There are four basic types of the graduate school essay. We’ll look at each one separately. The first one is the Significant Achievement Essay. In this you’ll be asked to write about any achievement or unique experience that you’ve had, or to describe a significant risk you’ve taken (whether the risk paid off or not). You’ll also be asked to demonstrate how you grew, or changed as a person, as a result of the achievement, experience, or risk. Ideally, you should try to write about something that’s likely to be unique to you, and not shared by many other applicants. And it doesn’t have to be an earth shattering experience. Certainly, if you’ve sailed the Atlantic by yourself, or hiked the entire Appalachian trail, then you’ll want to write about that. But the graduate school committee isn’t looking for people with long lists of fantastic accomplishments, so don’t worry if you haven’t done anything that you think is noteworthy. They’re looking for genuine people who are intelligent and can write and engaging piece about some part of their lives. That’s what makes for good students. They’re also not looking for conceited people, so make sure you don’t come off as self absorbed and full of yourself. That would be fatal. Another mistake is to write an essay that doesn’t tell the admissions committee anything that they didn’t already learn from reading your application. So if you’ve listed your volunteer activities elsewhere, consider writing about something else. And don’t forget to stress how the experience, risk, or achievement changed you. Write about how you tried out for your school theater, and even though you didn’t pass the audition, it helped you overcome your shyness and fear of failing. Tell them that learned perseverance by being cut from several sports teams, but you kept practicing until you had what it takes to make the team. Or how caring for your bedridden mother has helped you become more mature and sympathetic toward others. That’s what they’re looking for; something that tells them what kind of person you are, what makes you different from everyone else. Everyone has some sort of story to tell, and this is your chance to tell yours. So have one or two ideas ready to go in case you encounter this type of essay. And remember-be interesting, don’t tell them what they already know, don’t come across as conceited, and watch your spelling, vocabulary, and grammar.
The second kind of graduate school essay you might run across is the Important Issue essay; you might encounter this in a law school essay. In this category, you’ll be asked to write about some issue or controversy, whether local, national, or worldwide, that you feel strongly about. What you’ll need to communicate here is that you’re politically and socially aware of the world around you, and that you think about things at some length, and can reason well. You’ll also want to explain exactly why the issue is important to you, and how it affects your own life, either directly or indirectly. Your tone is also important on your essay. Of course, it’s important to be honest about the issue you write about, especially if you feel strongly about it, but it’s unwise to use incendiary language and portray those who disagree with you as unthinking, unfeeling types. You’ll want to demonstrate not only that you’re aware that there are at least two sides to every issue, but that you’ve considered the issue from all sides, and considered all the ramifications and impacts of your positions, and come to your conclusion reasonably, and not just based on a self centered personal interest. Keep in mind that graduate schools are looking for thinkers, not firebrands. It’s fine to have a strong opinion on a controversial issue; you don’t want to come off as a wishy washy milquetoast who’s afraid to disagree with anyone about anything. But don’t come off as a fire breathing, bomb throwing radical. State your position on the issue, and then present your evidence and arguments to back up your position.
The third kind of essay that’s common on graduate school applications is the Profound Influence essay. This is a common type of question on a medical school essay. For this type of essay, you’ll be asked to name a real or fictional character, or book, musical work, artwork, etc., that’s had a profound influence on shaping who you’ve become as a person. You can write about literally anyone who’s ever lived, or ever been imagined in literature, or your favorite painting or sculpture or outsider art. It’s wide open, and the choice is entirely up to you. By this stage of your life there are probably several persons or things you could think of to write about for this essay. And there’s no bias in favor of real people, so write about who or what is that really moves you, whether they’re real or fictional, alive or dead, or not even a person. That’s the key-don’t just describe the person or work of art. You’ll want to give some description, especially if the person or work isn’t well known, but focus on writing about not just what they did, or represent, but how that influenced you. That’s why you’ve got to think of something or someone that you’re really passionate about. Don’t just go for the obvious and write about Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Mother Theresa, etc., because you can’t think of anything else, and you want to sound good. Of course, if they really have had a profound influence on your life, then by all means write about it. But admissions committees read thousands and thousands of essays, and they can tell when you’re just going through the motions and telling them what you think they want to hear. Needless to say, they are not impressed when they see that. So just be honest, be real, and describe in some detail why you would not be the person you are today if you hadn’t met this person, or read that book.
The fourth most common type of graduate school essay is the Why Us/Future Goals format. In this essay, you’ll be asked to tell what it is about this graduate school that really makes you want to attend this one in particular, and why you think you’d be a good fit there, and how attending will have a positive impact on your future. Now, honesty is almost always the best policy, but for this type of essay, a little fudging or shading of the truth might be advisable, or even necessary. You certainly don’t want to write that you’d actually prefer to go to Harvard or Stanford, but it’s unlikely that you’ll get accepted, and so you’re applying to Podunk University as a back up plan, even if that’s exactly what you’re doing. At the other extreme, you also don’t want to write a fawning, obsequious essay about why this graduate school is the greatest one that ever existed and always has been and always will be. You’ll want to demonstrate that you know something of the history of the college or university, and that you’re aware of some of their strengths, and you’ve heard of some of their faculty and distinguished alumni. If you’re hoping to study creative writing, mention their graduate who recently won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. If you’re hoping to study business, point out that you’ve been inspired by their graduate who founded his own company and turned it into a Fortune 500 company. And if there’s a personal angle, feel free to mention that, as it helps set you apart from the crowd. Did all four of your grandparents attend the school? Talk about that. Really, this essay shouldn’t be too difficult for anyone to write. If you’re stuck, just ask yourself why it is exactly that you want to attend the college or university. What made you consider it in the first place? What do you hope to accomplish after graduation that a degree from this school will be helpful for? Then put that into your own words, and you’ll do fine.