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Write a Graduate School Essay that Will Knock Their Socks Off

By Peterson's Staff updated on Thursday, October 31, 2013

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. What will you say? How will you catch and hold the reader's interest? If you know the answer, then you have a good idea of how to prepare a short but effective graduate school essay that will stand as your personal statement to a graduate school admissions committee when you apply to graduate school.

If you're still not sure of the answer, though, then read on for more advice that'll help you figure it out, or even better, head over to EssayEdge and get expert advice from the Ivy League editors there!

Your grad school essay is all about you

Schools aren’t interested in hearing about how your dog ran away or about the time you met a famous movie star, but they do want to know why you want to study the field you’ve chosen, and why you want to study it at their school. Storytelling is an effective way to convey your motivation and commitment and the experiences that drive you. A brief anecdote about some event that exposed you to your chosen field can be effective as long as you make it interesting and you don’t stray too far. Don’t write in clichés, though, by starting off with something like “I knew I wanted to study ____ when …."

Every story has a beginning, and yours will obviously need to have an end as well. You want your story to have a point, a reason for being told that relates to why you’re applying to a particular school. Develop a nice segue from your story to a description of your goals and what you hope to achieve personally and professionally by pursuing your degree. Read your story over and over and make sure it flows smoothly and makes sense. Sometimes it helps to read it aloud so you can “hear” the words and decide if they sound right.

Graduate school essays are also about the school

When reading a personal statement, graduate school admission committees enjoy a great story that focuses on the applicant. But you want to be a memorable applicant, so your statement also needs to let the school know why you’ve chosen them. Ideally, you should relate those reasons to the theme of your story, although it might be hard to do so. (And don’t do it if it isn’t true!) On the other hand, if you’ve decided to apply to a certain school because they ranked as the number one school for meeting members of the opposite sex, don’t tell them that. Avoid discussing any rankings, gushing about how prestigious the school is, or even tossing in generic praise. Admission committees see right through such tactics.

Your graduate school personal statement will be a bit more impressive, however, if you can make relevant mention of a faculty member or two and some of their work. That shows you’ve taken some time to research the school a little further than the average applicant. You want to effectively demonstrate that you know the school, that the school is the right place for you, and that you’re the right student for the school.

A graduate school personal statement ultimately focus on the "personal"

The very first thing you should do in your essay is list all of your positive attributes and accomplishments—not! Stick with concrete experiences that demonstrate your leadership capabilities and positive qualities. Details are important and will help your statement to be interesting and successful in its purpose. But you don’t get bogged down in too many details. You don't need to list all of your accomplishments and activities because they are summarized elsewhere on your application. Your grad school essay needs to communicate your motivation and some of your more intrinsic qualities that make you a highly qualified candidate for the school you’ve chosen to apply to.

For example, since research will be a mainstay of this next phase of your student life, you might be able to do this by focusing on a research experience you had. Be specific! If you worked for a year under a professor, you might emphasize one particular project and explore that in depth. It doesn’t need to have been a major life-changing undertaking—any practical experience can be used as long as you demonstrate your enthusiasm and aptitude for the field you’ve chosen to study.

Graduate school essays are also about paying attention!

Of course, you should always read the application instructions carefully. Some graduate school essays ask for statements of purpose describing specific research interests in lieu of, or in addition to, personal statements that emphasize character and qualities. You might write a beautiful graduate school essay, but if you don’t meet the expectations of the application, you haven’t done yourself any favors!

Now start writing — and knock their socks off!

EssayEdge is an expert resource for essay tips.  

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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