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Graduate School is just the beginning

Application Essay

Most schools simply don't have the time or the workforce to fully appraise the qualifications of everyone who applies for admission. With hundreds of thousands of students trying to get into college or grad school each year, the schools will rely instead on a brief profile of your academic career to decide if they want to give your application a more detailed consideration. This profile will include your grade average, the reputation of the school you graduated from, and your scores on standardized tests. This information gives them a pretty good idea of how you'll do in grad school. Each school in turn decides what grades and scores they consider acceptable and culls those applicants who don't make the cut-off. Still, a large number of applicants will get past this hurdle, so the list will need to be narrowed down further. And the way that colleges do this is to require an application essay. This graduate school application essay will be read and evaluated to determine if the applicant is the type of person that the school would like to have as a student.

Don't make the mistake of underestimating the importance of this essay. You can have the best grades and test scores, and you can have gone to the best schools, but if your essay is poorly written you won't get any further in the application process. By the opposite token, if you turn in a terrific essay, it can make up for a weak profile and give you a shot at admission that you wouldn't have otherwise had. So clearly you want to do the best job you can in writing your application essay. In the following section, we'll give examples of different types of essays, plus some tips on how to make your essay good enough that the admissions committee will take notice. First, here are some general tips.

Don't write your essay on the spur of the moment. The application essay is too important just to dash it off. Give it thought, lots of thought. Write the first draft carefully, then go back over it and give it at least one thorough rewrite. Before writing, make extensive notes about what you want to say. You should have several pages of background material written before you even begin the essay itself. What sort of things should you put in these notes? Start with some lists. Here are some suggestions about what to include in them:

  • Your five best qualities
  • Your five greatest accomplishments
  • Five people who have inspired you
  • Five books that deeply affected you
  • Five obstacles you have overcome or challenges you have met
  • Five of the most exciting moments in your life
  • Five of your biggest failures
  • Five adjectives people would use to describe you

Note that the number five is just a suggestion. Don't strain to fill out a list. If you can think of only three things in a category, stop there. Once you have these lists, use them as the basis for your essay. Don't feel that you have to cram everything in, but use the lists as raw material for what you write. These notes are only to jumpstart your writing instincts. Once you get going, you'll almost certainly think of more things that you need to say.

Here are some guidelines to use in actually writing the graduate school application essay:

You don't have to write a completely different essay for every school. You can reuse material from one essay to another. This isn't cheating and nobody will get mad if they find out you've said the same thing in an essay you sent to another school. However, you should be sure to address any questions that the school wants you to answer and be careful not to leave any telltale signs of a cut-and-paste job, like mentioning the name of one school in an essay that you send to another.

Application Essay

Don't be generic. If your essay sounds like it was pulled from a book or that it could apply to almost any student, you'll be graded down for that. Make it personal, with information about what makes you the unique human being you are. Your essay is a chance to let the admissions committee know what kind of person you are and why they would want to accept you instead of another student. Let your personality come through and keep it interesting. If the essay is dull and plodding, it may not even get read all the way through. Look at your essay and ask, "If this were a book, would I really want to read it?"

Don't come across like the class clown. You want the essay to be interesting, but not funny. You don't want to come across as sarcastic or facetious. Show the admissions committee that you're serious about your education and that you'll be a dedicated student after you enroll. A joke or two won't hurt, but your essay isn't a comedy routine and you don't want it to read like one. Besides, no offense meant, but you're probably not as funny as your friends tell you that you are.

Don't describe the part of your academic career that the admissions committee already knows about. They have your records in front of them. They know if you got good grades and they won't be impressed if you start bragging about them. Tell them something they don't already know.

Accentuate the positive. Write about your personal strengths. If you have weaknesses-well, so does everyone else, but this may not be the place to mention them, unless you want to write about how you overcame them. If your grades have gone from bad to great over the last few years, mention that and explain how you did it. But if you spend too much time partying or flirting with members of the opposite sex, the admission committee doesn't need to know.

Don't plead for sympathy. You aren't trying to make the admissions committee feel sorry for you because you've had a rough life. A sob story won't get you admitted. If overcoming hardships, such as an illness or physical handicap, has been a major part of your life, go ahead and tell them, as long as you think it's relevant. But don't dwell on it. Move on quickly to other things.

Pay attention to spelling, grammar, sentence structure, and word usage. And don't rely on a spell checker to do these things for you, because there will be plenty of errors that it will miss. Proofread carefully and once you've finished proofreading the essay, proofread it again. Hand it to someone else to proofread. It's impossible to be too careful. If your application essay looks sloppily written or if you come across as someone who slept through English class, you won't get into school-especially if you're applying for a degree in English!

Write well. This isn't just a question of careful proofreading and fixing spelling errors. Grab the reader's attention from the first paragraph. Make them keep reading not because they have to but because they want to. If the reader doesn't read your entire essay, you might as well not have written it in the first place. Keep things interesting. Write with style. Go to your library and get a copy of The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, for some pertinent tips on how to write in a lively, readable way. Organize your essay logically, with well-structured sentences and paragraphs. Write an outline before you start and follow that outline as you write. This will keep you from rambling. Read the essay out loud, because this will allow you to catch errors that you wouldn't be aware of otherwise. Mix short and long sentences so that your writing doesn't become sing-songy or monotonous. Break long sentences into shorter ones. You shouldn't use slang, but you also shouldn't use large words just because you think they sound impressive. Yes, you should use the words that are necessary to make your points, but if it sounds like you're just showing off or trying to impress the reader with your intelligence, it could backfire on you. Avoid starting too many sentences with the word "I." The essay is about you, but it's not an ego trip. And use the passive voice sparingly. Active verbs will engage the reader's attention and make your writing seem more focused. Also avoid weasel words like "maybe" or "one of the," which make it sound like you don't want to make a definite statement. Your first words should provide an introduction to the reader, but they don't have to summarize everything you're about to say. Similarly, you want to conclude your essay in a way that wraps up your thoughts, but you don't want to rehash everything that you've just said. Avoid cliches, like "at the end of the day" and "I think out of the box." These phrases will be in everybody else's essays and you want to impress the reader with what an original writer you are. Finally-we can't repeat this point enough-proofread the essay until you are absolutely sure there are no errors. Then read it out loud, to yourself or to a friend.

Last Updated: 05/25/2014