Writing Personal Essays for Grad School Applications


If you are hoping to read this article and find the path to effortless personal essays, you're in for a surprise.

Samuel Johnson was quoted as saying, "What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure." Likewise, if you are hoping to read this article and find the path to effortless personal essays . . . you're in for a surprise.

However, we will dissect the process in hopes of helping you find the necessary tools to write compelling and informative essays that will enhance your graduate school application.


Before you can begin writing your essays, there are some basic steps you should take to prepare.

Research the school you are applying to carefully. There is a wealth of information available on-line as well as through talking to people who attended a particular school or talking to school faculty. Most schools will provide information about what they expect from applicants, and knowing all this can help you to structure your essay.

Understand your audience and the purpose of your essay. A graduate admission committee generally consists of professors in the specific program to which you are applying and sometimes some students who are currently enrolled in the program. Your essays will be read in context with the rest of your application, but they are really your opportunity to set yourself above your fellow applicants. Understand that what the committee is looking for may vary based on your field of study. (For example, applicants to a literature program will find their style and diction much more closely examined than the average applicant to a physics program.)

Know the question being asked. The importance of this cannot be overstated, but it is still often overlooked. While you want to express your unique attributes and talents, always remember that you are doing so within the framework of the questions on the application.

Brainstorm fully and narrow down your topics gradually. You need to identify your unique experiences, influences and abilities. This should include a consideration of your long and short-term goals, what characteristics describe you and what transferable skills you possess, and an examination of your background and accomplishments both personally and academically.

Select your topic based on all of these factors. You want a topic for your essay that will paint a complete picture of you and help you to stand out. The more specific questions may only require one topic, but more general personal statements usually cover two to four subjects. You are seeking to say something meaningful in your essay that will actually help the reader to know you better by the time they are finished reading. It is vital in your quest to accomplish this that you stay grounded in details that are concrete rather than using vague generalities.


The next questions you need to ask yourself are more specific.

  • Why have I chosen to attend graduate school in this particular field and why have I chosen this particular program?
  • What are my qualifications for admission?
  • What is different, unique or note-worthy about my life story?

Not only should you know the answers to these questions for yourself, but also it is invaluable knowledge in the process of writing your essay. In this section we will discuss some of the themes that work well with different questions and how your answers to the above questions may fit into those themes. Though I have broken this down by different questions, realize that as your essay develops these categories will overlap, and you should structure by topic and expound on insights as they develop.

Why graduate school?

Early exposure to your field: Pursuing graduate school in a particular area may have been a long-term goal, and you certainly want to mention what led you to that goal. However, avoid cliches and generalities such as, "I have always wanted to" Instead focus on specific events that encouraged your interest. You also do not want to focus solely on your initial reason, but include more recent experiences that have caused your continued interest.

Goals: Obviously, graduate school is a way of accomplishing certain goals, and admission committees generally like to see that students know what they plan to do with their education. If like many people your long-term goal is to work in academia, differentiate yourself by stressing your particular interests or research goals. If your goals are not academic, once again stress the specifics of what you would like to accomplish.

Research interests: Here again be careful to read the application carefully. Some schools may want a statement of purpose describing your specific research interests instead of, or in addition to, your personal essay. You can assume here that a faculty member will be reading such a statement, but be careful to still make it accessible to non-specialists as well. Write in such a way that your enthusiasm for the subject is clearly communicated.

Particular school/program: This is where your research into the school becomes vital. While most schools will tend to have similar curricula, different schools have different strengths. Knowing the research interests and work of various faculty members may influence your decisions in selecting a program as well as particular organizations or activities that are available to you. By including these motivations in your essay you not only demonstrate that you have thoroughly researched their school, but you emphasize why you will be a good fit and a valuable addition to their program.

Why are you qualified?

It is very important when considering this question to avoid regurgitating facts listed elsewhere in the application. Details of your active roles are vital.

Research experience: Because research will be foundational to your time in graduate school, focusing on your research experience is very important. Be specific. Your experience need not have been a massive undertaking. If you worked with a professor for a year, you could focus on a single project in depth. The vital thing to remember is to demonstrate your enthusiasm for the subject and to focus on your growth or success.

Field experience: If your program is more practically oriented, field experience can be as important as research experience. Once again the goal is to focus on specifics and describe a particular challenge or project that you faced, how you met that challenge and the skills, and perspective you gained through your experience.

Unrelated work experience: There are various skills that overlap different fields or are universally applicable. If you have strong experience in a different field you should discuss it though it is beneficial to tie it back to your current objectives as much as possible.

Extracurricular activities: The same idea applies here as with unrelated work experience. Use your experiences to demonstrate specific qualities that will help you in your graduate work.

What makes you exceptional?

Admission officers are generally trying to assemble a diverse class so it is important to highlight your differences. While all types of diversity may help, your goal should be to identify how your unique background will allow you to contribute to the academic community.

Since this is what is unique to you, I cannot break it down into four or five categories as easily as the other questions. However here are some ideas that may help you get started.

If you have an unusual background ethnically or religiously for example, you could consider what you have learned from those experiences or beliefs that may contribute to your academic goals. If you have particular hardships you have overcome that have given you a unique perspective or goals you could describe those. Be careful when discussing past difficulties or mistakes, however, that you end on a decisively positive note. If you have extensive experience in a field different from the one that you are pursuing graduate work in you could explain how this gives you a unique perspective and possibly a specialization within your current academic endeavors. Finally, it may be enough to simply provide a detailed account of a personal experience. By telling a story that is personal, you can communicate something that could only be written by you.

In all of this, it is important to not focus only on the past. Tie everything into the future. Clearly communicate your goals as a participant in the program and what you hope to do with your education after graduate school.

All of the things we have looked at in this article are really only a general overview. So much more could be said about structure and tone and the mechanics of writing your essay. For more comprehensive help, please visit our website. And remember Samuel Johnson's admonition. With some diligent thought and effort you can no doubt produce essays that will enhance your application and communicate more than a list of accomplishments. You have the opportunity to really introduce yourself and show your school why you belong there. So take advantage of it.

Note: Did you know you could win a $10,000 scholarship for college or grad school just by registering on CollegeXpress? This is one of the quickest, easiest scholarships you’ll ever apply for. Register Now »