The Ultimate Guide to Writing Your Grad School Application Essay

Editor-in-Chief, Carnegie Communications

Remember when you sat down to write your undergrad application essays? It was your chance to show colleges the real you—and the world was your oyster! You could talk about your favorite book character, a beloved hobby, or a cause near to your heart.

Now you’re ready to apply to grad schools, with another application essay (or 10) to write. Like so much of the application process, grad school essays are similar to undergrad…but not quite the same. You need to take a more strategic approach. Here’s how, plus an awesome real-world graduate admission essay example!

The grad school application essay—aka letter of intent, personal statement, statement of purpose, etc.—is your chance to breathe some life and personality into your application. But unlike your undergraduate essay, where you might’ve offered a quippy story, your grad school application essay should be more focused on your academic and professional goals, and why grad school is essential to achieving them. Oh, and it should also give the admission committee a good sense of who you are and what you value at the same time. (No big deal, right?)

All that being said, a lot of the advice that helped you write your undergrad essay still applies: tell a unique story, use vivid examples, be genuine, and, perhaps most importantly, explain why you’d be an asset to the program—and why the program would be an asset to you.

Essay requirements will vary from school to school, but you will likely be asked to write 250–750 words. Common graduate application essay prompts include the following:

  • Describe a situation where you overcame adversity/exhibited leadership/learned from failure/experienced an ethical dilemma.
  • Why do you need this degree at this juncture in your life?
  • What are your short- and long-term career goals?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • And the big one: why this school? 

Regardless of the prompt you choose, the graduate admission committee should come away from your application essay knowing these three things:

  • What you want to study in grad school
  • Why you want to study it
  • Why their institution is the best place for you

Dedicate a paragraph to each one of those ideas, add an attention-grabbing opener and a tidy conclusion, and you’re almost there! These best practices will take you the rest of the way to a winning grad school application essay.

Be specific

Stay focused on your academic field and use specific, discrete examples. Was there a clear moment when you knew you had found your calling? Did a particular class assignment, volunteer experience, or work project solidify your interest? How will grad school help you achieve your goals? 

Demonstrate passion

You’re trying to give the graduate admission committee a sense of who you are and what you’ll contribute to their program as well as your field. Show them your passion for your field of study. Why do you love it? Why do you want to contribute to it? What about it challenges and excites you?

Know your audience

Thoroughly research your potential graduate programs (if you haven’t already!), and tailor your essay to each school. Admission counselors want to know why you want to enroll in their program, and you can’t speak to the merits of their program if you don’t know what their program is all about! What specifically attracted you to the school? What would you contribute to the program as a graduate student and eventual alumnus? Take a look at press releases, blog posts, and big events on campus to get to know the school’s personality and what it values.

Stand out

In a crowd of candidates who also love this field (presumably), what sets you apart? As you consider possible graduate admission essay topics, look for the story only you can tell. Just remember, even personally meaningful experiences, like the loss of a loved one or a life-changing volunteer experience, don’t really stand out in graduate admission—they’re too common. So if you are considering a potentially well-tread topic, try to approach it in a unique way.

Show, don’t tell

Whenever possible, use stories to illustrate your interest. You shouldn’t fill your graduate personal statement with anecdotes, but you can be straightforward and still infuse some personality into your writing. After all, what’s more engaging: “I frequently left the campus CAD lab just as the sun was rising—and long after I had completed my architecture assignments. I got hooked on experimenting with laser cutting and hardly noticed as the hours passed.” Or “I really love working with Auto CAD.” No contest.

Be relevant

You can talk about special skills, like a foreign language, computer programming, and especially research in your essay. And you can talk about your academic achievements, internships, published work, and even study abroad experiences. They all make great graduate personal statement fodder. But relevancy is also key. Before stuffing your application essay with every accomplishment and experience from your time as an undergrad, make sure you’re only highlighting those that pertain to your intended graduate studies and future goals.

Explain any gaps

Your grad school application essay is also an opportunity to explain anything in your academic record that might raise an eyebrow among the admission committee: a semester of poor grades, time off in your schooling, a less-than-perfect GRE score. For example, if you worked part or full time to help fund your undergrad education, that lends some important context to your experience and achievements. And even if your GPA isn’t quite as high as it might’ve been otherwise, graduate admission counselors will likely appreciate your hard work and dedication.

You can also use the essay to own your mistakes; maybe you didn’t take college as seriously as you should have freshman and sophomore year, but you got your act together junior year. But whatever you do, don’t use your essay to make excuses or blame others.  

Strike the right tone

You’ll have four (or more) years of collegiate writing under your belt, and your grad school statement needs to reflect that. Use active language, smooth transitions, an attention-grabbing opening, and a strong conclusion. However, even though your graduate personal statement should be focused on your academic goals, it’s not a research paper—and it shouldn’t be full of jargon. Though your essay’s tone will ultimately depend on the prompt you choose, don’t be afraid to infuse it with personality, even humor. People relate to stories, so find an anecdote that highlights what you’re trying to capture.

Edit—and have others edit too

Set aside time to edit your graduate application essay, checking for style, tone, and clarity as well as grammatical mistakes. Is your graduate personal statement clear, concise, well organized, and specific? (Here are my copyediting tips!) Also revisit the prompt to make doubly sure you’ve answered it fully and accurately. Then have other people read your essay too. Undergrad professors or mentors are great for this, but you can also ask trusted friends. And don’t forget about any career, writing, and/or tutoring centers at your undergraduate institution; they may be able to review your graduate essay and application, and their services are often available long after you graduate.

Final tips

For a truly polished graduate essay, remember the little things too, like making sure your files have easily identifiable names. And it might go without saying, but make sure you follow the directions! If the word limit is 600, don’t send in 750. Finally, this might seem like a no-brainer, but don’t forget that the essay is about you! Any examples or experiences you cite should relate back to you and why you want to go to grad school. 

BONUS! Grad school personal statement don’ts

Beyond following the advice above—all do’s, by the way—keep these grad school personal statement don’ts in mind.

  • Don’t volunteer potentially damaging information. If you were suspended, arrested, etc., you probably don’t need to discuss it. Why cast aspersions on your character?
  • Don’t repeat other parts of your application. Your GPA, test scores, and most activities will be covered sufficiently in your basic application.
  • Don’t be negative. You want the admission committee to see you as an enthusiastic addition to their program, not a grouch.
  • Don’t write about controversial topics. You don’t want to risk offending the admission committee. And they rarely make good personal statement essays anyway.
  • Don’t go for gimmicks. Even though you want to stand out, a gimmicky essay isn’t the way to do it. (For example, submitting a song instead of a personal statement…when you’re not studying music.)
  • Don’t stuff your essay with “smart-sounding” words, and don’t use flowery language either. Use clear language to tell a compelling story.
  • Don’t lift your personal statement from an existing academic essay or—worse—from someone else entirely. Besides plagiarizing being, you know, wrong, if you can’t get through your personal statement, you definitely aren’t cut out for the writing demands of grad school. Fact.

PS You can apply these tips to scholarship and grant application essays too...

Graduate letter of intent: a real-world example

Danielle Dulchinos
Master of Education in Instructional Design
University of Massachusetts, Boston

Danielle completed her master’s in 2016. Her studies in Instructional Design were heavily influenced by one of her life’s great passions: Girl Scouts. In fact, while in the midst of earning her graduate degree, she accepted an offer to join the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts full time as their Associate Director of Volunteer Support—a role that distinctly benefits from her graduate studies.

I wish to pursue graduate study to build a stronger foundation in a skill set I love. I have been using Instructional Design in my volunteer role with Girl Scouts as a Council Facilitator for nearly four years. However, I am only mimicking the best practices set forth by the organization. Working toward a graduate degree in Instructional Design will give me the background knowledge to answer the “why” of creating and delivering adult trainings. I am also interested in UMass Boston’s program specifically because of the strong media and technology focus. Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts (GSEM) volunteers would benefit from greater variety and flexibility in our training offerings, and I would like to help bring that to them.

Aside from my volunteer interests, I believe that an MEd in Instructional Design will also help my current job. My company’s account management team has expressed interest in modifying some of our core training sessions into an online format. With the skills and knowledge I will acquire through this program, I will be able to help transition some of our live content into computer-based modules.

My passion for adult learning has blossomed through my work with GSEM. As a lifelong Girl Scout, I knew I wanted to stay involved after I graduated from Northeastern University, where I was the President of Campus Girl Scouts and a troop leader. I became involved as a Council Facilitator because I knew each adult I got excited about and prepared to volunteer with Girl Scouts could reach five or 10 more girls.

I remember the day I realized I truly loved it. After a particularly long day in my office reading reports, I had to deliver a three-hour course on leadership essentials. As I took the subway across town to the training location, all I could think about was how I’d rather be doing anything else. But after I got there and the attendees filed in, I could feel my energy rising. Sharing my knowledge of Girl Scouts with them and watching their enthusiasm to help their girls recharged me. I left the training with 10 times more energy than when I started.

I am still excited to develop a more robust understanding of how adults learn and what makes the content “sticky” so it stays with them when they go back to their girls. One key area that I would like to work on is creating and delivering more online webinars or hybrid trainings, which would meet the growing demand for more diverse and accessible content.

This year I was also selected for a national-level Girl Scout committee, Girl Scouts University Leadership Cadre. The cadre is comprised of some of the most talented Girl Scout facilitators nationwide and charged with creating personal, professional, and career development learning opportunities for Girl Scouts’ staff and volunteers across the United States, especially online learning assets. In June we had a weeklong conference where I was able to take some video production and storyboarding for webinar sessions that whet my appetite for more learning in this field.

Aside from my volunteer commitments, I work full time for a small independent financial research company. In addition to research reports, we offer daylong training sessions to our clients in our proprietary analysis methodology. I plan to bring my online training skills from my graduate work back to my company to help expand and diversify our training business line while reducing our capacity constraints.

When I chose my undergraduate major, I picked journalism because it was practical. Now that I have more life and career experience, I am ready to go back to school for something else, something I love. I have a passion for learning and sharing that learning with others, as I’ve demonstrated by volunteering my time doing it. There’s nothing more rewarding than helping someone have an “aha” moment or rekindle a lost spark. I know in my heart that adult training and development is my calling because nothing makes me happier than helping others get excited about learning.

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