond graduate school.
- A letter of intent is a brief essay describing a student's skills, accomplishments, and goals that pertain to the field of study they aspire to pursue while in graduate school.
What Are Admissions Officers Looking for in a Grad School Essay?
In general, admissions personnel review these essays to determine how well students might fit in with a graduate program and succeed academically. Reviewers also look for a sense of how well prospective students handle stress, overcome challenges, and stand up to the demands of a rigorous program.
Grad school essays should shed light on how well students respond to criticism of their work. Also, graduate school provides a setting where individuals can explore diverse theories and perspectives. To this end, admissions personnel look for clues about students' openness to different viewpoints and their ability to express their ideas in written form.
What to Know Before You Start Writing
Review the Prompt
The prompt for the application essay gives students a sense of how to focus their writing. Before starting to write, students should read the instructions within the prompt carefully. These directions shed light on readers' expectations.
Prompts for grad school application essays vary greatly, with some offering little detail on what the statement should cover. Applicants should pay close attention to the requirements, including word count, format, and submission method.
Some graduate essay prompts offer few instructions or requirements, leaving applicants a lot of room for choosing a topic. To determine the most appropriate topic, focus, and personal examples to include, students should devote considerable time to brainstorming before they start writing.
Students should give themselves time to reflect on their strengths, accomplishments, and research interests. They should also consider the qualities they want in a graduate program and pick out benefits provided by the program so they can speak to the specific reasons they're applying.
Create An Outline
Outlining is a crucial step in creating a compelling and memorable grad school personal statement. Just as architects need a blueprint to design and build a skyscraper, grad school applicants need a roadmap to organize and write their essays.
The most effective application essays include an attention-grabbing introduction, a body with solid and concise points, and a memorable conclusion. An outline will likely change somewhat during the writing process, but it still allows the writer to stay on top of the essay's construction.
Know the Point You're Trying to Get Across
A grad school personal statement should present a clear point or thesis to help it stand out. An overall thesis statement or claim answers the question, "What is this essay about?" A reader should not have to work hard to understand the thesis. If the point of an essay is unclear or confusing, an admissions officer might stop reading.
Applicants should place their thesis in the introduction so that the reader clearly understands what the following essay will address. Students can insert their thesis immediately after an anecdote, quotation, or other attention-getter to provide a smooth transition into the main topic.
Be Aware of Topics to Avoid
Brainstorming allows an applicant to consider a variety of topics and ways of writing about them. However, some subjects may be inappropriate for a grad school application essay because they could alienate certain readers or make them lose interest.
Topics that writers should consider omitting from an admission essay include the following:
- Traumatic personal experiences
- Subjects that make the writer appear overly negative or cynical
- An exhaustive list of accomplishments
Students should also avoid using well-known phrases or expressions. For example, common cliches offer virtually no advantage because they suggest little to no originality of thought. Also, students should not use words or terms (e.g., vulgar language) that detract from their professionalism.
What to Consider While You're Writing
Grab the Reader's Attention
A strong grad school personal statement starts with writing a concise introduction that gains the reader's attention. The writer can make the essay more memorable by using a brief anecdote, quotation, compelling statistic, or rhetorical question.
The introduction should also provide a clear preview or roadmap for the rest of the essay. After the attention-getter, the essay should quickly transition into the thesis statement or main idea, followed by a preview of the upcoming points.
Writers should revisit the introduction once their essay is complete to double-check that it accurately reflects the main points of the essay.
Students should not just focus on what they think admissions personnel will want to read. Instead, they should use their voice to present their ideas in meaningful ways that reflect their true selves. In other words, write with authenticity. While the essay should reflect a polished draft, it should also show applicants as they are.
Graduate school applicants shouldn't lie or misrepresent themselves in the grad school essay. In addition to strengths and accomplishments, admissions departments want to read what applicants say about their shortcomings and how they have worked to overcome them.
Be Relevant and Specific
While students can use creative anecdotes and personal examples, they need to make their points relevant to the prompt or question. Admissions personnel generally want to learn why students wish to enroll in the program and what makes them qualified. These elements can serve as the foundation when writing the main body of an essay.
Also, the main points should be specific. For example, in expressing why they are applying to a particular program, applicants can use a brief anecdote to explain their desire to work with a faculty member who shares their research interests. While stories and examples add a personal touch, they should not distract from essential information that grad schools want to know about an applicant.
Have a Strong Ending
When writing the conclusion of a graduate school admission essay, writers should restate the thesis and reiterate the main points. Rather than presenting new information, the ending should remind the reader of the statement’s main ideas. Furthermore, it should refer back to those points while giving the reader something to think about after they have finished reading.
A conclusion can also end by tying back to the attention-getting statement in the introduction. This stylistic device brings the whole essay full circle, provides a sense of closure, and strengthens the emotional connection with the reader.
What to Do When You've Finished Writing
Finishing the draft of a graduate school admission essay does not signal the end of the writing process. Rather, polishing the draft requires re-reading, editing, and getting feedback before submitting it.
Reread Your Draft
A grad school essay containing errors or reflecting poor writing does not leave a favorable impression. Re-reading the essay allows for catching mistakes, clearing up confusing sentences, and strengthening the main points.
Unfortunately, writers can gloss over errors after reading the essay just once. As a rule of thumb, when students believe their draft has gone through enough editing and proofreading, they might take a little more time and read the document one more time.
Edit Your Draft
Students should not confuse editing with proofreading — a step that involves checking for grammar, punctuation, and stylistic errors. Editing is a more substantive process that includes checking for conciseness and ensuring that ideas flow well. Proper editing also allows writers to determine whether each paragraph or section expresses a single thought and make sure that sentences are concise and clear.
Students should allow enough time to edit their essays. Also, reading the essay aloud can provide another way to catch mistakes or confusing phrases.
Students should find individuals they trust to check their personal statement for clarity, errors, and other stylistic inconsistencies. Also, having others review the essay can give the applicant a sense of how others perceive its tone, organization, and potential to engage the reader.
Trusted peers, instructors, family members, friends, and students who have recently gone through the grad school application process often provide excellent feedback. Students can also seek out others who are applying to graduate school to share their personal statements and exchange constructive criticism.
Sample Grad School Application Essay
Prompt: Why do you wish to pursue a graduate degree in communication studies at the University of Oklahoma and how does it relate to your career goals?
Three years ago, I underwent a breast biopsy after two mammograms failed to rule out a suspicious lump. I met with my oncological surgeon before she was to perform the procedure. Although her technical skills were superior, her bedside manner left me feeling scared, uncertain, and lacking confidence in my capacity to handle a possible cancer diagnosis. Moreover, my doctor's inability to relate to me personally left me feeling powerless in meeting my health needs as a patient.
In poor health, many people feel robbed of their dignity. One of the most critical settings where patients can maintain dignity is during a doctor's visit. I wish to conduct research and teach courses in an academic setting to explore how doctor-patient interactions can help patients gain more confidence and improve their health outcomes. To this end, I am applying to the Communication Department at the University of Oklahoma to pursue a master's degree specializing in health communication. This master's will then allow me to continue my studies and earn a doctorate in this area.
I first learned a great deal about doctor-patient interactions while taking an undergraduate health communication class from Dr. Edith McNulty at the University of Nebraska. Dr. McNulty's class informed the way I view my breast biopsy experience. After completing her class, I enrolled in an independent study with Dr. McNulty transcribing qualitative interviews she conducted with patients. Through this independent study, I also learned how to perform constant comparative coding of those transcripts.
My independent study has fueled my interest in researching health communication and teaching classes on the subject. My interest in the communication studies program at Oklahoma stems partly from my interest in Dr. Dan O'Malley's studies of patients' expressions of ethnicity when they encounter healthcare workers. Working with Dr. O'Malley could expand my healthcare interest to include ethnicity as a factor in these settings.
I also am familiar with Dr. Wendy Wasser's research on communication efficacy during online video appointments. Given that increasing numbers of patients rely on telemedicine to receive their healthcare, studying with Dr. Wasser can help me understand the role of new communication technologies in doctor's visits.
Although my breast biopsy from three years ago was benign, I know that other patients are not as fortunate in their health outlook. All patients have the right to quality communication during doctor visits to help them gain confidence and take proactive measures toward their healthcare. My pursuit of a master's in health communication at the University of Oklahoma can set me on a path to contributing to our understanding of the interpersonal impact of doctor-patient interactions on medical care and patient well-being.
Frequently Asked Questions About Grad School Application Essays
Most applicants should expect to write at least 500 words for their grad school admission essay. However, length varies by graduate program. Many application materials contain specific instructions on how to write the essay, including word limits.
If an online application submission page includes a text box for the title, the applicant should follow the word or character limit and make the title relevant to their grad school personal statement. However, students do not need to add a title if the application does not require it.
Prospective students should write a clear and compelling grad school essay free of errors. Also, the statement should help make the applicant stand out from their peers. It can include specific examples of unique experiences that illustrate students' strengths and abilities.
Students should not wander off topic when answering a prompt, especially if it asks a specific question. Also, an essay should not include so many personal examples that they read as a list. Instead, the applicant can provide a brief anecdote for each main point they want to make.
The best graduate school admission essays have a clear thesis statement and good organization. They also grab the reader's attention right away and maintain it to the end. The best essays also reflect the writer's careful attention to the application instructions by addressing the prompt thoroughly.
Lonnie Woods III is a student affairs administrator, professor, and professional development practitioner whose research examines the career competencies of college students studying arts-related majors. Woods holds a BS in fine art photography from Towson University and an MA in higher education and student affairs from New York University. He has 10-plus years of experience working in higher education, with professional experience spanning various institutions, including Pratt Institute, New York University, The George Washington University, and Columbia University.
Lonnie Woods III is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network.
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