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Top Graduate School Essay Writing Mistakes You Must Avoid

By Peterson's Staff updated on Wednesday, January 30, 2013

There are many kinds of graduate school essay and personal statement, like a residency personal statement for medical residencies, or an MBA personal statement. If you're looking for help on your graduate school essay, then you should keep in mind that there are certain things you should do while writing your personal statement and certain things you definitely should not do. You can create a more-impressive grad school essay if you abide by the following suggestions.

Your graduate school essay must not contain careless errors

There is really no excuse for careless errors. Having even one in your grad school essay can affect the way you are perceived. You have more than enough time to proofread and have others look over your essay for errors, including such mistakes as referring to your graduate school personal statement as a "personal statement graduate school" or a "graduate school personnel statement." If an error slips through, your readers may assume that you are careless, disorganized, or not serious enough about your application.

A personal statement, graduate level, steers clear of vague generalities

The most egregious generalizations are the ones that have been used so many times that they have become clichés. "I learned the value of hard work" has been said so many times as to become meaningless. Look at the following two statements.

Before: In the first project I managed, I learned many valuable lessons about the importance of teamwork.

After: In the first project I managed, I made an effort to incorporate all my colleagues as equal members of a team, soliciting their feedback and deferring to their expertise as needed.

The revised version explains the team dynamic in more detail, showing specifically how the applicant exercised teamwork principles. The passage should go on to include even more detail, perhaps by naming a particular colleague and discussing his interaction with that person.

Your grad school essay should not be a summary of your resume

When writing graduate school essays for admissions committees, the most common blunder is to include an expository resume of your background and experience. This is not to say that the schools are not interested in your accomplishments. However, other portions of your application will provide this information. Strive for depth, not breadth.

"A straight autobiography should be avoided, although interesting and pertinent autobiographical facts should be included. But the statement should be more future-oriented than past-oriented. I don't really want the story of a student's life but rather plans for and a vision of the future."

            — Graduate English Department at UCLA

Grad school essays almost always avoid sensitive topics

Fine-tuning your personal statement is not limited to the specifics of writing, such as grammar, style, and details. Choosing a topic that won't offend readers is just as important.

Don't get on a soapbox and preach at the reader. Expressing your values and opinions is fine, but avoid coming across as fanatical or extreme. Religion and politics normally don't belong in grad school essays.

Any views that might be interpreted as strange or unconventional should also be omitted. You want to avoid offending individuals in whose hands the fate of your graduate school application rests.

Your graduate school personal statement should avoid gimmicks

Don't use a gimmicky style or format when writing your personal statement. Your "clever" or "original" idea for style probably isn't, and it may not be appreciated.

"Avoid cuteness; we've had people who have done career statements in the form of a mini-play, for example. You want to sound like a professional."

            — The Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University

A graduate school personal statement should not be long-winded

Sometimes the same writer who relies too heavily on generalizations will also provide too many irrelevant details or will be repetitive. The problem is that writers often don't consider what is actually important to include in the graduate school personal statement.

Example of irrelevant detail: "After a meeting with my adviser, I returned home to think over the matter more carefully. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that my interests in physical properties and mental life would best be explored in a double major of biology and psychology."

In this example, we learn nothing about the applicant from the mention of his meeting with an adviser. What's relevant are his interests and the decision he made based on them.

Example of redundancy: "The class taught me a great deal about the value of literature. I learned that literature can both instruct and inspire, and this understanding has changed the way I read every text."

Wordy writing is also long-winded. Short sentences are more forceful. They are direct and to the point.

Before: "My recognition of the fact that the project was finally over was a deeply satisfying moment that will forever linger in my memory."

After: "Completing the project at last gave me an enduring sense of fulfillment."

Graduate school essays do not need big words

Using longer, fancier words in your graduate school essay does not make you sound more intelligent; anyone can consult a thesaurus. Simpler language is almost always preferable. It demonstrates your ability to think and express yourself clearly.

Before: "Although I did a plethora of activities in college, my assiduous efforts enabled me to succeed."

After: "Although I juggled many activities in college, I succeeded through persistent work."

About the Author

Peterson's has more than 40 years of experience in higher education, and the expert staff members here are all ready to leverage their considerable knowledge and experience to help you succeed on your educational journey. We have the information, the know-how, and the tools -- now all we need is you!

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