Applying to graduate school is often a long and intensive process. Your resume shows your education and professional background, your transcripts demonstrate academic excellence, and recommendation letters help confirm your readiness. No application is complete without these items, but the admissions essay is the final piece of the puzzle.
The admissions essay is the core of your application. It takes more time to develop than the other items and allows you to make a case for yourself. It must effectively communicate your motivations and reflect your qualifications and aims. Knowing how to do this effectively is a struggle for many students, especially when writing doesn’t come naturally for them.
Our guide below gives you the tips and resources you need to get started. It discusses what to include, looks at how to approach writing and editing, and offers expert advice. Keep reading to demystify the essay writing process and give your submission the extra boost it needs to set you apart.
What is the difference between a Grad School Essay and a Personal Statement?
Successful essays are tailored to each prospective school. That customization can make or break your acceptance to graduate school, and it begins with understanding the type of essay you’re asked to write. Some schools may ask for an admissions essay, sometimes called a statement of purpose or intent, while others require a personal statement. Some even call for both. These terms are often used interchangeably and do cover similar ground. However, there are some key differences to keep in mind.
Essay or Statement of Purpose
The admissions essay focuses on your current qualifications and how they support your broader vocational goals. Think of it as a document to discuss the present and the future from a professional and academic perspective. It should clearly outline your career plans, your motivation and objective for pursuing study at the graduate level, and any academic achievements showing your potential for success. Your essay should also speak to elements like interest and fit within the program as well as about any relevant professional experience.
While you can certainly mention relevant personal experiences in your admissions essay, those are typically reserved for the personal statement. If the admissions essay focuses on the present and future, the personal statement offers a narrative of the past leading to your decision to pursue graduate studies. It frames that narrative in a way that demonstrates your growth over time and establishes clear connections among your background, development, and career plans. The personal statement is more about you as an individual than is the admissions essay, but their goals remain the same: offer a well-rounded picture of your trajectory and convince admissions officials you’ll thrive in their program.
Some Examples of Each
Examples can help illustrate the differences and overlap between admissions essays and personal statements. These personal statement examples from Purdue OWL, for instance, discuss qualifications and fit as admissions essays do, but they are more personal and individualized. They also narrate the candidates’ development, highlighting key experiences and milestones. By contrast, an admissions essay example provided by Brandeis University covers some of the same themes but with different framing. Both examples are clearly and concisely written and implement the points and tips covered below.
As you prepare to write, pay close attention to the instructions in the application and frame your essay(s) accordingly. If you encounter admissions criteria asking for both an admissions essay and a personal statement or some hybrid version, then you must combine key elements from both.
What Should a Graduate School Essay Include?
Most graduate programs give you some instruction on what to include in your essay. Those instructions usually vary in terms of scope and specificity, especially among disciplines, and require different details of your training, background, and professional experience. Start with the application instructions provided by the school, then use this list as a guide to fill in the blanks.
Your Unique Take on the Subject Matter
Grad school is an opportunity to specialize and deepen your skills. Demonstrate your ability to do that by giving admissions officials a sense of your perspective and approach to the subject. This not only shows your comprehension and competency but also highlights your potential to make original and lasting contributions to the field.
Your Relevant Experience
Discussing any pertinent jobs or special projects shows your professional experience and proves your interest and desire for further study. Since you can’t discuss every detail of your experience, only mention the roles and projects directly relating to your prospective studies and how those experiences will inform your work as a student and professional.
What You Bring to the Program
Admissions officers don’t just want to see that you’re a qualified applicant. They already expect that. Competitive essays go beyond the basics by showing how you will contribute to the program and its initiatives, the extra value you bring to the table, and what sets you apart from other applicants. Answer this question clearly and back it up by pointing to other elements in this list.
Strengths and Weaknesses
The ability to highlight your strengths and acknowledge weaknesses is a key marker of self-awareness and professional maturity. You don’t need to be comprehensive or exhaustive but selecting a few strengths and weaknesses will enhance your essay and show that you are a well-rounded team player who knows what they are good at and is eager to improve in every area.
Relevant Accomplishments or Awards
As with other items in this list, relevance is key. Don’t list every single award you’ve received since high school. Instead, select and highlight the accomplishments that illustrate your ability to thrive at the graduate level. Demonstrating that you have already been recognized for key achievements related to your graduate studies shows admissions officials you are poised for success.
The admissions essay isn’t just an opportunity to discuss your potential for success as a graduate student. It’s also a document for addressing how grad school will further your career and advance your professional goals. It allows you to discuss what you plan to do after you graduate and how study of the subject at the graduate level supports that plan and empowers you to achieve your goals. Provide a clear statement of your professional aims and explain how the grad school experience will support them.
Why the Program is a Good Fit for You
One of the secrets to an effective admissions essay is making the document less about you and more about how the program will benefit from your presence. Answering questions about fit can be tricky. Ideally, you want to strike a convincing balance between discussing your qualifications and pointing to ways those qualifications align with the program in question. You’re striving to explain why a particular school is ideal and in what way the fit is mutually beneficial. A solid description about fit will help your essay stand out.
8 Tips for Writing a Successful Graduate School Admissions Essay
Once you’ve considered what to include in your essay, start the heavy lifting of outlining, writing, revising, and editing. This process can be difficult, though, as you consider how to integrate all the necessary elements to produce a focused and persuasive submission. Use the tips below, which are expanded on by the University of Montevallo, to guide your efforts.
1. Do Your Research
This important preliminary step, much like grad school, requires focus, precision, and specificity. It’s about knowing the details and showing that you’ve thoughtfully considered them by putting in time and effort toward researching each prospective school before you draft your essay. As you research, strive for a greater sense of the school’s culture and ethos by understanding what they’re looking for. Consider their parameters for the essay, especially any specific requirements.
2. Customize for the School.
The one size fits all approach won’t work here and submitting the same essay across the board could torpedo your chances for admission. Instead, tailor each essay to match the program. Each application should contain a unique essay even if the content is similar. For example, you can frame your research interests differently depending on the specifics of each program. Customizing shows both initiative and attention to detail.
3. Decide on Mood, Tone, and Theme in Advance
Mood, tone, and theme give your essay cohesion and unite all the details. Brainstorm ideas and reflect on each of these elements before you start writing. Select how you’ll approach each upfront and commit to them throughout the essay. Consistency not only makes for a more compelling essay but also shows planning and critical thinking. The extra time and effort in this area show admissions officials you have what it takes to succeed in graduate school.
4. Know Your Audience
Be sure to acknowledge the specific program you’re applying for within your essay. Optimize the content so it aligns with the program’s mission and reflects its approach. Consider the specifics of the program and any other details (e.g., specializations, special initiatives, etc.) that stand out or make it unique. Integrate those details in each essay if possible.
5. Outline Before Writing
Outlining helps you stay focused and organized. Take the points discussed in the previous section and make some notes. Jot down key points you know you want to cover in your essay, drawing on the school-specific research you’ve conducted. Then, make a rough outline based on those notes. This gives you a workable map to guide your writing. Outline in a way that feels comfortable, using numbers, bullet points, or another organizing convention, and let your outline guide and focus you as you write.
6. Organize Your Content
Outlining helps you arrange and order the material you want to include, but you may need to do some additional organizing beyond a simple outline. The basic essay format – introduction, body, and conclusion – never fails. Fit the material in your outline into this structure, and let it guide your writing. Drilling down and organizing the body section of your essay even further, for example, helps you better make your case and support your points in detail. Remember to anticipate the needs of your audience each step of the way, and let each section build on the previous ones.
7. Just Start Writing
Planning and preparation are vitally important, but writing is often the most difficult part for many people. Your best approach is to simply start writing. Get all your ideas out of your head and don’t worry about whether it is good or well-ordered. All good writing goes through multiple drafts before submission. Just get your thoughts down and produce a rough draft you can tweak. Be sure to leave yourself plenty of time for revision since it is often the longest part of the writing process.
8. Finalize Your Essay
Never submit an admissions essay without editing and proofreading. First drafts are not final drafts, and you’ll need to revise and rework the material multiple times before you send it off. Proofreading helps catch pesky typos, and more substantial revision enables you to optimize your content and structure. Take breaks between drafts so you can return to the document with fresh eyes. Seek outside feedback from a peer, mentor, or reference since others will likely notice things that you don’t.
Frequently Asked Questions
The essay writing process is different for everyone, and additional questions may arise as you plan, research, and write admissions essays for each school. Length, using humor, theme, major pitfalls to avoid, and other challenges can slow or halt the process. Below are answers to some common questions to help the process go as smoothly as possible.
How do I choose a theme?
Some essay prompts already suggest or require a theme. If so, follow the instructions closely. If no theme is mentioned, you’ll need to select one since writing an essay without this overarching element results in a lack of cohesion. Your application essentially tells a story about you and your professional aspirations, and the essay allows you to give that story greater unity and focus. Take control of that narrative by selecting a key experience, strength, or qualification to set the tone and create a cohesive theme.
Should I write in the first person?
This is a stylistic question unless the application specifically states otherwise. If using the first-person helps you convey your thinking and fit within the school, then use it. However, avoid it if it feels forced or creates a tone that is too colloquial or informal. Remember, this isn’t a memoir. It’s primarily about your readiness for admission, so a more academic and formal tone may be in order. You can achieve this in the first person, but it requires understanding the expectations of admissions officials.
Should I mention my research interests or what faculty members I am interested in working with?
This can be a great way to demonstrate fit. Grad school is all about specialization and individual research, so mentioning where you align and who you might want to work with can certainly help – but only if you’ve done your homework. You don’t want to come off as presumptuous or, worse, ill-informed. Research thoroughly beforehand so you can discuss why your interests align with key initiatives of faculty members in an informed way.
How do I stand out even if I don’t think I have any unique experiences?
You can make your application stand out by submitting a compelling essay that details your background, paints a clear picture of your experience and qualifications, and points to your fit with the program. Your theme should unite each of these elements and give your essay focus. If you’re struggling because you don’t think you have any unique experiences, step back and return to the basics. Remember why you’re attending grad school in the first place and why you’re applying to a particular school. Doing so can help you home in on a theme.
Should I use humor?
Use humor only if you feel confident doing so and have sought outside feedback to gauge how it might be received. Humor can be a great tool to keep your reader engaged and show that you have some sense of perspective and self-awareness. Comedic nuance can be difficult to convey in the written word, though, so avoid the risk if there’s any possibility your humor might be taken the wrong way.
How long should my essay be?
Always go with the page or word count provided in the admissions criteria. Some schools even give additional formatting specifications. If there is no guidance provided, prioritize writing a clear, compelling, and concise essay that meets all the other requirements and offers the admissions officials a complete picture of what you bring to the table and why. Remember that these officials are reading many essays. You want to stand out because of your qualifications and ability to communicate, not because your essay is too long. When in doubt, go with our expert’s recommendation of 500 to 1,000 words.
What should I avoid?
Your essay should be completely free of typos, misspellings, and grammatical errors. You should also avoid making sweeping generalizations and using cliches and informal language. “Show don’t tell” should be your main rule of thumb. This means, for example, it’s best to avoid simply listing your accomplishments or rehashing points covered elsewhere in your application. Admissions officials have already seen your resume. They want to see how you understand and interpret the qualifications and experiences listed there.
Looking for additional tips and tools to help strengthen your essay and enhance the writing process? The list below can help you develop application materials that reflect your qualifications, goals, and potential for success. These resources include essay samples, preparation questions, grammar and writing tools, books, university guides, and more.
Advice from Admissions Representatives – Purdue Online Writing Lab
Containing valuable insight from officials who’ve read and evaluated admissions essays, this resource includes information on what they look for along with some dos and don’ts.
This app offers a minimalist design and a distraction-free work environment to keep you focused while writing. It’s available on all major operating systems.
A favorite among many writers and researchers, Evernote is a note-taking tool with robust features. Essay writers can use it to create outlines and keep track of multiple drafts.
This tool lives inside your web browser and helps you avoid and correct typos or other grammatical mistakes on the fly.
How to Write a Graduate School Personal Statement – Kaplan
Developed by the same people who administer the GRE, this guide delivers tips on crafting winning personal statements. It also includes some key questions to consider as you write.
How to Write the Perfect Personal Statement by Mark Alan Stewart
This book approaches the personal statement process with prospective law, business, and medical students in mind and looks at securing recommendation letters and interview tactics.
Strategic Storytelling: The Importance of Sharing Your Story with the Admissions Team – Idealist
This article discusses the admissions process from a holistic point of view. It focuses on how to submit cohesive and connected materials, including the admissions essay.
Application Essays – University of North Carolina Writing Center
UNC extends this instructional handout to prospective students preparing their essays for submission. It contains useful information on audience, voice, and style.
Writing Personal Statements by Joe Schall
Published by Penn State, this e-book acts as a manual for aspiring professionals looking to write eye-catching essays. Unlike some other resources, it includes examples and critical commentary.
Writing the Personal Statement – Purdue Online Writing Lab
This resource guide includes general advice in addition to reflective questions to aid your writing. It also lists pitfalls to avoid as you draft and revise.
An Admissions Expert Weighs In
Claire Westbrook is the founder of LSAT Prep Hero, a hub of free LSAT resources aimed to help aspiring law students ace the LSAT. She’s on a mission to help as many students feel prepared and confident in their academic endeavors as possible.
Q: What is the purpose of the graduate school admissions essay, and what are admissions officials looking for when they read them?
A: These essays give the admissions committee a sense of who you are and should ideally convince them that you would be a valuable addition to their program. Admissions officials will look at the content of your essay to see if it is well-written and engaging. They will also consider how well you have structured your argument and whether or not you have addressed the question adequately. Finally, they will determine whether or not you have answered the question in a unique and thought-provoking way.
Q: Other than the obvious things like proofreading and revising, what’s the most common mistake or a key thing that applicants overlook in their essays?
A: The most common mistake that applicants make is not spending enough time on their applications. Admissions officers often have thousands of applications to read, and they are looking for any reason to weed people out. Applicants should spend at least a month on each application, making sure that they are well-written and error-free. They should also make sure to tailor each application to the specific school that they are applying to.
Q: What should prospective students do when there is no clear prompt or question?
A: If there is no clear prompt or question, the best thing to do is read up on the school you’re interested in. Every school has its own website with detailed information about what they are looking for in a prospective student. They’ll also have information about the admissions process, financial aid, and campus life. It’s also a good idea to reach out to your network of family and friends who may know someone who’s already attended the school. They can provide invaluable insights into what appeals the most to you, which is something you can incorporate into the essay.
Q: What’s the ideal length of a grad school admissions essay?
A: Most admissions essays are between 500 and 1,000 words. If you are concise and clear, you should have no trouble staying within this word limit. Remember that your essay should be a personal reflection on your journey thus far and your plans for the future, so don’t worry about trying to cover too much ground. Choose a single theme or focus and make sure every sentence in your essay supports it. Brevity is always best when writing an admissions essay.
Q: Should career-changers or those coming from a different field approach their essay differently?
A: They should highlight their transferable skills and unique experiences. Transferable skills are the skills that you have acquired from your previous jobs and activities, such as leadership, teamwork, communication, and problem-solving skills. These skills can be applied to any field or job. Unique experiences are the activities and accomplishments that make you stand out from other candidates. For example, you may have started your own business, volunteered for a charity, or won an award for your achievements. Share these experiences in your essays to show admissions officers that you are an interesting and talented candidate.
Expert bio (headshot below): Claire Westbrook is the founder of LSAT Prep Hero, a hub of free LSAT resources aimed to help aspiring law students ace the LSAT. She’s on a mission to help as many students feel prepared and confident in their academic endeavors as possible.