Every year, hundreds of thousands of students apply for admission to colleges and graduate schools in America. It’s impossible for each school to consider every applicant in full; they just don’t have the time, people, or money for such an endeavor. For this reason, they use academic profiles to help them in their selection process. They’ll look at an applicant’s grade point average, how rigorous a school or college they graduated from, and their results on one or more nationally recognized standardized tests. These things have all been shown to be very strong indicators of how well a person will do in school. They’ll determine their own criteria for acceptable GPA’s and test scores, and they’ll use this to immediately eliminate a very large percentage, often the vast majority, of their applicants. Anyone who doesn’t make the basic cutoff is denied admission. But that still leaves most colleges and universities with far more applicants than they can accept. To further narrow down the field to the best possible students, they also require an essay upon application. They will then read the essay of those students whose applications made the cutoff in order to get some insights into what kind of a person the applicant is, beyond what the numbers say. A badly written graduate school application essay can disqualify even a student with the best GPA and test score, and a terrific essay can be the ticket to admission for someone who barely made the cutoff. For these reasons, you’ll want to write the very best essay you possibly can if you’re hoping to go to college or graduate school. In this section, we’ll tell you about the different types of essays you might be asked to write, and give you some tips on how to write an excellent one, and really make yourself stand out from the competition. But first, here are some helpful tips on writing graduate school application essays in general.
The quality of your graduate school application essay is crucial to your chances of getting into graduate school. This can’t be stressed highly enough. It would be completely reckless and foolhardy to simply write something on the spur or the moment and send it in. You’ve got to give your essay a lot of thought, and you’ll want to thoroughly edit and rewrite it before submission. You’ll also want to have some pages of raw material written down before you even begin your essays. On these pages, you’ll be writing down things, books, ideas, events, and people of significance to use as essay material. Think back on your life so far. Think of five books that have profoundly affected you. Think of five people who have inspired you. Write them down. What are your five best qualities? What are your five greatest accomplishments? What are the five biggest obstacles or challenges you’ve overcome? What are the five adjectives people would most commonly use to describe your personality? What are the five highlights of your life so far? What are your five biggest failures in life? What are the five most memorable events of your life? Write all these down, and think of some questions of your own to ask yourself, and to ask your family and friends. When you’re done, you’ll have the basic building blocks upon which to write a good essay. You certainly won’t use all the material, but you’ll have a lot to work with, and you can pick and choose what you need as you see fit for the various essays you’ll be writing. And don’t get hung up on the number five-if you can only think of a couple or three for some categories, that’s fine. The goal is to get you thinking. And here are some general guidelines to keep in mind when you sit down at your keyboard:
- If you’re applying to several schools, you don’t necessarily have to write a different essay for each school. You will probably have to write more than one, but many of them will have very similar questions and you’ll be able to reuse the same material without hurting your chances. There’s absolutely nothing unethical about this at all. Just make sure that you’re actually answering the question, and that you don’t mention one school in an application to another, and that you proofread your work extremely carefully.
- Make it personal. A generic essay won’t help the admissions committee to get a picture of who you are-what makes you special, what your strengths are, your uniqueness, if it doesn’t come out in your essay. You’re not writing a textbook; you’re trying to make the best case for the college to accept YOU. So your essay needs to be about you, without being conceited. And write with some flair. A dull essay not only may ruin your chances of acceptance, but it may not even be read all the way through if it’s not interesting.
- Play it straight. Don’t try to be cute, or sarcastic, or facetious. It’s the wrong time and place for attempts at humor, and I hate to say it, but you’re probably not nearly as funny as you think you are. You may be able to crack up your friends, but make no mistake, the admissions committee will not be laughing. They’re looking for people who take college seriously. A humorous reference or sentence or two is fine, but don’t try to make your essay into a comedy routine.
- Don’t tell them what they already know. If the committee has gotten to your essay, that means they’re already familiar with your academic record and achievements, so mentioning them isn’t necessary and only makes you look conceited.
- Play up your strengths, and don’t mention your weaknesses. Of course, if you’ve changed radically in the past few years, and have overcome some bad habits to buckle down and become a top student, feel free to write about that. But don’t mention that you could’ve done better in school had you spent less time watching TV or chasing girls. That’s probably not going to help your chances.
- Don’t focus on your race, gender, or sexual orientation. It’s okay to mention these if they have some relevance to your essay topic, but these facts alone shouldn’t be your entire essay. Colleges and universities are always seeking to increase diversity, but they are not looking for people who have no identity beyond their racial and gender identifications. Mention it, but don’t dwell on it.
- Don’t write a sob story. Just like being flippant or facetious, turning the essay into a long and obvious plea for sympathy is very likely to sour the reviewers on your application. It’s okay to mention that you spent months recovering from a terrible car accident. That‘s important, and can tell the committee a lot about what kind of person you are, but you certainly don’t want to make that the focus of your essay. Mention it if it’s germane, and then go on.
- Be sure to answer the question or address the topic. Some applicants spend so much time talking about themselves that they never get around to actually addressing the assigned topic. Needless to say, this will kill your chances of being accepted. Answer the question, and give evidence and arguments that back up your answer.
- This should go without saying, but pay extremely close attention to spelling, grammar, sentence structure, and word usage. In this day and age of spell checkers and other computer tools, it’s harder to miss errors and typos. Which means that they’re even more inexcusable than they used to be. And none of these tools are perfect, so proofread, proofread, proofread. And then let others proofread your essay. You can’t be too careful.
You’ll also want to demonstrate good writing skills. Your essay should be written with the reader in mind. If it doesn’t grab and hold their attention, then they may not even bother to read the whole thing. That would ruin your chance of being accepted. So make in interesting. Use some style. You don’t want your essay to sound like everyone else’s. And write logically and with good sentence and paragraph structure. You should outline your thoughts after you’ve selected your topic, and then make sure you follow the outline. You don’t want a rambling, discordant essay, which can easily result if you don’t outline the structure ahead of time. Don’t forget to check for typos and other errors. And read the essay out loud, because doing so is the only way to catch some errors. Use varying sentence lengths, and break them up-long sentences divided by short and medium ones. Avoid slang, and avoid using big words just to impress. If a longer or more unusual word is necessary, by all means use it, but if you’re just using it to show that you’re very intelligent it will be obvious to the reader, and their reaction won’t be positive. And don’t use “I” over and over, especially at the beginning of sentences. Also, as you hopefully learned in high school English but have probably forgotten, do not overuse the passive voice in your essay. In fact, don’t use the passive voice much at all. Active verbs are much more interesting to read. Don’t use your first sentence or two as a summary of what you’re about to write. They should be introductory sentences, where you set the stage for the rest of your essay. Likewise for your conclusion. It shouldn’t be a rehash of your main points, but a way to wrap things up and state some lessons learned or insights gained. Of course, you’ll want to avoid phrases like “lessons learned” and “I gained insights”, just as you most definitely don’t want to say something like “in conclusion”. Remember, avoid clichés. Your essay reader has seen thousands of them, and will lump you in with the rest of the unoriginal writers they’ve seen. And, one more time, because it can’t be stressed enough-proofread your graduate school application essay. Then have others proofread it. Then read it out loud to make sure it sounds right.