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FAQs for Writing Your Graduate Admissions Essay

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When graduate school applicants learn of the importance of the admissions essay,admissions essay to their graduate school application they often react with surprise and anxiety. Facing a blank page, wondering what to write in an essay that can change your life can paralyze even the most confident of applicants. What should you include in your essay? What shouldn't you? Read these answers to common questions.

How do I choose a theme for my admissions essay?
A theme refers to the underlying message that you intend to convey. It may be helpful to make a list of all of your experiences and interests at first and then try to find an overlapping theme or connection between the different items on the list. Your underlying theme should be why you should be accepted into graduate school or specifically accepted into the program to which you are applying. Your job is to sell yourself and distinguish yourself from other applicants through examples.

What type of mood or tone should I incorporate in my essay?
The tone of the essay should be balanced or moderate. Don't sound too cheerful or too morose but keep a serious and ambitious tone. When discussing positive or negative experiences, sound open-minded and use a neutral tone. Avoid TMI. That is, do not reveal too many personal or intimate details. Moderation is key. Remember not to hit the extremes (too high or too low). Additionally, do not sound too casual or too formal.

Should I write in the first person?
Although you were taught to avoid using I, we, my, etc., you are encouraged to speak in the first person on your admissions essay. Your goal is to make your essay sound personal and active. However, avoid overusing “I” and, instead, alter between I and other first person terms, such as “my” and “me” and transition words, such as "however" and "therefore."

How should I discuss my research interests in my admissions essay?
First, it is not necessary to state a specific and concise dissertation topic in your essay. You are only to state, in broad terms, your research interests within your field. The reason you are asked to discuss your research interests is because the program would like to compare the degree of similarity in research interests between you and the faculty member you wish to work with. Admissions committees are aware that your interests will likely change over time and, therefore, they do not expect you to provide them with a detailed description of your research interests but would like for you to describe your academic goals. However, your research interests should be relevant to the proposed field of study. Additionally, your aim is to show your readers that you have knowledge in your proposed field of study.

What if I don’t have any unique experiences or qualities?
Everyone has qualities that can distinguish themselves from other individuals. Make a list of all your qualities and think of how you utilized them in the past. Discuss the ones that will make you stand out but will still have some connection to your field of interest. If you do not have many experiences within your field, then try to make your other experiences relate to your interests. For example, if you are interested in applying to a psychology program but only have experience working at a supermarket, then find a connection between psychology and your experiences at the supermarket that can show your interest in and knowledge of the field and portrays your ability to become a psychologist. By providing these connections, your experiences and you will be depicted as unique.

Should I mention which faculty members I would like to work with?
Yes. It makes it easier for the admission committee to determine if your interests match with the faculty members you’re interested in working with. However, if possible, it is recommended that you mention more than one professor you wish to work with because it is a possibility that the professor you are interested in working with is not accepting new students for that year. By mentioning only one professor, you are limiting yourself, which can decrease your chances of being accepted. Additionally, if you only wish to work with a specific professor, then you are more likely to be rejected by the admissions committee if that professor is not accepting new students. Alternatively, it may be helpful to contact professors and find out if they are accepting new students before applying. This reduces the chances of being rejected.

Should I discuss all volunteer and job experiences?
You should only mention volunteer and employment experiences that are relevant to your field of study or have helped you develop or acquire a skill that is necessary for your field of interest. However, if there is a volunteer or job experience that is not related to your field of interest yet has helped influence your career and academic goals, discuss it in your personal statement as well.

Should I discuss flaws in my application? If yes, how?
If you think it may be helpful, then you should discuss and provide an explanation for  low grades or  low GRE scores. However, be concise and do not whine, blame others, or try to explain away three years of poor performance. When you discuss flaws, make sure you aren’t giving unreasonable excuses, such as “I failed my test because I went out drinking the night before.” Provide explanations that are reasonably excusable and comprehensive to the academic committee, such as an unexpected death in the family. Any explanations you give must be very very brief (no more than roughly 2 sentences). Emphasize the positive instead.

Can I use humor in my admissions essay?
With great caution.  If you do plan on using humor, do so cautiously, keep it limited, and make sure it is appropriate. If there is even the smallest possibility that your statements can be taken the wrong way, don't include humor. For this reason, I advise against using humor in your admissions essay. Should you decide to include humor,do not let it take over your essay. This is a serious essay with an important purpose.  The last thing you want to do is offend the admissions committee or let them believe that you are not a serious student.

Is there a limit in the length of the graduate admissions essay?
Yes there is limit but it varies depending on the school and the program. Usually, admissions essays are between 500-1000 words long. Do not exceed the limit but remember to answer any assigned questions.

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