Essay writing for graduate school applications

Our resources and advice — including tips and sample graduate schools essays — can help you get into your first-choice school. Getting into grad school depends heavily on a number of factors, including where you apply That includes both the college or university and the specific school or program. Another factor that can determine whether you get into a program is the quality of your graduate school essay. Many grad schools call for a personal essay, which means you have a lot of leeway in what you write about.

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Instead, use your essay to tell a story that captures the hearts and minds of the admissions committee. Remember to be authentic and honest and follow all the instructions for your graduate school essay. With so many applications to review, decision panels often use poor instruction compliance to weed out a lot of candidates. Like most essays, your graduate school essay should include an introduction, body, and conclusion. Solid intros include a hook that connects the reader quickly with your topic and makes them want to read more. Ensure the tone of your hook goes with your theme and overall essay, though; humor is fine, but it may jar the reader if you start with a joke before launching into a serious subject.

How to Write the Grad School Application Essay/Personal Statement

The body paragraphs are the meat of your graduate school essay. The voice you use and the style in which you write can intrigue your audience. The voice you use in your essay should be yours. The narrative should reflect your perspective, experiences, thoughts, and emotions.


Focusing on events or ideas may give your audience an indirect idea of how these things became important in forming your outlook, but many others have had equally compelling experiences. By simply talking about those events in your own voice, you put the emphasis on you rather than the event or idea. Look at this anecdote:. An interesting tale, yes, but what does it tell you about the narrator? The following example takes the same anecdote and recasts it to make the narrator more of a presence in the story:.

The voice you use should be approachable as well as intelligent. Note: If you are having trouble forming clear sentences without all the prepositions and nouns, take a look at our handout on style. You may want to create an impression of expertise in the field by using specialized or technical language.

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But beware of this unless you really know what you are doing—a mistake will look twice as ignorant as not knowing the terms in the first place. Keep in mind that this is a personal statement.

In This Section

Would you think you were learning a lot about a person whose personal statement sounded like a journal article? Would you want to spend hours in a lab or on a committee with someone who shuns plain language? Just use an honest voice and represent yourself as naturally as possible. A well-written, dramatic essay is much more memorable than one that fails to make an emotional impact on the reader.

BUT be careful not to let your drama turn into melodrama. You want your reader to see your choices motivated by passion and drive, not hyperbole and a lack of reality. Many guides to writing application essays encourage you to take a risk, either by saying something off-beat or daring or by using a unique writing style.

Dive Right In

When done well, this strategy can work—your goal is to stand out from the rest of the applicants and taking a risk with your essay will help you do that. An essay that impresses your reader with your ability to think and express yourself in original ways and shows you really care about what you are saying is better than one that shows hesitancy, lack of imagination, or lack of interest. But be warned: this strategy is a risk. Do not alienate your readers. One student applying to an art program described the person he did not want to be, contrasting it with the person he thought he was and would develop into if accepted.

Another person wrote an essay about her grandmother without directly linking her narrative to the fact that she was applying for medical school. Assess your credentials and your likelihood of getting into the program before you choose to take a risk. If you have little chance of getting in, try something daring. If you are almost certainly guaranteed a spot, you have more flexibility. Your challenge is to weave this varied information into a cohesive story that demonstrates growth, mastery, and future potential. This should be your mantra for the entire application process.

Prompts tend to be so similar that you could probably flesh out an outline without ever looking at an institution-specific application. Once you have expanded your story, tailoring it to specific schools should be a breeze — adding a little here to elaborate on your research experience, subtracting a little there to meet a strict word limit. You will eventually end up with a few different versions that emphasize different things depending on program or application requirements.

REU Physics Writing Workshops Graduate Application Essays

When you start, however, you should aim to have one excellent base draft. And if you want to start writing based on a specific prompt, consider choosing one of the longest ones on your list. Instead, set aside some time to brainstorm and hone a list of key personal, professional, and academic experiences. The idea is to come up with a few formative or exemplary incidents in each of these categories. As you pare down your list and begin to create an outline or structure for your essay, play around with different ways to organize your story. Sometimes the clearest option is to address each area of your life separately, but the narrative can feel stilted.

Often going with a more chronological or thematic structure will help illustrate your personal growth and demonstrate how your personal, professional, and academic experiences complement and build on each other. As we mentioned above, you could organize your story in a number of ways, but we recommend favoring the structure that most clearly illustrates your personal growth. No matter what, signposting throughout your essay will be key. State your intentions at the beginning so you can easily circle back throughout your essay. You are trying to help your readers envision you at their institution, so use the entire essay to build and strengthen the connection. That said, you ultimately want your essay to draw attention to your strengths, growth, and triumphs. For example, if you want to address some bad grades you got in college due to a chronic illness, think about what you learned from the experience.

Did it have a direct influence on your chosen field or decision to go to graduate school? Did it force you to develop a new skill set that will serve you well in chosen career?