Graduate Programs Admission Essay

(By Tracy Bennett, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures)

A filmed personal statement might have helped Elle Woods get into Harvard Law School, but in the real world, you’re better off sticking to these tips.

If you have seen the 2001 film, Legally Blonde, you might remember that Elle Woods, played by Reese Witherspoon, creates a video for her admissions essay to Harvard Law School. As she sits in a hot tub, she states that she will be an “amazing lawyer” because she can discuss important issues, such as the brand of toilet paper used in her sorority house, and she uses “legal jargon in everyday life” to object when men harass her. She can also recall details at the “drop of a hat,” including the recent events on a soap opera. (If you haven’t seen the movie or simply want a good laugh, you can view the clip on YouTube.)

Although the Harvard committee granted Elle admission, you will probably want to take your essay in a different direction. While you cannot change your grade point average or entrance exam scores, you have complete control over the contents of your personal statement. There are many applicants and few spots, so work diligently to persuade readers that you fit their program given your qualifications, interests and professional goals. Use the tips below to prepare and refine your essay.

1. Just get started.

Yes, your first sentence should be compelling and attention-grabbing, but if you attempt to identify your opening line immediately you will probably induce writer’s block. Make an outline or free write. You can tweak the introduction later once you are more aware of your noteworthy accomplishments or the defining events that have led to your career interests.

2. Articulate your reasons for selecting your chosen career.

Although these essays are often called personal statements, they are not an autobiography. Instead, view it as an essay about your journey as an emerging scholar. Provide evidence to demonstrate that you have actively confirmed your interests and that earning an advanced degree will help you achieve these goals. Describe the courses, articles, professors, research, service projects, internships, shadowing or co-curricular activities that have shaped your aspirations. Avoid references to high school accomplishments, gimmicks or clichés such as, “I have always wanted to be a _________.” Cautiously address controversial topics. It is one thing to demonstrate your knowledge of the field by referencing a current debate. It is quite another thing to offend your readers with excessive political or religious rhetoric.

3. Be specific.

For example, it is not enough to say that you aspire to be a social worker because you want to help children. You could do this in a variety of occupations. Similarly, anyone can say that they are interested in law. Earn credibility by demonstrating this passion. Have you worked at a law firm or participated in student government, Model UN and/or mock trial?

4. One size does not fit all.

Unless it is a common application system, such as those used by law, physical therapy and medical schools, you should describe your rationale for selecting the program among other alternatives. By the way, most of the schools that use a common application system will require supplemental essays that inquire about this. For the time being, you may omit it from your initial personal statement. Each institution has its own values, mission and faculty. What led you to select its particular program over others? Was it an emphasis in a particular area (e.g., rural practice, technology) or the research interests of a professor? Was your interest heightened by a conversation with its alumni?

5. Whatever your reasons for applying, be sincere.

Briefly mention any noteworthy and appealing features that attracted you to the program or institution, but do not go overboard. Committee members already know the prestigious awards that they have won, and most of your competition will mention these same attributes. If you offer excessive praise, you may only appear disingenuous.

6. Describe your professional interests, particularly as they relate to research.

If you identified faculty members who share your interest in a topic, describe your desire to work with them. Be specific, but keep your options open, too. Committee members will roll their eyes if you say you are interested in every research area of its faculty. On the other hand, if your interests are too narrow, they may question your ability to collaborate with professors.

7. Demonstrate your motivation and capacity to succeed.

Graduate schools are not only selecting students, but they are also choosing future ambassadors of their program. Persuade them that you will contribute to their reputation as an institution throughout your academic studies and professional career. Avoid summarizing other parts of your application. Instead, you should provide them with concrete examples including relevant publications, presentations, classroom assignments and employment experiences. For example, describing a service project could demonstrate your compassion, which some medical schools value. If you collaborated with others on a research topic, describe your specific contribution. Research in particular is valuable to your readers because you will more than likely need to immerse yourself in this activity during your graduate studies, especially if you are a Ph.D. candidate.

If you have any blemishes in your application, such as low test scores, criminal convictions or poor grades, think carefully before you offer a rationale. If you were to survey career coaches and faculty, some would advise you to describe anomalies because, if you do not, you leave it open to imagination. Others, however, would only encourage you to share details if the graduate program requests it. Advisers on this side of the camp fear that graduate programs may perceive such descriptions as potential liabilities or excuses, especially if your grades were repeatedly low. For example, while committee members may empathize if you reveal that you struggle with test anxiety, they may still question your ability to succeed. Most graduate programs entail tests, and many occupations require individuals to pass licensing examinations before they can enter the fields. Applicants’ inability to perform in this arena may jeopardize the professional standing of the institution.

If you elect to include this information, be brief and positive. Keep it simple and do not be defensive. Perhaps your academic ability improved once you discovered your passion. Maybe you persisted despite a serious illness or death in your family. If you decide not to address these anomalies yourself, consider asking one of your trusted references to include the topic from a positive standpoint in your letter of recommendation.

8. Be concise.

Personal statements are generally no more than two pages. If the sentence is not essential to your thesis, remove it. Also eliminate unnecessary words, such as “in order to,” “I believe” and “the fact is.”

9. Carefully proofread and refine the essay.

Any errors reflect your ability as a writer. Confirm that you used transitions, diverse sentence structures, first person and active voice. Substitute weak words, such as “love,” with a more professional, powerful alternative. Let it sit overnight. Then, read it aloud or backward. Have a consultant at your campus writing center or a professor critique the essay.

10. Enjoy the writing process.

Preparing a personal statement confirms your desire to attend graduate school and clarifies your interests or goals, which is why professional schools require it. A few years from now, this will prove helpful in your professional job search as you write cover letters and respond to interview questions.

Billie Streufert is director of the Academic Success Center at the University of Sioux Falls in South Dakota. With nearly 10 years of experience in career and academic advising, she is passionate about helping individuals discover and achieve their goals. She is eager to connect with students via Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and her blog.

Billie Streufert, grad school, Harvard, personal statement, University of Sioux Falls, CAMPUS LIFE, CAREER PATH, VOICES FROM CAMPUS 

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Graduate School Sample Essays


Although it might seem like it simply involves luck, getting into graduate school involves more than just having your name randomly drawn out of a pile. Admissions officers are looking to distinguish candidates in any way possible. As more highly qualified candidates are applying to graduate school every year, the process of selecting students often goes beyond comparing test scores and grades to using more subjective measures like the graduate school application essay.

For some students, their graduate school admission essay is their first -- and best -- chance to grab the attention of the admissions department at the school of their choice. Prospective students should consider it their one chance at an interview with the school; in many cases, it's a better option than interviews since the applicant has the chance to set the agenda rather than being forced to answered a prepared set of questions.

Your graduate school personal statement needs to show the school you are applying to your unique qualities and how you would enrich their school if you were accepted. Below are some examples of successful graduate school admission essays that we've helped prospective students develop in the past.

Sometimes it takes a tragedy to remind you of what is really important in life. A year and a half ago my cousin and good friend died suddenly. I was so sad thinking about all the experiences in life that she will miss by being taken at such a young age, and what a loss this was for the entire community to never know what good she could have accomplished, if given time...
Spending my early years in my family’s native Lebanon gave me a sense of history and permanence on this earth that seemed very at odds with the new life we started when my family moved to New Mexico when I was ___ years old. Life in Lebanon is, on the surface, much like it was hundreds of years ago, and if you were to take a picture of our street there and its inhabitants, I have no doubt with the exception of the particulars of people’s faces it would look much the same as a painting from long ago...
Life can be so shallow and unrewarding if you are living each day with no plan for the future and little thought toward helping others. This may seem like an obvious statement, but I come across people every day who haven’t had the opportunity to realize this truth for themselves just yet, and they are miserable because of it. I feel very fortunate that the goals I have formed for myself over the past few years are helping me make the most of every opportunity that presents itself, allowing me to live a life with true meaning...
Growing up in a small village deep in rural Russia I never could have dreamed that as an adult I would be doing cutting edge research on polymer science, but through hard work, a desire to build a future of advancement, and inspiration from those scientists who have gone before me, I have already fulfilled the first few steps of this amazing dream...
My husband often likens me to a flower. Not some delicate and fragile blossom that droops in adverse environments, but a strong and hearty plant that can make the most of what is offered and bloom anywhere. As the wife of an active duty military man, I have had to make many compromises in life, but with all of the challenges, opportunities have arisen. It may not have been my first choice to move every couple of years, but each new location has given me the opportunity to teach our two daughters more about the world we live in...
It must have driven my mother crazy to know that the minute a tomato left on the counter too long began to mold and decompose it suddenly became endlessly fascinating to me, and must therefore not be thrown out. Something about how organic systems began to break down drew me in and it seems that as far back as I can remember I’ve always been fascinated by how things work...
"Tell me, and I'll forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I'll understand." ~ Native American Proverb

These are words of inspiration for anyone who seeks to teach others some of the knowledge they have earned over the years. I am a very different person now than the one I was just a few short years ago. Events in my life, both planned and unexpected, have conspired to bring me to a place where I know for sure that teaching is in my blood and I am now seeking admission to the Ph.D. program in Instructional Design and Development at ____ University so that when I go before a classroom in the role of educator, I will be the best prepared and most competent teacher I can be...
In the two years that have passed since I earned my undergraduate degree, much has changed in my life. I returned to my homeland of Malasia after six years of living in the United States and began working for a major international company. I was hired as a researcher and, given my long standing interest in the medical field, was assigned several M&A projects researching that industry, and this subsequently became something of my field of expertise...
Growing up under a communist regime is not the most auspicious beginning for a budding artist, but I have found that if one’s innate talents can flourish in this most austere of environments, then just imagine what it can accomplish in more fertile ground. My family never had much money for food, let alone presents. I had few toys and little in the way of craft material, but as a child I didn’t see the bleakness of communism and instead discovered ways to create beauty by using the things around me...
I am passionate about becoming a tax accountant. This is probably not a sentence one hears everyday, if ever, but for me it is true. I know many people fear and loath taxes, and are frightened and put off by the complex laws that govern their applications, but I am just the opposite; they fascinate me...

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