Writing a Graduate School Essay
Hello and welcome to the grad school essay help guide. Today’s guide is brought to you by a graduate school graduate and subsequent admissions department committee member. There are many guides out there on the Internet, but this one was written by a professional who has seen thousands of applications. The advice given here is sometimes hard to take, but it is battle-tested.
Your application will be read by faculty members in the department to which you are applying. Thus, describing a desire to study your major is not specific enough. You need to research the specific department to which you are applying, the exact wording of someone’s research interests, and the titles of a professor’s most recent publications. If CVs are posted, skim those as well. Ideally, you will be able to express fascination with a specific professor and research area.
Take a moment to think about which traits you demonstrate:
- Seriousness of purpose
- Academic ability
- Intellectual curiosity
- Intellectual flexibility
- Critical thinking
- Initiative and independence
- Diligence and persistence
- Resilience and creativity
- Humility and generosity
- Good humor
These characteristics compose your scholarly temperament, which is not the same as your personality. Next, consider the possible academic and professional experiences that you might detail in your statement. What sparked your interest? How have your interests focused over time? How have you distinguished yourself in your major, beyond your GPA? What research projects have you pursued? When brainstorming, avoid crafting full sentences. Jot down ideas, take quick notes, recall details and dates. Some people even speak their initial thoughts aloud.
Elements of the Statement
Your statement of purpose should answer five basic questions:
- What do you want to study?
- What questions within your field do you want to ask and answer?
- What experience do you have in this field?
- Why is this program a good fit?
- What do you plan to do with your degree?
Plans for Graduate School
Detail what you plan to study and research; explain with whom you plan to study and research. Unlike applying as an undergraduate, do not survey the university website in general. You are applying to a department rather than a university. Professors are not pleased to see too much text about opportunities outside the department. Also, try to avoid the “top topics of the day.” For example, too many applicants in 2021 will be writing about COVID-19. A topic that does not come from news headlines signals a serious, thoughtful, long-term interest.
Apply to programs that fit. The name of the faculty member who mentors you is arguably more important than the name of the university. Do not look at rankings online and never mention them in your statement. Instead, try to be gently self-effacing in expressing your admiration for the program and its faculty. Don’t praise or flatter, but express interest in their work.
Sketch out your professional goals. For example, if you have a genuine interest in teaching at a community college or are seeking to earn an EDD or other graduate degree in education, you can explain that.
Structuring the Statement
Having answered the basic questions and identified your skills and goals, you are ready to begin structuring your statement. The two common approaches are chronology or argument. Those applying as undergraduates or within a few years of earning a bachelor’s degree should default to chronology. If you are applying with many years of professional experience, then the argument might work for you. Whichever you choose, stress simplicity and comprehensibility over fanciness. Readers want to get a sense of you, not muddle through a disorganized thought experiment.
The Two Approaches
A chronological structure in an essay improves readability and demonstrates your development over time. It is conventional wisdom that you start with your work in your major at college, perhaps picking a research experience that particularly moved you. Rather than dwelling on personal growth, you should write about your academic development.
If you’ve been out of school for more than a few years and especially if you have five or more years of professional experience, you need to structure your essay as an academic argument. Academic papers always have a claim or thesis. Yours? It must answer this prompt: Why are you coming back to school? You will relate a key experience that brought you to the realization that it’s time to return to school for a graduate degree. The body of your statement is structured like an academic essay, each paragraph taking up one of the reasons in your thesis.
Each paragraph should focus on a specific quality or characteristic, something you’ve identified as key to explaining your background and suitability for graduate study. Describe an event, offer more details that serve as evidence, and conclude by explaining why the event was significant in terms of what you learned. Here are some verbs to think about how to describe your experiences:
pursued / focused / cultivated / challenged myself / developed / devoted myself / seized the opportunity / taught /researched / applied / explored / explained / argued a thesis / calculated / tested / analyzed / quantified / deliberated / struggled / defined / refined / drafted / revised / attended / worked / assisted / collaborated / contributed / deliberated / advanced
Don’t just repeat items from your résumé. Instead, explain how each experience affected you, focusing on what you learned that is relevant to your success in your field. Compare:
Bad: “I served as a volunteer teaching women about the importance of breastfeeding.”
Better: “My experience helping women access breastfeeding information and empowering them to use that information has convinced me that information alone is not nearly as useful as information plus a skilled and compassionate guide.”
Detail your experience and what it means, always thinking about which qualities you want to illustrate, plus how it all serves as evidence you are a match for the program.
Introductions and Conclusions
Open your essay as if announcing yourself to your potential graduate advisor because that’s exactly what you’re doing. For example:
“I have been involved in research since the start of my college career: from designing an independent project synthesizing a conductive molecular wire with self-insulating properties, to industrial research on the kinetics of polyurethane chain extension reactions, to my most recent project investigating a protein transport phenomenon in transgenic mushrooms.”
Conclusions exist in order to explain your career plans beyond graduate school. Many Ph.D. applicants imagine becoming a professor, but you need to convey that goal with humility. Securing a tenure-track job is increasingly difficult. At the same time, you don’t want to dismiss the possibility of an academic career.
“I am committed to pursuing a scholarly career in curriculum development focused on K-12 multicultural literacy while recognizing the realities of the academic job market. I would hope to secure a postdoctoral or visiting position…”
“After earning my Master’s in public administration, I hope to work in the area of economic development in Latin America. The setting might be a private (possibly church-based) development agency, the UN, the OAS, a multilateral development bank, or government agency.”
Style & Mechanics
The tone of your statement should be professional. Strive for sobriety and precision. Use the terminology of your discipline but avoid jargon and don’t try to impress anyone. Try to be clear, concise, and engaging. Here, from UC Berkeley, are words and phrases to avoid:
significant / challenging / satisfying / appreciate / invaluable / exciting / appealing / it’s important / I can contribute / stimulating / gratifying / fascinating / meaningful / helping people / remarkable / valuable / helpful
Did you have poor undergraduate grades, exceptionally low standardized testing scores, lack of work experience, gaps in your chronology, disciplinary action, or a criminal record? In explaining a deficiency, be very careful with your tone. Avoid sounding defensive. Explain the situation dispassionately and move quickly to note how you recovered from a setback. Bad grades don't have to be explained if it’s a matter of one course in an otherwise outstanding record. Moreover, you don’t have to go into detail about a plagiarism issue if you emphasize what you’ve learned. Move on to highlight later successes.
Scholars have identified “kisses of death” in a statement of purpose. Generally:
- Avoid excessive emotion or idealism.
- Avoiding revealing too much personal information.
- Do not start with an inspirational quote of any kind.
- Do not try to be funny or cute.
- Do not use jargon or slang.
- No exclamation points, ever.
- Avoid metaphors, clichés, and contractions.
- Do not write about extracurriculars unless obviously relevant to your area of study.
Once you’ve drafted and polished your statement, take a few days away from it. Read your statement one last time, with this checklist in mind:
- Does your statement make an unstated claim that you are prepared to succeed in this particular graduate program?
- Does all the information in your statement serve as evidence in support of that implicit claim?
- Do you demonstrate why you want to attend graduate school and how you have prepared?
- Do you describe in detail experiences that highlight key academic skills and your scholarly temperament?
- Do you explain why to attend this particular graduate program, focusing on the program and the faculty?
- Have you shown your statement to at least one faculty member in your field?
- Do you sound like an aspiring scholar and professional?
Consider printing out your essay and editing with a pen or pencil. It will change your view of the essays. Submit your essay to sites such as Grammarly. Look for errors such as repetitive language, lack of transitions, conditional phrasing, and capitalization errors.