The Graduate Admission Essay Balancing Act

Graduate admission essays require you to accomplish several important tasks at once. Here, an expert weighs in on how you can get it all done in a few short pages.

What is it about the graduate admission essay that makes it so difficult to write? It’s a two-page document dealing with the topic you should know the most about—yourself. Yet, sitting down to write this piece can seem like the most challenging part of your graduate application. Are you just overthinking it? I don’t think so.

The graduate admission essay is an exercise in balance: it requires you to demonstrate your positive qualities without coming across as arrogant. It also serves as a writing sample, so you should strive to sound sophisticated and mature without making it seem like you are relying on a thesaurus. It needs to express your academic ambitions and your future career goals, but it should also convey that you will keep an open mind as you encounter opportunities and educational interests in graduate school that you may have not considered previously. Additionally, you should ensure that your essay is both comprehensive and concise. The ability to compose a piece that combines these complex and competing attributes is the key to creating a successful graduate admission essay.

When working on my book, Grad’s Guide to Graduate Admissions Essays, I read hundreds of graduate admission essays and received countless pieces of advice from applicants who recently completed the admission process. A consistent theme among applicants’ impressions of the essay-writing stage was that the most difficult aspect was choosing their subject. Selecting a topic that will allow you to strike a balance between being confident but humble, determined but vulnerable, and creative but realistic is such a critical part of the process that it can seem incredibly daunting.

So now, with this in mind, how do you go about marrying these ideas in your essay via one distinct subject? One of the best ways to find your topic is to take the time to be honest with yourself about what motivates you and to pinpoint moments when you realized the direction you wanted your life to take. This is the first step towards drafting an essay that stands out as sincere.  Luckily, this part can be simple. Deciding what to cook before going on a long run, painting the door of an elementary school, and conducting a sales call with a small business owner represent just a few examples of small moments of insight that served as strong topics for the successful admission essays featured in Grads’ Guide.

Once you have completed your essay draft, be sure to revisit these balancing principles and enlist the help of additional reviewers in order to make sure that your essay carefully addresses and weaves together these seemingly disparate concepts. Hopefully, you will now have an essay that will tip the scales in favor of your admission!

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