How to Write Your Grad School Application Essay

by
Director of Communications, Commonwealth School

Last Updated: May 5, 2020

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. Here’s how you can (and need) to take a more strategic approach to writing your graduate school admission essay.

What is the graduate school essay?

The grad school application essay—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. 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’ll 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! The following best practices will take you the rest of the way to a winning grad school application essay.

Related: The Essential Graduate School Application Timeline

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.

In addition to knowing plenty about the school you’re writing to, you need to adopt the right tone for who you’re specifically writing to—admission representatives. 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. And 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. Your essay’s tone will ultimately depend on the prompt you choose, but don’t be afraid to infuse it with personality, even humor. People relate to stories; tell yours and tell it well.

Stand out and demonstrate passion

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 some 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. You’re trying to give the graduate admission committee a sense of who you are and what you value. 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?

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. And 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.

Related: How to “Show, Don’t Tell” to Boost Your Writing

Be relevant and 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? Why exactly do you need grad school to achieve your goals? 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, like a semester of poor grades, time off in your schooling, or 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; maybe your undergrad GPA isn’t quite as high as it might’ve been otherwise, but graduate admission counselors will likely appreciate your hard work and dedication. You can also use the essay to own your mistakes; perhaps 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.  

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

Related: 7 Steps to Writing Your Grad School Personal State

Grad school personal statement don’ts

You now have a ton of tools at your disposal for how to craft your best essay. But just for good measure, beyond following the advice above, 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 are covered sufficiently in the rest of your 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 touchy subjects 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 big “smart” 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 and need an essay service to help you, you definitely aren’t cut out for the writing demands of grad school. Fact.

The grad school admission essay can be a daunting task because it’s the first step to receiving further education that will elevate your career. While it’s not something to be taken lightly, you can still have fun with it and really put your personality into it. Show your passion, and you’ll be sure to get into a great grad program for your goals.

For more great advice as you delve into the world of advanced degrees, check out our Graduate School section!

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