Successful Graduate School Application Essays

Your graduate school personal statement may initially get only five minutes of an admissions officer's attention. In those five minutes you have to show that you are a good pick for the school.

Writing an amazing graduate school essay is probably far more straightforward than you might think. Graduate school admissions officers aren't looking for gimmicks. They're looking for passionate, motivated, and prepared applicants who are ready to hit the ground running in their program. Read on for more details in creating your best graduate school essay. If you're looking for one-on-one assistance, check out

Know what the admissions officers are seeking

Don't make assumptions about your graduate school personal statements. Many programs simply ask you to submit a personal statement without any further guidance. Other programs will tell you exactly how they want the essay structured along with word count limits and formatting requirements. Review the prompt thoroughly and plan your essay before you begin writing to ensure that you create an essay that will be an effective and persuasive addition to your application package.

What should you do if the program doesn't give you any specifics? With greater numbers of applicants to graduate programs, the trend is toward shorter essays. This is especially true of graduate programs in the STEM fields. Unfortunately, longer essays tend to be skimmed rather than read thoroughly, and most any admissions officer will tell you that the best essays that they've read are always shorter essays. Think about what is absolutely essential, and write about those aspects of your experience with passion.  

Personal, personal, personal

Did we mention personal? Some graduate programs will ask you to write an additional essay about an issue within your chosen field. However, your personal statement should be about you as an individual. Write about issues only if they relate specifically to your personal experiences. For example, 'In Africa, a child dies every minute. This stark statistic prompted me to join an NGO aimed at providing nutrition and healthcare for children in Namibia.'

Keep your anecdotes focused on your life after you began college

It is common for graduate school applicants to start their personal statements with an anecdote about something that happened during childhood or high school. On the surface, this makes sense because that event was what started the journey that has culminated in an application to the program. However, graduate programs are for professionals, and writing about your childhood is more appropriate for an undergraduate essay than one for graduate school. If you feel that you absolutely must include something from your childhood, use it as the starting sentence of your concluding paragraph. 

Know your program and make connections

Securing acceptance into a graduate program is more about being the best match than about being the most highly qualified. Among applicants who meet the program's minimum requirements, they'll choose an enthusiastic and informed applicant over one with higher test scores and a better GPA who doesn't seem to know much about their program.

During your graduate studies, you'll likely do research, and graduate programs want to know that you can both participate in ongoing research as well as find a mentor for your own project. In your essay, write about professors in the programs whose work interests you and why. Also, there is life outside of the classroom. Does the school have a close-knit traditional college campus? Is it located in the heart of the city? Especially if you will be moving with your family, show the admissions officers that you will thrive in their environment.  

Finish with a strong statement about why the school is your top pick

This doesn't necessarily mean that the school is your only pick. However, generic essays have no place in the graduate school application process. Form letters aren't persuasive, and generic essays won't help your application package. If you can't sincerely write that the school is a top pick, then why are you applying there? Instead, focus on creating stellar essays for the ones that actually interest you. Help the admissions officers understand your overarching vision for your future career and how your time at the school will prepare you to realize these goals.

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This is a guest post by Elissa Redmiles for Student Stories. 

If you’re considering applying to graduate school, you will soon be writing the dreaded “personal statement.” Sometimes called the “statement of purpose”, your grad school essay is one of the few things you can change about your application materials at this point.

While your grades, test scores and internships are set in stone, you have the opportunity to use your personal statement to weave together an otherwise disjoint set of college experiences (or a slightly blemished academic record) into a compelling story that garner an admission to your dream school.

Read on for three tips on writing a compelling personal statement, and examine before and after samples from real essays showcasing What To Do and What Not To Do(all three students whose essays are shown below were admitted to their program of choice).

P.S. Cover letters are quite similar to personal statements, so these tips apply to cover letters, too!

Tip #1: Ask, “Why Do I Care?” after every sentence or section of your essay that you write.

Everything you write in your essay should showcase a skill or experience that will make you successful in your graduate program of choice. You should also illustrate why you will later be an illustrious alumnus who is an honorable ambassador of the program. Remember, most graduate programs are hoping for you to a) become an illustrious alumnus who represents the program well and b) eventually give back to the program in some way.

(The essay referenced below was written as part of a “background statement” for admission to a top 10 M.S. in computer science program; the student was admitted.)

What Not To Do:

“I have written automated tests to ensure that every edge case has been handled and corrected. When developing a new feature, I have researched protocols like IMAP, SMTP, and FTP, to ensure my code complies with the various relevant RFCs.”

Why Not: Why do we care that this person has researched (which, since they didn’t specify well assume means googl-ed) a specific set of jargon?  We don’t know why doing this research is impressive. Similarly, we don’t have any context to understand why handling edge cases is impressive. This is a classic case of “so what.” It should be instantly apparent to the reader why something you did was impressive or represents a useful graduate school skill. Additionally, this essay section is loaded with acronyms. While this may be appropriate for a Ph.D. research statement, the acronyms make for challenging reading in a background essay for a more broad masters program.

What To Do:

“I spend my days researching network protocols in order to design and develop novel algorithms that analyze security flaws and improve the speed and efficiency of the existing code base. Simultaneously, I peer review co-worker’s patches and open source contributions, strengthen my soft skills by undertaking training and documentation tasks, and regularly present my features to coworkers and supervisors.”

Why: This essay is written for a broad audience and an admissions committee member who did not have a computer science background would be able to read the essay. Further, we now understand why the author’s research is important: they are developing new algorithms (that sounds pretty cool). Additionally we learn that the author is not only contributing to their field of interest (computer science) they are engaging in team work (important for graduate school), and working on their “soft skills” of writing and teaching, which are important for elements of graduate school (such as teaching assistantships and writing papers to be published in journals).

Tip #2: Reference specific aspects of the program to which you are applying and/or reference faculty members by name.

This should be reasonably self evident, but be sure to thoroughly read the website of the program to which you are applying! If you can, try to use similar language to what they have on their website when expressing yourself in your essay. If you are applying to a Masters or terminal degree program (law, medicine, PT, nursing, etc.), talk about two to three courses you are interested in taking or mention a cool program that the school offers (e.g. a specific clinical rotation program or a special internship). If you are applying to a Ph.D. program, be sure to mention specific faculty members and their research in depth and show how your interests align with theirs (you can certainly do this for masters or terminal programs as well).

(The essay referenced below was written as part of a “personal statement” for admission to a top 15 Masters in Public Policy program; the student was admitted. Full essay sample available here.)

What Not To Do:

“I am very interested in working on issues of defense policy. I believe that the courses I will take while at XX University and the Masters in Public Policy that I will obtain will provide me with a good foundation in order to pursue a career in defense policy.”

Why Not: What we learned from this section of the essay is that the student wants to work in “defense policy.” This is a vague statement: we don’t even know in what area of defense policy the student is interested. Further, the applicant hasn’t taken the time to mention specific defense policy courses. Why does the applicant believe that the courses in the M.P.P. program help the student pursue a career in defense policy? What if the school doesn’t even have defense policy courses or what if the school has a very cool program in defense policy? It isn’t apparent to the admissions committee that the applicant has researched this school and program at all. The applicant should be calling out specific courses and programs in defense policy if they are available at this school, or the applicant should state how the courses offered at the school would help them reach their goal, if courses in defense policy are not available.

What To Do:

“In order to be successful, defense policies must provide the governmental agencies involved in protecting United States citizens as much flexibility as possible while still being able to hold them accountable for their actions.  Courses such as Intelligence Policy and U.S. Defense Policy and Planning would provide me a better grasp of what goes into the decision making process when policies are being created that affect the safety and security of the nation.”

Another Option:

“Coursework such as Quantitative Aspects of Public Policy, Public Management & Leadership, and Finance would provide me with skills and information needed to understand the connections between terrorist organizations. Specifically, coursework in Quantitative Aspects of Public Policy is essential to understanding how to analyze large sets of data about terrorist organizations and their activities. Statistical methodology is vital in both evaluating policy options and decision-making in an uncertain environment. Defense policy decisions are sometimes made when not all the facts are available, requiring the statistical methodology used to make a decision to be accurate.”

Why: In both of these cases, the applicant not only calls out specific courses, but also provides the reader with context about why these courses are important to the applicant and how the applicant is going to utilize this coursework in their future career.

Tip #3: Be clear about your future and how this program will help you get there (or convincingly describe where you’re headed, if you haven’t quite narrowed it down yet).

If you are applying for graduate school, you are usually doing so in order to achieve a specific career path or goal such as becoming a principal, a professor, or physical therapist. Similarly, graduate schools are looking for driven candidates who know what they want and know how this program will help them get there. Be sure to clearly state in your essay what you want to become in the future, and illustrate how this program will lead you to your goal (see Tip #2).

What if you’re future is a bit murkier? Succinctly explain what combination of skills you hope to develop in the program, and what skills you already have, in the context of your broader goals.

(The essay referenced below was written as part of a “personal statement” for admission to a Harvard Masters in Education program; the student was admitted.)

Example (What To Do):

“Throughout my own education, my passion for helping others learn has been the common thread. My goal is to work in education using the software engineering skills I gained as a computer science major and the research skills I developed as a research assistant for multiple projects. I seek to design innovative curriculum and educational technology solutions that make learning more accessible for students. An Ed.M. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education focusing on Technology, Innovation, and Education will help me reach this goal.”

(As an exercise, can you see why the version of the essay above is better than the one below?)

“Through this myriad of experiences, an interest in education has been the common thread. In my future career, I hope to engage students in learning by designing, introducing and assessing technological tools and engaging curriculum that make learning more comfortable and more accessible for students. Thus, I seek to further my education in education with a Masters in Education focusing on Technology, Innovation, and Education.”

About the Author: 

Elissa Redmiles graduated with a B.S. in Computer Science, Cum Laude from the University of Maryland (UMD). Elissa has written admissions essays for, and has been admitted to M.B.A., M.Ed., M.A.T, and multiple M.S. programs. In addition, she runs a resume and personal statement editing business and has edited over 100 resumes, cover letters and essays for her clients. This July, Elissa will be joining IBM as a Market Manager.

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