The Role of the Essay in a Graduate School Application

The application essay is a critical component in the selection process, whether the essay is for a competitive internship, a graduate fellowship, or admittance to a graduate school program.

The essay or personal statement gives a selection committee its best opportunity to get to know you, how you think and make decisions, ways in which past experiences have been significant or formative, and how you envision your future.

The essay should have a structure: an introductory paragraph, a body that develops key themes, and a conclusion. Try to capture the reader’s interest with your opening sentences and draw the reader into the essay; avoid the temptation to be cute or contrived in writing. There should be a balance between discussion of your experience and future plans. Your essay should reflect your knowledge of the specific program to which you are applying and explain how this course of study will advance your goals and meet your needs. In addition, indicate what you will be able to contribute to the program. The essay is intended to be a focused and well-constructed presentation of your strengths and accomplishments.

Use concrete examples to describe your goals and expectations instead of relying on generalities. Relate experiences that inspired you to continue in your field, achievements that have given you satisfaction and confidence, challenges and unanswered questions that have helped you determine your path.

Answer all questions you have been asked to address. Above all, remember who your readers are and be sure that your statement speaks to their concerns and priorities. If your essay is for graduate school, what are their requirements, what are their goals? If your essay is for a fellowship or internship, who has given the funds? What are their organizational goals? What do they hope to accomplish in making the award? Any person or group offering such opportunities will want to select the individual most likely to give them a good return on their investment. They are looking for someone who will finish the program and go on to be successful in her career, someone who will enrich the experience of her peers and professors in the process.

Start writing early. For applications due in the autumn, prepare first drafts of essays during the summer before. Plan to rewrite and revise your drafts several times, making good use of the suggestions of advisors and professors, and have the essays ready for use in the fall.

Finally, proofread, proofread, proofread. Misspelled words, typos and careless mistakes will overpower the best of essays, and can be the sole cause of a candidate’s elimination from an applicant pool. A successful application requires time for research, planning, and requesting the assistance of faculty and other available resources. The application essay is your opportunity to present yourself as a strong candidate–to show that you know yourself, that you have determined your own goals and a sense of direction, that you understand the action you propose to take, and that you feel confident in this decision.

For further suggestions see Writing Personal Statements Online, by Joe Schall, and "Leave Dr. Seuss Out of It," by Female Science Professor.