Remember when you sat down to write your undergrad application essays? It was your chance to show colleges the real you—and the world was your oyster! You could talk about your favorite book character, a beloved hobby, or a cause near to your heart.
Now you’re ready to apply to grad schools, with another application essay (or 10) to write. Like so much of the application process, grad school essays are similar to undergrad…but not quite the same. You need to take a more strategic approach. Here’s how, plus an awesome real-world graduate admission essay example.
The grad school application essay—aka letter of intent, personal statement, statement of purpose, etc.—is your chance to breathe some life and personality into your application. But unlike your undergraduate essay, where you might’ve offered a quippy story, your grad school application essay should be more focused on your academic and professional goals, and why grad school is essential to achieving them. Oh, and it should also give the admission committee a good sense of who you are and what you value at the same time. (No big deal, right?)
All that being said, a lot of the advice that helped you write your undergrad essay still applies: tell a unique story, use vivid examples, be genuine, and, perhaps most importantly, explain why you’d be an asset to the program—and why the program would be an asset to you.
Essay requirements will vary from school to school, but you will likely be asked to write 250–750 words. Common graduate application essay prompts include the following:
- Describe a situation where you overcame adversity/exhibited leadership/learned from failure/experienced an ethical dilemma.
- Why do you need this degree at this juncture in your life?
- What are your short- and long-term career goals?
- What are you most proud of?
- And the big one: why this school?
Regardless of the prompt you choose, the graduate admission committee should come away from your application essay knowing these three things:
- What you want to study in grad school
- Why you want to study it
- Why their institution is the best place for you
Dedicate a paragraph to each one of those ideas, add an attention-grabbing opener and a tidy conclusion, and you’re almost there! The following best practices will take you the rest of the way to a winning grad school application essay.
Stay focused on your academic field and use specific, discrete examples. Was there a clear moment when you knew you had found your calling? Did a particular class assignment, volunteer experience, or work project solidify your interest? Why exactly do you need grad school to achieve your goals?
You’re trying to give the graduate admission committee a sense of who you are and what you value. Show them your passion for your field of study. Why do you love it? Why do you want to contribute to it? What about it challenges and excites you?
Know your audience
Thoroughly research your potential graduate programs (if you haven’t already!), and tailor your essay to each school. Admission counselors want to know why you want to enroll in their program, and you can’t speak to the merits of their program if you don’t know what their program is all about! What specifically attracted you to the school? What would you contribute to the program as a graduate student and eventual alumnus? Take a look at press releases, blog posts, and big events on campus to get to know the school’s personality and what it values.
In a crowd of candidates who also love this field (presumably), what sets you apart? As you consider possible graduate admission essay topics, look for the story only you can tell. Just remember, even some personally meaningful experiences, like the loss of a loved one or a life-changing volunteer experience, don’t really stand out in graduate admission—they’re too common. So if you are considering a potentially well-tread topic, try to approach it in a unique way.
Show, don’t tell
Whenever possible, use stories to illustrate your interest. You shouldn’t fill your graduate personal statement with anecdotes, but you can be straightforward and still infuse some personality into your writing. After all, what’s more engaging: “I frequently left the campus CAD lab just as the sun was rising—and long after I had completed my architecture assignments. I got hooked on experimenting with laser cutting and hardly noticed as the hours passed” or “I really love working with Auto CAD”? No contest.
You can talk about special skills, like a foreign language, computer programming, and especially research in your essay. And you can talk about your academic achievements, internships, published work, and even study abroad experiences. They all make great graduate personal statement fodder. But relevancy is also key. Before stuffing your application essay with every accomplishment and experience from your time as an undergrad, make sure you’re only highlighting those that pertain to your intended graduate studies and future goals.
Explain any gaps
Your grad school application essay is also an opportunity to explain anything in your academic record that might raise an eyebrow among the admission committee, like a semester of poor grades, time off in your schooling, or a less-than-perfect GRE score. For example, if you worked part or full time to help fund your undergrad education, that lends some important context to your experience and achievements; maybe your undergrad GPA isn’t quite as high as it might’ve been otherwise, but graduate admission counselors will likely appreciate your hard work and dedication.
You can also use the essay to own your mistakes; perhaps you didn’t take college as seriously as you should have freshman and sophomore year, but you got your act together junior year. But whatever you do, don’t use your essay to make excuses or blame others.
Strike the right tone
You’ll have four (or more) years of collegiate writing under your belt, and your grad school statement needs to reflect that. Use active language, smooth transitions, an attention-grabbing opening, and a strong conclusion. And even though your graduate personal statement should be focused on your academic goals, it’s not a research paper—and it shouldn’t be full of jargon. Your essay’s tone will ultimately depend on the prompt you choose, but don’t be afraid to infuse it with personality, even humor. People relate to stories; tell yours and tell it well.
Edit—and have others edit too
Set aside time to edit your graduate application essay, checking for style, tone, and clarity as well as grammatical mistakes. (Here are my copyediting tips!) Is your graduate personal statement clear, concise, and well organized? Also revisit the essay prompt to make doubly sure you’ve answered it fully and accurately. Then have other people read your essay to check for these things too. Undergrad professors or mentors are great for this, but you can ask trusted friends too. And don’t forget about any career, writing, and/or tutoring centers at your undergraduate institution; they may be able to review your essay and application, and their services are often available long after you graduate.
For a truly polished graduate essay, remember the little things too, like making sure your files have easily identifiable names. And it might go without saying, but make sure you follow the directions! If the word limit is 600, don’t send in 750. And last but never least: don’t forget that the essay is about you! Any examples or experiences you cite should relate back to you and why you want to go to grad school.
BONUS! Grad school personal statement don’ts
Beyond following the advice above—all do’s, by the way—keep these grad school personal statement don’ts in mind.
- Don’t volunteer potentially damaging information. If you were suspended, arrested, etc., you probably don’t need to discuss it. Why cast aspersions on your character?
- Don’t repeat other parts of your application. Your GPA, test scores, and most activities are covered sufficiently in the rest of your application.
- Don’t be negative. You want the admission committee to see you as an enthusiastic addition to their program, not a grouch.
- Don’t write about controversial topics. You don’t want to risk offending the admission committee. And touchy subjects rarely make good personal statement essays anyway.
- Don’t go for gimmicks. Even though you want to stand out, a gimmicky essay isn’t the way to do it. (For example, submitting a song instead of a personal statement…when you’re not studying music.)
- Don’t stuff your essay with big “smart” words, and don’t use flowery language either. Use clear language to tell a compelling story.
- Don’t lift your personal statement from an existing academic essay or—worse—from someone else entirely. Besides plagiarizing being, you know, wrong, if you can’t get through your personal statement, you definitely aren’t cut out for the writing demands of grad school. Fact.
PS You can apply these tips to scholarship and grant application essays too...
Graduate letter of intent: a real-world example
Master of Education in Instructional Design
University of Massachusetts, Boston
Danielle completed her master’s in 2016. Her studies in Instructional Design were heavily influenced by one of her life’s great passions: Girl Scouts. In fact, while in the midst of earning her graduate degree, she accepted an offer to join the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts full time as their Associate Director of Volunteer Support—a role that distinctly benefits from her graduate studies.
BTW: you'll find even more great grad school application essay examples here.
I wish to pursue graduate study to build a stronger foundation in a skill set I love. I have been using Instructional Design in my volunteer role with Girl Scouts as a Council Facilitator for nearly four years. However, I am only mimicking the best practices set forth by the organization. Working toward a graduate degree in Instructional Design will give me the background knowledge to answer the “why” of creating and delivering adult trainings. I am also interested in UMass Boston’s program specifically because of the strong media and technology focus. Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts (GSEM) volunteers would benefit from greater variety and flexibility in our training offerings, and I would like to help bring that to them. One key area that I would like to work on is creating and delivering more online webinars or hybrid trainings, which would meet the growing demand for more diverse and accessible content.
Aside from my volunteer interests, I believe that an MEd in Instructional Design will also help my current job. I work full time for a small independent financial research company. In addition to research reports, we offer daylong training sessions to our clients in our proprietary analysis methodology. My company’s account management team has expressed interest in modifying some of our core training sessions into an online format. With the skills and knowledge I will acquire through this program, I will be able to help my company expand and diversify our training business line while reducing our capacity constraints.
However, my passion for adult learning truly blossomed through my work with GSEM. As a lifelong Girl Scout, I knew I wanted to stay involved after I graduated from Northeastern University, where I was the President of Campus Girl Scouts and a troop leader. I became involved as a Council Facilitator because I knew each adult I got excited about and prepared to volunteer with Girl Scouts could reach five or 10 more girls.
I remember the day I realized I truly loved this work. After a particularly long day in my office reading reports, I had to deliver a three-hour course on leadership essentials. As I took the subway across town to the training location, all I could think about was how I’d rather be doing anything else. But after I got there and the attendees filed in, I could feel my energy rising. Sharing my knowledge of Girl Scouts with them and watching their enthusiasm to help their girls recharged me. I left the training with 10 times more energy than when I started. I’m looking forward to following this passion and developing a more robust understanding of how adults learn and what makes the content “sticky” so it stays with them when they go back to their girls.
This year I was also selected for a national-level Girl Scout committee, Girl Scouts University Leadership Cadre. The Cadre is comprised of some of the most talented Girl Scout facilitators nationwide and charged with creating personal, professional, and career development learning opportunities for Girl Scouts’ staff and volunteers across the United States, especially online learning assets. We recently had a weeklong conference where I was able to take some video production and storyboarding for webinar sessions that whet my appetite for more learning in this field.
When I chose my undergraduate major, I picked journalism because it was practical. Now that I have more life and career experience, I am ready to go back to school for something else, something I love. I have a passion for learning and sharing that learning with others, as I’ve demonstrated by volunteering my time doing it. There’s nothing more rewarding than helping someone have an “aha” moment or rekindle a lost spark. I know in my heart that adult training and development is my calling because nothing makes me happier than helping others get excited about learning.
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Sample Graduate Application Essay - After
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As a single mother who has confronted homelessness and poverty, I am committed to reforming public education. I have a particular interest in improving the accessibility of schooling to homeless individuals, single mothers, and disadvantaged women of color. As a result of my own experiences, I am familiar with the despair and frustration endemic to individuals struggling to survive. I am convinced that increasing individuals' access to education can make the difference between despondency and hope. I am applying for my doctorate in educational leadership so that I can pursue my life-mission: to make education accessible to all.
I began preparing for this mission by volunteering as an intake coordinator at the Christian Assistance Ministry (CAM). Although I had many responsibilities, the role that consumed most of my time and energy was interviewing clients and assessing their physical and emotional needs. One of my greatest contributions was streamlining and updating the paperwork associated with CAM's intake process. I also generated an updated resource list that included many service agencies in the Houston area. By personally contacting each agency to acquire contact information and to learn about its services, I facilitated greater communication between service organizations and ensured that my clients had access to necessary aid.
In my present position as Research Analyst at SeaNet, my primary role is ascertaining the needs of client networks. As an umbrella group, SeaNet has only limited contact with small business development centers, and my job is to ensure that our organization meets these centers' needs. When I took the initiative to send out surveys asking agencies to rate our group's effectiveness, I received an overwhelming response. The information I compiled was so revealing that it was published in the quarterly report that is sent to our funding agency in Washington, D.C. In addition, I have been involved in a number of special, innovative projects. Recently, I analyzed the availability of renewable energy resources in Southern Texas in tandem with The Economic Development Center, Solar Energy, Brooks Air Force Base, and research universities in Texas.
As part of my master's thesis, I collaborated with Upward Bound, Peace Center, and the Davis Education Foundation to underline the importance of community cooperation in public schools. I also provided informational brochures and handouts detailing other such organizations that could assist with the individualized needs of schools. I was gratified when my efforts resulted in teachers and administrators contacting several of the organizations I had mentioned so that the organizations could start outreach in their educational districts.
Although I have not yet been employed in the educational sector, my master's work, as well as my life experiences, has given me a nuanced and sophisticated knowledge of the educational field. I have acted as a mentor at Davis Middle School for many years and have tutored a number of home-schooled children. When my own children attended school, I was involved in their schools' organizations and often took on a leadership role on educational committees. I served on many boards and was active in assisting both instructors and administrators. Fifteen years of experience has familiarized me with the diverse needs of Houston's students, and it has prepared me to act on their behalf.
My short-term goals include advancing my knowledge of quantitative research using programs such as SPSS and Microcas, and acquiring a sophisticated understanding of how to become a leader in the educational field. I wish to use these skills to promote empirical studies in education that can help direct educational reform.
I am attracted to the doctoral program at Texas A&M for precisely this reason. Only Texas A&M offers the kind of collaborative experience that suits my personal needs and professional goals. Over the past four years, I have seen the department blossom into a challenging and innovative program. I am excited about the program's direction and its emphasis on practical application. I appreciate that every course offers the opportunity for independent research, and that the faculty is open to student suggestions for improvement. The flexibility and patience of the faculty and the talent of the students makes Texas A&M a singular choice for my doctoral degree.
My long-term goal is to use my past experience and Texas A&M training to help make education accessible to all, particularly the underprivileged. Whether I am working in the public or private sector, I look forward to addressing the nation's urgent need to educate its citizens efficiently and comprehensively.
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Click Here for the Edited Version.
I read your personal statement with great interest. You do a good job of showing the reader your diligent preparation for a career in education. By emphasizing your research-oriented background and your practical experience in the educational sector, you show that you have the knowledge and resolve to excel in a doctoral program.
However, there are ways in which your essay could be improved. My comments in this critique describe ways to make your writing more vivid and offer recommendations on how to make your statement more convincing.
Many of the changes I made to this essay were confined to the sentence level. I reworked awkward phrases, varied your vocabulary, adjusted diction, and improved the direction and flow of your writing. I also made subtle but significant changes such as eliminating redundant sentences like, "My purpose for seeking a [doctorate in education] is to expand my knowledge of theory and research as it pertains to education."
I also read your essays with a careful eye toward whether you effectively answered the question. In addition, I closely examined your statements, determining whether more detail or a fresh approach was needed to improve the effectiveness of your essay. Upon review, I feel confident that you addressed all the aspects of this multi-pronged topic, but I have made a number of suggestions for how to improve your essay's delivery.
The overall content of your essay was strong, but its expression was awkward at times. I agree that your essay needs a "stronger sense of purpose," and I believe that the reason your essay feels "wishy-washy" is that you do not have strongly-articulated goals. Broad career objectives like, "establishing a network of scholars and future administrators participating in a rigorous intellectual process," are too vague; you need to give your reader a precise sense of what you want to do.
Your essay will be much more persuasive if you articulate specific intermediate and long-term career goals. Because you have already accomplished significant work in the educational field, the committee will expect you to have clearly-defined objectives in your doctoral studies. Given your experience, you may want to discuss your specific plans for your dissertation.
Here are my specific comments on each individual paragraph of your essay:
Your introduction suffered from an excessive reliance on circular logic ("I seek an education because I am interested in education. I want to fine-tune my research skills because research skills are important to a career in education."). Sentences like these obscure rather than clarify your goals, and I sought to make your writing more active and transparent. I eliminated your entire first paragraph and incorporated your discussion of "purpose" into a new engaging introduction.
I also liked this paragraph's allusion to your role as a "reformist." Nonetheless, I felt that this passage would be stronger if you did more to define this term. What do you want to reform? Can you give concrete examples?
"I have struggled hard to get myself out of this situation..."
I liked the passion you convey in this sentence, but you need to maintain a formal, almost reserved voice in academic writing. See my suggestion for alternative wording that does a better job of capturing your experience and of demonstrating how that experience has influenced your decision to seek an advanced degree.
This paragraph did a good job of describing your work at the Christian Assistance Ministry. Nonetheless, your argument digressed somewhat during your discussion of the difficulties faced by social workers. This paragraph is most effective if you focus on your accomplishments and on the needs of your clients.
Also, please note that even though the refined paragraph is more concise than your original, it still retains all the significant content. The ability to condense and synthesize information is highly prized by admissions committees.
This paragraph required more up-front details. You mention some diverse research experiences, which is good, but you should also cite the title of your position and describe your primary responsibilities.
Because the name of your company implies that you do small business development, a reader might be confused by your research in seemingly unrelated fields. Be sure that I accurately conveyed the essence of your professional responsibilities in my revised version of this paragraph.
To ensure that your description of the learning center is intelligible, I added more details to place this discussion in context.
"I am also an advocate of 21st Century Learning Centers that would provide a safe refuge for the millions of latch-key children in this country that go home to an empty house on any given school day."
You need to be more exacting in your transition sentences. By using a transition sentence like this, the reader assumes your entire paragraph will describe your work with latchkey children. As a result, your treatment of other topics catches the reader off guard.
"I also provided information in the form of brochures and handouts about other such organizations that could assist in the needs of their own schools."
This sentence does not tell the reader enough about your experience. Whenever you write, be sure that a reader who is unfamiliar with your accomplishments will understand the subject, object, and action of each sentence.
Please note that the term "advocate" could apply to either paid or unpaid work. You should specify the exact capacity in which you worked, especially as this is important to placing your accomplishment in perspective.
Finally, if you have time, you may wish to rework this section. A thorough description of one particular project (perhaps your thesis topic) would be much more persuasive than a list of numerous activities.
I do not think this paragraph adds much to your essay. You need to prove your qualifications through examples rather than simply describe them to reader.
"I have a very hard working and decisive character that has earned me a 4.0 GPA."
This sentence is a good example of an uncorroborated assertion. Although you are undoubtedly hard working and decisive, you need to prove it to the reader through concrete examples.
Paragraphs 6 to 8
As I mentioned in the first section of my critique, your essay will be stronger if you cite more specific goals. See my suggestions in the text, and be sure to elaborate on your specific areas of interest.
I suggest concluding your essay with the description of your long-term goals. Reemphasizing your desire to make education accessible to all is a great way to conclude your essay, and it brings your statement to a resonant close.
Overall, this is an excellent start to a compelling essay. Keep in mind that although the committee allows you to write up to five pages, three double-spaced pages is usually adequate. Feel free to add more detail, but make sure your text is concise and transparent. You might consider "writing" ideas and then "rewriting" them. Too often, authors put ideas onto the page, but do not render those ideas compellingly. Giving your sentences a bit of extra effort, and giving your experiences a bit of extra reflection, will result in a persuasive essay that compliments your accomplishments and character.
I wish you the best of luck in the admissions process.
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