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Understand Yourself to Write an Effective Graduate Admissions Essay

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puzzle-Robbert-van-der-Steeg.jpg Robbert van der Steeg / Flickr

The admissions essay  bewilders most graduate school applicants yet it is a vital part of the application that cannot be ignored.  The  admissions essay serves an important purpose because it permits you to speak directly to the graduate committee. This is an important opportunity that's also a big source of stress for applicants. Most admit that they don't know where to begin.

Writing your admissions essay is a process, not a discrete event. Writing an effective essay requires preparation  You must gather the information needed to compose the essay, understand the task at hand, and decide what you would like to convey. Here are some tips to help you gather the information needed to compose a graduate admissions essay that sets you apart from the rest.

Conduct a Personal Assessment
The first step is to conduct a thorough self-assessment. Leave yourself plenty of time because this is a process of self-exploration that you don't want to rush. Sit down with a pad or at the keyboard, and begin writing. Don't censor yourself in any way. Just write what feels natural.

Begin taking notes on what drives you. Describe your hopes, dreams, and aspirations. What do you hope to gain from graduate study? Granted, most of this information may not make it into the essay, but your goal at this point is to brainstorm. Identity as much of your personal history as possible so that you can carefully sift through and sort out events and personal items that will strengthen your essay.

Consider:

  • Hobbies
  • Projects that you've completed
  • Jobs
  • Responsibilities
  • Accomplishments in the personal and scholastic arena
  • Major life events that have changed you
  • Challenges and hurdles you've overcome
  • Life events that motivate your education
  • People who have influenced you or motivated you 
  • Traits, work habits, and attitudes that will insure your success your goals

Carefully consider your academic record and personal accomplishments. How do the attitudes, values, and personal qualities that you've listed correspond to these experiences? Try to pair them up. For example, your curiosity and thirst for knowledge may have led you to conduct independent research with a professor. Consider how each pair of attitudes/personal qualities and experiences show that you're prepared to excel in graduate school. Also consider these questions that will help you gather information that will be useful in writing your essays.

Once you have a master list, carefully examine the information that you've listed. Remember that the information that you chose to present can portray you as a positive and upbeat person or as a tired and discouraged student. Think about the image that you want to portray and revise your master list accordingly. Use the revised list as a basis for all of your admissions essays. Carefully consider what you should (and should not!) include in your essay.

Do Your Research
Research the programs that interest you. Read the brochure, check the website, gather all information possible to help you determine what the admissions committee is looking for from potential students. Your research should provide enough of a knowledge base about the school to tailor your essay to it. Show that you're interested and that you've taken the time to learn about the program. Take careful notes on each program and note where your personal interests, qualities, and accomplishments coincide.

Consider the Questions Posed
If you're truly interested in the graduate programs to which you're applying (and with a $50 application fee for most schools, you should be interested!), take the time to tailor your essay to each program. One size clearly does not fit all.

Many applications require that students address specific questions in their admissions essays, such as these common admissions essay topics. Make sure that you're answering the question. Take time to think about the question, the central theme asked, and how it corresponds to your master list of experiences/personal qualities. Some applications offer a string of questions. Pay attention to your responses and try to avoid being redundant.

Consider How to Organize Your Essay
Before you begin your essay, familiarize yourself with the basic structure of admissions essays. As you begin write, remember that this is your chance to present your strengths and really shine. Take advantage of it. Discuss your accomplishments, valuable experiences, and emphasize the positive. Make it involved and engaging. Show that you're motivated. Remember that the committee is composed of professionals who have read hundreds, even thousands of such statements over the years. Make yours stand out.

Your admissions essay is a story that tells the graduate admissions committee who you are and what you can offer. Granted, the questions posed will differ by program, but the general challenge is to introduce yourself and describe your potential as a successful candidate. A careful self-assessment and consideration of the program and the questions posed will aid in your endeavor to write a winning personal statement.

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