How to Write a Grad School Application Essay
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Writing a graduate school admission essay can seem daunting. However, students can make the process easier by taking time to develop and organize their ideas before writing their personal statement.
Students can apply several practices to write a compelling grad school personal statement that gets readers to take notice. These steps include developing a solid outline, conveying a strong and memorable thesis, presenting specific points relevant to the topic, and taking sufficient time to edit and proofread the essay before submitting it.
What Is a Grad School Application Essay?
Graduate school admission or application essays allow graduate programs to get to know applicants better as people. Although an applicant's grade point average (GPA), transcripts, and test scores tell part of their story, grad school essays allow students to show how their personalities, achievements, and past experiences inform their career interests and potential for academic success.
Graduate schools often ask for personal statements or letters of intent from applicants. Prospective graduate students should know what distinguishes these documents.
- A personal statement allows students some freedom to discuss how their past experiences, career goals, and interest in a prospective program have shaped their likelihood of success in and fit for graduate study.
- A statement of purpose describes a student's reasons for applying to a program. The student typically explains how their career goals, qualifications, and research interests will affect their future beyond graduate school.
- A letter of intent is a brief essay describing a student's skills, accomplishments, and goals that pertain to the field of study they aspire to pursue while in graduate school.
What Are Admissions Officers Looking for in a Grad School Essay?
In general, admissions personnel review these essays to determine how well students might fit in with a graduate program and succeed academically. Reviewers also look for a sense of how well prospective students handle stress, overcome challenges, and stand up to the demands of a rigorous program.
Grad school essays should shed light on how well students respond to criticism of their work. Also, graduate school provides a setting where individuals can explore diverse theories and perspectives. To this end, admissions personnel look for clues about students' openness to different viewpoints and their ability to express their ideas in written form.
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What to Know Before You Start Writing
Review the prompt.
The prompt for the application essay gives students a sense of how to focus their writing. Before starting to write, students should read the instructions within the prompt carefully. These directions shed light on readers' expectations.
Prompts for grad school application essays vary greatly, with some offering little detail on what the statement should cover. Applicants should pay close attention to the requirements, including word count, format, and submission method.
Some graduate essay prompts offer few instructions or requirements, leaving applicants a lot of room for choosing a topic. To determine the most appropriate topic, focus, and personal examples to include, students should devote considerable time to brainstorming before they start writing.
Students should give themselves time to reflect on their strengths, accomplishments, and research interests. They should also consider the qualities they want in a graduate program and pick out benefits provided by the program so they can speak to the specific reasons they're applying.
Create An Outline
Outlining is a crucial step in creating a compelling and memorable grad school personal statement. Just as architects need a blueprint to design and build a skyscraper, grad school applicants need a roadmap to organize and write their essays.
The most effective application essays include an attention-grabbing introduction, a body with solid and concise points, and a memorable conclusion. An outline will likely change somewhat during the writing process, but it still allows the writer to stay on top of the essay's construction.
Know the Point You're Trying to Get Across
A grad school personal statement should present a clear point or thesis to help it stand out. An overall thesis statement or claim answers the question, "What is this essay about?" A reader should not have to work hard to understand the thesis. If the point of an essay is unclear or confusing, an admissions officer might stop reading.
Applicants should place their thesis in the introduction so that the reader clearly understands what the following essay will address. Students can insert their thesis immediately after an anecdote, quotation, or other attention-getter to provide a smooth transition into the main topic.
Be Aware of Topics to Avoid
Brainstorming allows an applicant to consider a variety of topics and ways of writing about them. However, some subjects may be inappropriate for a grad school application essay because they could alienate certain readers or make them lose interest.
Topics that writers should consider omitting from an admission essay include the following:
- Traumatic personal experiences
- Subjects that make the writer appear overly negative or cynical
- An exhaustive list of accomplishments
Students should also avoid using well-known phrases or expressions. For example, common cliches offer virtually no advantage because they suggest little to no originality of thought. Also, students should not use words or terms (e.g., vulgar language) that detract from their professionalism.
What to Consider While You're Writing
Grab the reader's attention.
A strong grad school personal statement starts with writing a concise introduction that gains the reader's attention. The writer can make the essay more memorable by using a brief anecdote, quotation, compelling statistic, or rhetorical question.
The introduction should also provide a clear preview or roadmap for the rest of the essay. After the attention-getter, the essay should quickly transition into the thesis statement or main idea, followed by a preview of the upcoming points.
Writers should revisit the introduction once their essay is complete to double-check that it accurately reflects the main points of the essay.
Students should not just focus on what they think admissions personnel will want to read. Instead, they should use their voice to present their ideas in meaningful ways that reflect their true selves. In other words, write with authenticity. While the essay should reflect a polished draft, it should also show applicants as they are.
Graduate school applicants shouldn't lie or misrepresent themselves in the grad school essay. In addition to strengths and accomplishments, admissions departments want to read what applicants say about their shortcomings and how they have worked to overcome them.
Be Relevant and Specific
While students can use creative anecdotes and personal examples, they need to make their points relevant to the prompt or question. Admissions personnel generally want to learn why students wish to enroll in the program and what makes them qualified. These elements can serve as the foundation when writing the main body of an essay .
Also, the main points should be specific. For example, in expressing why they are applying to a particular program, applicants can use a brief anecdote to explain their desire to work with a faculty member who shares their research interests. While stories and examples add a personal touch, they should not distract from essential information that grad schools want to know about an applicant.
Have a Strong Ending
When writing the conclusion of a graduate school admission essay, writers should restate the thesis and reiterate the main points. Rather than presenting new information, the ending should remind the reader of the statement’s main ideas. Furthermore, it should refer back to those points while giving the reader something to think about after they have finished reading.
A conclusion can also end by tying back to the attention-getting statement in the introduction. This stylistic device brings the whole essay full circle, provides a sense of closure, and strengthens the emotional connection with the reader.
What to Do When You've Finished Writing
Finishing the draft of a graduate school admission essay does not signal the end of the writing process. Rather, polishing the draft requires re-reading, editing, and getting feedback before submitting it.
Reread Your Draft
A grad school essay containing errors or reflecting poor writing does not leave a favorable impression. Re-reading the essay allows for catching mistakes, clearing up confusing sentences, and strengthening the main points.
Unfortunately, writers can gloss over errors after reading the essay just once. As a rule of thumb, when students believe their draft has gone through enough editing and proofreading, they might take a little more time and read the document one more time.
Edit Your Draft
Students should not confuse editing with proofreading — a step that involves checking for grammar, punctuation, and stylistic errors. Editing is a more substantive process that includes checking for conciseness and ensuring that ideas flow well. Proper editing also allows writers to determine whether each paragraph or section expresses a single thought and make sure that sentences are concise and clear.
Students should allow enough time to edit their essays. Also, reading the essay aloud can provide another way to catch mistakes or confusing phrases.
Students should find individuals they trust to check their personal statement for clarity, errors, and other stylistic inconsistencies. Also, having others review the essay can give the applicant a sense of how others perceive its tone, organization, and potential to engage the reader.
Trusted peers, instructors, family members, friends, and students who have recently gone through the grad school application process often provide excellent feedback. Students can also seek out others who are applying to graduate school to share their personal statements and exchange constructive criticism.
Sample Grad School Application Essay
Prompt: Why do you wish to pursue a graduate degree in communication studies at the University of Oklahoma and how does it relate to your career goals?
Three years ago, I underwent a breast biopsy after two mammograms failed to rule out a suspicious lump. I met with my oncological surgeon before she was to perform the procedure. Although her technical skills were superior, her bedside manner left me feeling scared, uncertain, and lacking confidence in my capacity to handle a possible cancer diagnosis. Moreover, my doctor's inability to relate to me personally left me feeling powerless in meeting my health needs as a patient.
In poor health, many people feel robbed of their dignity. One of the most critical settings where patients can maintain dignity is during a doctor's visit. I wish to conduct research and teach courses in an academic setting to explore how doctor-patient interactions can help patients gain more confidence and improve their health outcomes. To this end, I am applying to the Communication Department at the University of Oklahoma to pursue a master's degree specializing in health communication. This master's will then allow me to continue my studies and earn a doctorate in this area.
I first learned a great deal about doctor-patient interactions while taking an undergraduate health communication class from Dr. Edith McNulty at the University of Nebraska. Dr. McNulty's class informed the way I view my breast biopsy experience. After completing her class, I enrolled in an independent study with Dr. McNulty transcribing qualitative interviews she conducted with patients. Through this independent study, I also learned how to perform constant comparative coding of those transcripts.
My independent study has fueled my interest in researching health communication and teaching classes on the subject. My interest in the communication studies program at Oklahoma stems partly from my interest in Dr. Dan O'Malley's studies of patients' expressions of ethnicity when they encounter healthcare workers. Working with Dr. O'Malley could expand my healthcare interest to include ethnicity as a factor in these settings.
I also am familiar with Dr. Wendy Wasser's research on communication efficacy during online video appointments. Given that increasing numbers of patients rely on telemedicine to receive their healthcare, studying with Dr. Wasser can help me understand the role of new communication technologies in doctor's visits.
Although my breast biopsy from three years ago was benign, I know that other patients are not as fortunate in their health outlook. All patients have the right to quality communication during doctor visits to help them gain confidence and take proactive measures toward their healthcare. My pursuit of a master's in health communication at the University of Oklahoma can set me on a path to contributing to our understanding of the interpersonal impact of doctor-patient interactions on medical care and patient well-being.
Frequently Asked Questions About Grad School Application Essays
How long should a grad school application essay be.
Most applicants should expect to write at least 500 words for their grad school admission essay. However, length varies by graduate program. Many application materials contain specific instructions on how to write the essay, including word limits.
What should I title my application essay for grad school?
If an online application submission page includes a text box for the title, the applicant should follow the word or character limit and make the title relevant to their grad school personal statement. However, students do not need to add a title if the application does not require it.
How do I make my application essay stand out for grad school?
Prospective students should write a clear and compelling grad school essay free of errors. Also, the statement should help make the applicant stand out from their peers. It can include specific examples of unique experiences that illustrate students' strengths and abilities.
What should you not do in an application essay for grad school?
Students should not wander off topic when answering a prompt, especially if it asks a specific question. Also, an essay should not include so many personal examples that they read as a list. Instead, the applicant can provide a brief anecdote for each main point they want to make.
How do you answer grad school application essay questions?
The best graduate school admission essays have a clear thesis statement and good organization. They also grab the reader's attention right away and maintain it to the end. The best essays also reflect the writer's careful attention to the application instructions by addressing the prompt thoroughly.
Explore More College Resources
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Graduate School Application Essays
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Types of Essays
Regardless of the type of school you are applying to, you will be required to submit an admissions essay as part of the application process. Graduate programs want students with clear commitment to the field. Essay prompts typically ask applicants to discuss their previous experience, future professional goals, and how the program can help them in achieving those objectives. The essay gives the applicant the chance to articulate these goals and display strong writing skills. Remember to tailor your essay to each school and the faculty committee that reviews your application. But first, take note of what kind of essay is being requested of you. Here are the two main admission essays:
A personal statement is a narrative piece describing how your character and experiences have formed you into someone who will contribute positively and effectively to not only the department but the academic discipline as a whole. This is often achieved by detailing social, educational, cultural, and economic obstacles you have overcome in your journey to get to where you are today and your future objectives. A personal statement is also an opportunity to highlight what is unique about you and how you will advance diversity within the institution.
Check out Personal Statement Resources for Graduate School Applications in the Resources section of Handshake for a brainstorming activity and essay samples that can help you get started on your personal statement.
Statement of Purpose
Interchangeably called a “research statement”, a statement of purpose will prompt you to describe your research interests and professional goals, how you plan to accomplish them, and why a specific program is best suited for you to do so. Be specific about your specialized interests within your major field. Be clear about the kind of program you expect to undertake, and explain how your study plan connects with your previous training and future goals.
Use the Outlining Your Statement of Purpose guide in the Resources section of Handshake to get started on your statement outline.
How to Write a Powerful Admission Essay
Whatever required format, your essay should be thoughtful, concise, compelling, and interesting. Remember, admissions officers read hundreds of personal essays. Below are some tips for your admissions essay writing process:
- Read the question: Be sure you are aware of all aspects of the prompt. Failing to pay attention to details in the prompt won’t reflect well on you as a potential candidate.
- What is distinct, special, and/or impressive about me and my life story?
- Have I overcome any particular hardships or obstacles?
- When did I become interested in this field and what have I learned about it?
- What are my career goals?
- What personal traits, values, and skill sets do I have that would make me stand out from other applicants?
- Create an outline: You might have a lot that you want to say, but you will need to whittle down your many thoughts and experiences to a concrete thesis with a select number of examples to support it. Create an outline for your draft, not only to organize your points and examples, but to help tailor your essay for your readers.
- Know your audience: Consider how your narrative can best meet the expectations of admissions committee members. Will faculty be reading this? Administrators? Experts in the field? Knowing your audience ahead of time will assist you in addressing the prompt appropriately.
- Grab your reader’s attention: Start your essay with something that will grab the reader’s attention such as a personal anecdote, questions, or engaging depiction of a scene. Avoid starting things off with common phrases such as “I was born in…” or “I have always wanted to…” Consider the experiences that have shaped you or your career decision, and delve into them with a creative hook.
- Write well: Your essay is a sample of your writing abilities, so it’s important to convey your thoughts clearly and effectively. Be succinct—you don’t need to write out your full autobiography or resume in prose. Exclude anything that doesn’t support your thesis. Gentle humor is okay, but don’t overdo it. Also, don’t make things up! Be honest about your experiences.
- End strong: End your essay with a conclusion that refers back to the lead and restates your thesis. This helps unify your essay as a whole, connecting your detailed experiences back to the reason you are writing this essay in the first place—to show your qualifications for your graduate program of choice.
- Use resources: The MIT Communication Labs have a CommKit that collects all of the Comm Lab resources relevant to the grad application process , including recommendation letters & interviews
- Revise: Give yourself enough time to step away from your draft. Return with a fresh pair of eyes to make your edits. Be realistic with yourself, not your harshest critic. Make a few rounds of revisions if you need.
- Ask for help: Have your essay critiqued by friends, family, educators, and the MIT Writing and Communication Center or our Career Services staff.
- Proofread: Read your essay out loud or even record yourself and listen to the recording, to help you catch mistakes or poor phrasing you may have missed when reading to yourself. Also, don’t rely exclusively on your computer to check your spelling.
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How to Apply to Graduate School: Step-by-Step Guide
Prepare to apply to graduate school with this step-by-step guide to a seamless application journey.
Applying for graduate school can be a great opportunity to reflect on your past accomplishments and career aspirations , and consider how you can bridge the two. It also requires attention to detail and time management skills.
To complete your grad school applications, here are the broad steps you’ll take:
Build your graduate school list.
Create your application timeline.
Compile your application components.
Prepare for grad school interviews.
Choose the right program for you.
The most labor-intensive step will be compiling your application components, which can include writing personal statements, creating your resume, requesting letters of recommendation, and taking entrance exams. In this article, we’ll go through each piece of the typical grad school application process and common components, as well as offer additional resources for compiling an application that fully reflects your capabilities.
Building your graduate school list
Before you apply for grad school, you’ll have to decide which programs you want to apply to. Presumably, you have some ideas about what you are looking for in a program, such as your desired major, type of program, or location.
As you consider various programs, it can help to categorize them as dream, target, and safety schools.
Dream schools (or reach schools) are the schools you’d like to attend if qualifications and cost didn’t matter.
Target schools are those that generally align with your qualifications—such as undergraduate GPA and test scores—and you can reasonably afford to attend.
Safety schools are the schools at which your qualifications would put you at the top of the applicant pool and you can confidently afford.
Applicant pools vary from year to year, so while data pertaining to previously admitted students can be a helpful way to gauge your qualifications, you can’t know with certainty how competitive applicant pools will be for your desired programs in the year you apply. To account for this, experts recommend applying to schools across each of these categories in order to give yourself the best chance of finding the right program for you.
Learn more: Should You Go Back to School? 7 Things to Consider
How many grad schools should I apply to?
Experts generally recommend applying to four to six grad schools, but some people advocate for many more. The number of programs that you apply to is ultimately up to you. You may consider factors like how competitive your desired program tends to be, how immediately important grad school is to your career growth and goals, preferences you have regarding location or faculty, and how much money you’re able to spend on application fees.
Creating an application timeline
Grad schools tend to follow similar application procedures, but requirements, expectations, and deadlines may vary from program to program. Once you know which schools you’ll be applying to, you’ll be able to determine the exact application components that you’ll need to complete and when you’ll need to submit them. You can usually find this information on your desired programs’ websites under an ‘admissions’ or ‘prospective students’ tab.
When creating your application timeline, note any program prerequisites in addition to application requirements and deadlines. If you haven’t met all of the prerequisites, you may need to build those into your timeline.
When to apply for grad school
Generally, experts recommend spending between six months and a year on your grad school application. This should give you enough time to gather materials from external sources—such as letters of recommendation and transcripts—take entrance exams, and develop your resume, personal statements, and other application components. However, this is a broad recommendation, and you may need more or less time to confidently compile your application.
To build your unique timeline, consider each of the application components you need to complete and how long you’d like to spend on each. Then, mark the application deadlines on your calendar and work backward to create a schedule that gives you ample time to work on each piece.
Remember to consider your ideal work style as you build your schedule. Perhaps you prefer to fully complete one piece of your application before moving onto the next; or maybe you like to work on outlines for all components before moving into later development stages.
Common application components
Applications may vary from program to program, but there are some pieces that grad programs typically include in their admission requirements . Here, we’ll go through some common grad school application components.
Application forms tend to be straightforward documents where you fill out information such as your name, address, previous education, and experience. Unlike the undergraduate application process, there is no widely used standard application form (such as the Common App) for grad school applications.
If your application forms include short-answer questions, remember to treat these as opportunities to further highlight your strengths and aspirations.
You may be asked to elaborate on your experience with a resume or CV . Much like you’d tailor your resume for each job you apply for, tailor your resume for your grad school application. In addition to your education and experience, you may opt to include sections for research projects, awards and honors, and extracurricular activities.
How to Craft a Graduate School Resume
How to Write an Effective MBA Resume
Personal statements and essays
Your personal statement is an opportunity to share, in your own words, why grad school—and this particular program—is the right next step for you. You may have a specific prompt to follow, or you may be asked to write a general statement of purpose. Read the instructions carefully to ensure you are providing the exact information requested, and as always, remember to edit and proofread your essays before submitting.
How to Write a Standout Letter of Intent for Graduate School
How to Write a Personal Statement
How to Write a Statement of Purpose for an MBA
There are several types of graduate school entrance exams. The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is among the most widely used exams, as it’s a general knowledge test. However, if you are planning to go to business school, you may consider the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT); for law school, you’d likely take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT); and for medical school, you’d probably want to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT).
Even still, some programs don’t require entrance exams. Check your desired school’s admissions site to determine whether exams are optional or required. If they’re optional, think about whether taking the exam will enhance your application, and if you have the capacity to adequately prepare for the exam. Generally, experts recommend dedicating between two and six months studying for graduate school entrance exams.
GMAT vs. GRE: Which Should I Take?
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What Is the Executive Assessment?
What Is a Good GMAT Score? Finding Your Goal Score 2023
Letters of recommendation
Many graduate programs require applicants to submit letters of recommendation from former teachers, bosses, or colleagues. When deciding who you should ask to write your recommendations, consider people who are familiar with your work style, can speak to your strengths, and are familiar with your long-term goals.
How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation (Template + Tips)
How to Write a Letter of Recommendation (Template + Tips)
How to Write an MBA Recommendation Letter
In order to qualify for many graduate programs, you’ll need to have already earned a bachelor’s degree . Some programs—such as medical school—also require that you’ve completed certain coursework, and if you didn’t take those courses as part of your undergraduate education, you may need to complete a postbaccalaureate —or postbacc—program. Graduate programs may also have minimum grade point average (GPA) requirements.
In order to demonstrate that you’ve completed the academic prerequisites, you can have your previous institution(s) send an official transcript to the schools you’re applying to. Your official transcript will typically list the dates you were enrolled in their school, your academic major, a complete list of courses you took, and your grades and GPA. Often, you can request your official transcript through the Registrar’s office. Check your previous school’s website to find out if you can request online, by phone, or in person, and be sure to ask if there are any fees associated with your transcript request.
No degree? Try performance-based admissions
You have options when it comes to graduate school admissions. With programs that offer performance-based admissions , you can gain entry into a graduate program by passing a set number of pathway courses, thus proving your capabilities in your desired area of study and getting a head start on your degree progress.
Learn more about programs that offer performance-based admissions on Coursera.
Scholarship and financial aid forms
Submitting scholarship and financial aid applications is typically optional, but scholarships, grants, or, in some cases, loans can be helpful financial planning options. Take note of any financial aid options your desired programs mention on their website—particularly under the tuition and financial aid sections—and seek out scholarship opportunities from other avenues, such as your employer or professional groups.
How to Pay for Graduate School: 8 Ways
What Does FAFSA Stand For?
When Is FAFSA Due? Important 2023-2024 Deadlines
Low-cost degree options
Traditional master’s degree programs in the US typically cost between $54,000 and $73,000, with the average cost being $65,123 as of August 2023 [ 1 ]. Fortunately, there are less expensive options. For example, online master’s degrees tend to be less expensive due to lower overhead costs and tend to have more flexible attendance options.
Learn more about affordable degrees available on Coursera.
Preparing for grad school interviews
After you’ve submitted your graduate school application, you may be invited to interview with admissions staff or program faculty. Typically, this is another way for university staff to continue learning about your experience and goals. It can also be an opportunity for you to further develop your understanding of what you can anticipate should you enroll in this graduate program.
Since you’ve already thought about your experience and goals during the written application portion, you’re well positioned to talk about them—but it’s still a good idea to practice speaking about them and adequately prepare for your interview before heading into it.
How to Prepare for an Interview
Practice Interview Questions: How to Tell Your Story
How to Succeed in a Panel Interview
Choosing the right grad school for you
Congratulations! You’ve aced your applications and interviews, and now your acceptance letters and scholarship offers are rolling in. It’s time to decide which program is right for you—a decision that will be entirely unique to your goals and circumstances.
Some common factors to consider when choosing a graduate program include how well your career goals align with the program offerings, financial and time constraints, and other logistical considerations like school location and typical class times.
Learn more about master’s degree programs:
Your Guide to Master's Programs
A Guide to Online Master's Degrees
How to Get a Master's Degree
Is a Master's Degree Worth It?
Master’s Degree Salary Guide
How Long Does a Master’s Degree Take?
Master's Degrees Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Learn more about specific master’s degrees:
What Is an MBA? About the Degree, Programs, Jobs, and More
Your Guide to the Master's in Computer Science
Master's in Data Science: Your Guide
Your Guide to the Master’s in Information Technology
Master of Psychology: Degree Guide
What Is a Master of Public Health (MPH) Degree?
What Is a Master’s in Chemistry (and What Can I Do With One)?
Explore master’s degrees on Coursera. Earn your graduate degree in computer science, business, data science, or public health from top universities like the University of Michigan, the University of Illinois, and Northeastern University.
Education Data Initiative. “ Average Cost of a Master’s Degree , https://educationdata.org/average-cost-of-a-masters-degree.” Accessed October 6, 2023.
This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.
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Graduate School Applications
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The graduate school application section contains resources to help you through the process of applying to graduate school. This section contains an overview of applying to graduate school, words of advice on writing graduate school profiles to help with your decision making, drafting a graduate school personal statement, and the etiquette of requesting references.
Please note, that these resources focus on applying to graduate studies programs in the United States. The information contained in these resources may or may not be appropriate to other contexts.
Graduate School Applications: Overview
The resources in this section will help you prepare your graduate school application(s). This section includes an application-planning timeline, advice on researching and choosing a program, a summary of needed materials and how to develop them, rhetorical principles for building a statement of purpose, and suggestions for how to handle competing offers.
Graduate School Applications: Researching Programs
This section details what to look for in a graduate program—both on a personal and professional level. Personally, you need to consider location, community, campus culture, and other non-academic issues that will affect your happiness. Professionally, you need to figure out your research interest, map the field, research the faculty you’ll be working with, understand your funding package, calculate work requirements, and analyze research resources.
Graduate School Applications: Statements of Purpose
The statement of purpose is perhaps the most important, and most challenging, element of your application packet. This letter needs to reflect who you are and why you would be an asset to the program you are applying to. It needs to make you stand out from the hundreds of other applicants and yet stay within the genre-based expectations for a statement of purpose. This resource provides information on writing statements of purpose specifically for graduate school applications.
Graduate School Applications: Requesting Recommendation Letters
During the application process, much of the process is in the hands of the applicant, but recommendation letters are often in the hands of the recommenders. You can't control what someone says, or whether or not they'll meet the deadline, but you can make the process run more smoothly overall. This resource is designed to offer applicants advice on handling the occasionally sticky process of requesting letters of recommendation.
Graduate School Applications: Writing a Research Statement
The research statement is a common component of a potential candidate’s application for post-undergraduate study. This may include applications for graduate programs, post-doctoral fellowships, or faculty positions. The research statement is often the primary way that a committee determines if a candidate’s interests and past experience make them a good fit for their program/institution.
In this section
What this handout is about.
This handout will help you write and revise the personal statement required by many graduate programs, internships, and special academic programs.
Before you start writing
Because the application essay can have a critical effect upon your progress toward a career, you should spend significantly more time, thought, and effort on it than its typically brief length would suggest. It should reflect how you arrived at your professional goals, why the program is ideal for you, and what you bring to the program. Don’t make this a deadline task—now’s the time to write, read, rewrite, give to a reader, revise again, and on until the essay is clear, concise, and compelling. At the same time, don’t be afraid. You know most of the things you need to say already.
Read the instructions carefully. One of the basic tasks of the application essay is to follow the directions. If you don’t do what they ask, the reader may wonder if you will be able to follow directions in their program. Make sure you follow page and word limits exactly—err on the side of shortness, not length. The essay may take two forms:
- A one-page essay answering a general question
- Several short answers to more specific questions
Do some research before you start writing. Think about…
- The field. Why do you want to be a _____? No, really. Think about why you and you particularly want to enter that field. What are the benefits and what are the shortcomings? When did you become interested in the field and why? What path in that career interests you right now? Brainstorm and write these ideas out.
- The program. Why is this the program you want to be admitted to? What is special about the faculty, the courses offered, the placement record, the facilities you might be using? If you can’t think of anything particular, read the brochures they offer, go to events, or meet with a faculty member or student in the program. A word about honesty here—you may have a reason for choosing a program that wouldn’t necessarily sway your reader; for example, you want to live near the beach, or the program is the most prestigious and would look better on your resume. You don’t want to be completely straightforward in these cases and appear superficial, but skirting around them or lying can look even worse. Turn these aspects into positives. For example, you may want to go to a program in a particular location because it is a place that you know very well and have ties to, or because there is a need in your field there. Again, doing research on the program may reveal ways to legitimate even your most superficial and selfish reasons for applying.
- Yourself. What details or anecdotes would help your reader understand you? What makes you special? Is there something about your family, your education, your work/life experience, or your values that has shaped you and brought you to this career field? What motivates or interests you? Do you have special skills, like leadership, management, research, or communication? Why would the members of the program want to choose you over other applicants? Be honest with yourself and write down your ideas. If you are having trouble, ask a friend or relative to make a list of your strengths or unique qualities that you plan to read on your own (and not argue about immediately). Ask them to give you examples to back up their impressions (For example, if they say you are “caring,” ask them to describe an incident they remember in which they perceived you as caring).
Now, write a draft
This is a hard essay to write. It’s probably much more personal than any of the papers you have written for class because it’s about you, not World War II or planaria. You may want to start by just getting something—anything—on paper. Try freewriting. Think about the questions we asked above and the prompt for the essay, and then write for 15 or 30 minutes without stopping. What do you want your audience to know after reading your essay? What do you want them to feel? Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, organization, or anything else. Just get out the ideas you have. For help getting started, see our handout on brainstorming .
Now, look at what you’ve written. Find the most relevant, memorable, concrete statements and focus in on them. Eliminate any generalizations or platitudes (“I’m a people person”, “Doctors save lives”, or “Mr. Calleson’s classes changed my life”), or anything that could be cut and pasted into anyone else’s application. Find what is specific to you about the ideas that generated those platitudes and express them more directly. Eliminate irrelevant issues (“I was a track star in high school, so I think I’ll make a good veterinarian.”) or issues that might be controversial for your reader (“My faith is the one true faith, and only nurses with that faith are worthwhile,” or “Lawyers who only care about money are evil.”).
Often, writers start out with generalizations as a way to get to the really meaningful statements, and that’s OK. Just make sure that you replace the generalizations with examples as you revise. A hint: you may find yourself writing a good, specific sentence right after a general, meaningless one. If you spot that, try to use the second sentence and delete the first.
Applications that have several short-answer essays require even more detail. Get straight to the point in every case, and address what they’ve asked you to address.
Now that you’ve generated some ideas, get a little bit pickier. It’s time to remember one of the most significant aspects of the application essay: your audience. Your readers may have thousands of essays to read, many or most of which will come from qualified applicants. This essay may be your best opportunity to communicate with the decision makers in the application process, and you don’t want to bore them, offend them, or make them feel you are wasting their time.
With this in mind:
- Do assure your audience that you understand and look forward to the challenges of the program and the field, not just the benefits.
- Do assure your audience that you understand exactly the nature of the work in the field and that you are prepared for it, psychologically and morally as well as educationally.
- Do assure your audience that you care about them and their time by writing a clear, organized, and concise essay.
- Do address any information about yourself and your application that needs to be explained (for example, weak grades or unusual coursework for your program). Include that information in your essay, and be straightforward about it. Your audience will be more impressed with your having learned from setbacks or having a unique approach than your failure to address those issues.
- Don’t waste space with information you have provided in the rest of the application. Every sentence should be effective and directly related to the rest of the essay. Don’t ramble or use fifteen words to express something you could say in eight.
- Don’t overstate your case for what you want to do, being so specific about your future goals that you come off as presumptuous or naïve (“I want to become a dentist so that I can train in wisdom tooth extraction, because I intend to focus my life’s work on taking 13 rather than 15 minutes per tooth.”). Your goals may change–show that such a change won’t devastate you.
- And, one more time, don’t write in cliches and platitudes. Every doctor wants to help save lives, every lawyer wants to work for justice—your reader has read these general cliches a million times.
Imagine the worst-case scenario (which may never come true—we’re talking hypothetically): the person who reads your essay has been in the field for decades. She is on the application committee because she has to be, and she’s read 48 essays so far that morning. You are number 49, and your reader is tired, bored, and thinking about lunch. How are you going to catch and keep her attention?
Assure your audience that you are capable academically, willing to stick to the program’s demands, and interesting to have around. For more tips, see our handout on audience .
Voice and style
The voice you use and the style in which you write can intrigue your audience. The voice you use in your essay should be yours. Remember when your high school English teacher said “never say ‘I’”? Here’s your chance to use all those “I”s you’ve been saving up. The narrative should reflect your perspective, experiences, thoughts, and emotions. Focusing on events or ideas may give your audience an indirect idea of how these things became important in forming your outlook, but many others have had equally compelling experiences. By simply talking about those events in your own voice, you put the emphasis on you rather than the event or idea. Look at this anecdote:
During the night shift at Wirth Memorial Hospital, a man walked into the Emergency Room wearing a monkey costume and holding his head. He seemed confused and was moaning in pain. One of the nurses ascertained that he had been swinging from tree branches in a local park and had hit his head when he fell out of a tree. This tragic tale signified the moment at which I realized psychiatry was the only career path I could take.
An interesting tale, yes, but what does it tell you about the narrator? The following example takes the same anecdote and recasts it to make the narrator more of a presence in the story:
I was working in the Emergency Room at Wirth Memorial Hospital one night when a man walked in wearing a monkey costume and holding his head. I could tell he was confused and in pain. After a nurse asked him a few questions, I listened in surprise as he explained that he had been a monkey all of his life and knew that it was time to live with his brothers in the trees. Like many other patients I would see that year, this man suffered from an illness that only a combination of psychological and medical care would effectively treat. I realized then that I wanted to be able to help people by using that particular combination of skills only a psychiatrist develops.
The voice you use should be approachable as well as intelligent. This essay is not the place to stun your reader with ten prepositional phrases (“the goal of my study of the field of law in the winter of my discontent can best be understood by the gathering of more information about my youth”) and thirty nouns (“the research and study of the motivation behind my insights into the field of dentistry contains many pitfalls and disappointments but even more joy and enlightenment”) per sentence. (Note: If you are having trouble forming clear sentences without all the prepositions and nouns, take a look at our handout on style .)
You may want to create an impression of expertise in the field by using specialized or technical language. But beware of this unless you really know what you are doing—a mistake will look twice as ignorant as not knowing the terms in the first place. Your audience may be smart, but you don’t want to make them turn to a dictionary or fall asleep between the first word and the period of your first sentence. Keep in mind that this is a personal statement. Would you think you were learning a lot about a person whose personal statement sounded like a journal article? Would you want to spend hours in a lab or on a committee with someone who shuns plain language?
Of course, you don’t want to be chatty to the point of making them think you only speak slang, either. Your audience may not know what “I kicked that lame-o to the curb for dissing my research project” means. Keep it casual enough to be easy to follow, but formal enough to be respectful of the audience’s intelligence.
Just use an honest voice and represent yourself as naturally as possible. It may help to think of the essay as a sort of face-to-face interview, only the interviewer isn’t actually present.
Too much style
A well-written, dramatic essay is much more memorable than one that fails to make an emotional impact on the reader. Good anecdotes and personal insights can really attract an audience’s attention. BUT be careful not to let your drama turn into melodrama. You want your reader to see your choices motivated by passion and drive, not hyperbole and a lack of reality. Don’t invent drama where there isn’t any, and don’t let the drama take over. Getting someone else to read your drafts can help you figure out when you’ve gone too far.
Many guides to writing application essays encourage you to take a risk, either by saying something off-beat or daring or by using a unique writing style. When done well, this strategy can work—your goal is to stand out from the rest of the applicants and taking a risk with your essay will help you do that. An essay that impresses your reader with your ability to think and express yourself in original ways and shows you really care about what you are saying is better than one that shows hesitancy, lack of imagination, or lack of interest.
But be warned: this strategy is a risk. If you don’t carefully consider what you are saying and how you are saying it, you may offend your readers or leave them with a bad impression of you as flaky, immature, or careless. Do not alienate your readers.
Some writers take risks by using irony (your suffering at the hands of a barbaric dentist led you to want to become a gentle one), beginning with a personal failure (that eventually leads to the writer’s overcoming it), or showing great imagination (one famous successful example involved a student who answered a prompt about past formative experiences by beginning with a basic answer—”I have volunteered at homeless shelters”—that evolved into a ridiculous one—”I have sealed the hole in the ozone layer with plastic wrap”). One student applying to an art program described the person he did not want to be, contrasting it with the person he thought he was and would develop into if accepted. Another person wrote an essay about her grandmother without directly linking her narrative to the fact that she was applying for medical school. Her essay was risky because it called on the reader to infer things about the student’s character and abilities from the story.
Assess your credentials and your likelihood of getting into the program before you choose to take a risk. If you have little chance of getting in, try something daring. If you are almost certainly guaranteed a spot, you have more flexibility. In any case, make sure that you answer the essay question in some identifiable way.
After you’ve written a draft
Get several people to read it and write their comments down. It is worthwhile to seek out someone in the field, perhaps a professor who has read such essays before. Give it to a friend, your mom, or a neighbor. The key is to get more than one point of view, and then compare these with your own. Remember, you are the one best equipped to judge how accurately you are representing yourself. For tips on putting this advice to good use, see our handout on getting feedback .
After you’ve received feedback, revise the essay. Put it away. Get it out and revise it again (you can see why we said to start right away—this process may take time). Get someone to read it again. Revise it again.
When you think it is totally finished, you are ready to proofread and format the essay. Check every sentence and punctuation mark. You cannot afford a careless error in this essay. (If you are not comfortable with your proofreading skills, check out our handout on editing and proofreading ).
If you find that your essay is too long, do not reformat it extensively to make it fit. Making readers deal with a nine-point font and quarter-inch margins will only irritate them. Figure out what material you can cut and cut it. For strategies for meeting word limits, see our handout on writing concisely .
Finally, proofread it again. We’re not kidding.
Don’t be afraid to talk to professors or professionals in the field. Many of them would be flattered that you asked their advice, and they will have useful suggestions that others might not have. Also keep in mind that many colleges and professional programs offer websites addressing the personal statement. You can find them either through the website of the school to which you are applying or by searching under “personal statement” or “application essays” using a search engine.
If your schedule and ours permit, we invite you to come to the Writing Center. Be aware that during busy times in the semester, we limit students to a total of two visits to discuss application essays and personal statements (two visits per student, not per essay); we do this so that students working on papers for courses will have a better chance of being seen. Make an appointment or submit your essay to our online writing center (note that we cannot guarantee that an online tutor will help you in time).
For information on other aspects of the application process, you can consult the resources at University Career Services .
We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial . We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.
Asher, Donald. 2012. Graduate Admissions Essays: Write Your Way Into the Graduate School of Your Choice , 4th ed. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.
Curry, Boykin, Emily Angel Baer, and Brian Kasbar. 2003. Essays That Worked for College Applications: 50 Essays That Helped Students Get Into the Nation’s Top Colleges . New York: Ballantine Books.
Stelzer, Richard. 2002. How to Write a Winning Personal Statement for Graduate and Professional School , 3rd ed. Lawrenceville, NJ: Thomson Peterson.
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How to Write a Statement of Purpose for Graduate School
Congrats! You’ve chosen a graduate program , read up on tips for applying to grad school , and even wrote a focused grad school resumé . But if you’re like many students, you’ve left the most daunting part of the application process for last—writing a statement of purpose. The good news is, the task doesn’t have to feel so overwhelming, as long as you break the process down into simple, actionable steps. Below, learn how to write a strong, unique statement of purpose that will impress admissions committees and increase your chances of getting into your dream school.
What is a statement of purpose?
A statement of purpose (SOP), sometimes referred to as a personal statement, is a critical piece of a graduate school application that tells admissions committees who you are, what your academic and professional interests are, and how you’ll add value to the graduate program you’re applying to.
Jared Pierce, associate director of enrollment services at Northeastern University, says a strong statement of purpose can be the deciding factor in a graduate student’s admission.
“Your statement of purpose is where you tell your story about who you are and why you deserve to be a part of the [university’s] community. It gives the admissions committee the chance to get to know you and understand how you’ll add value to the classroom,” he says.
How long is a statement of purpose?
“A statement of purpose should be between 500 and 1,000 words,” Pierce says, noting that it should typically not exceed a single page. He advises that students use a traditional font at a readable size (11- or 12-pt) and leave enough whitespace in the margins to make the statement easy-to-read. Make sure to double-space the statement if the university has requested it, he adds.
Interested in learning more about Northeastern’s graduate programs?
Get your questions answered by our enrollment team.
How to Write a Statement of Purpose: A Step-by-Step Guide
Now that you understand how to format a statement of purpose, you can begin drafting your own. Getting started can feel daunting, but Pierce suggests making the process more manageable by breaking down the writing process into four easy steps.
1. Brainstorm your ideas.
First, he says, try to reframe the task at hand and get excited for the opportunity to write your statement of purpose. He explains:
“Throughout the application process, you’re afforded few opportunities to address the committee directly. Here is your chance to truly speak directly to them. Each student arrives at this process with a unique story, including prior jobs, volunteer experience, or undergraduate studies. Think about what makes you you and start outlining.”
When writing your statement of purpose, he suggests asking yourself these key questions:
- Why do I want this degree?
- What are my expectations for this degree?
- What courses or program features excite me the most?
- Where do I want this degree to take me, professionally and personally?
- How will my unique professional and personal experiences add value to the program?
Jot these responses down to get your initial thoughts on paper. This will act as your starting point that you’ll use to create an outline and your first draft.
2. Develop an outline.
Next, you’ll want to take the ideas that you’ve identified during the brainstorming process and plug them into an outline that will guide your writing.
An effective outline for your statement of purpose might look something like this:
- An attention-grabbing hook
- A brief introduction of yourself and your background as it relates to your motivation behind applying to graduate school
- Your professional goals as they relate to the program you’re applying to
- Why you’re interested in the specific school and what you can bring to the table
- A brief summary of the information presented in the body that emphasizes your qualifications and compatibility with the school
An outline like the one above will give you a roadmap to follow so that your statement of purpose is well-organized and concise.
3. Write the first draft.
Your statement of purpose should communicate who you are and why you are interested in a particular program, but it also needs to be positioned in a way that differentiates you from other applicants.
Admissions professionals already have your transcripts, resumé, and test scores; the statement of purpose is your chance to tell your story in your own words.
When you begin drafting content, make sure to:
- Provide insight into what drives you , whether that’s professional advancement, personal growth, or both.
- Demonstrate your interest in the school by addressing the unique features of the program that interest you most. For Northeastern, he says, maybe it’s experiential learning; you’re excited to tackle real-world projects in your desired industry. Or perhaps it’s learning from faculty who are experts in your field of study.
- Be yourself. It helps to keep your audience in mind while writing, but don’t forget to let your personality shine through. It’s important to be authentic when writing your statement to show the admissions committee who you are and why your unique perspective will add value to the program.
4. Edit and refine your work.
Before you submit your statement of purpose:
- Make sure you’ve followed all directions thoroughly , including requirements about margins, spacing, and font size.
- Proofread carefully for grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
- Remember that a statement of purpose should be between 500 and 1,000 words. If you’ve written far more than this, read through your statement again and edit for clarity and conciseness. Less is often more; articulate your main points strongly and get rid of any “clutter.”
- Walk away and come back later with a fresh set of eyes. Sometimes your best ideas come when you’re not sitting and staring at your computer.
- Ask someone you trust to read your statement before you submit it.
Making a Lasting Impression
Your statement of purpose can leave a lasting impression if done well, Pierce says. It provides you with the opportunity to highlight your unique background and skills so that admissions professionals understand why you’re the ideal candidate for the program that you’re applying to. If nothing else, stay focused on what you uniquely bring to the classroom, the program, and the campus community. If you do that, you’ll excel.
To learn more tricks and tips for submitting an impressive graduate school application, explore our related Grad School Success articles .
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in March 2017. It has since been updated for thoroughness and accuracy.
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Grad school personal statement examples.
Get accepted to your top choice graduate school with your compelling personal statement.
You are a thoughtful, intelligent, and unique individual. You already know that – now you just need to convince top grad school adcoms that you’re a cut above the rest.
By reading the sample graduate school essays provided above, you should get a clear idea of how to translate your qualifications, passions, and individual experiences into words. You will see that the samples here employ a creative voice, use detailed examples, and draw the reader in with a clear writing style. Most importantly, these personal statements are compelling – each one does a fine job of convincing you that the author of the essay is a human being worth getting to know, or better yet, worth having in your next top grad school class. Grad school statement of purpose sample essays should be engaging and attention grabbing.
Here are the 5 things to include in a grad school personal statement:
- Engaging opening
- Consistent use of opening imagery
- A clear theme that ties the essay together
- Solid structure
- Good use of transitions
Grad school essay example #1: The environmental studies student
Two scenes stand out in my mind from my visit to Brazil’s Wetland: Forests burning before seed planting and trees as hedgerows. Before the planting season, I could see the leafless remnants of burnt trees still standing. READ MORE>>>
- Attention-grabbing opening: The author immediately grabs your attention by placing them in the midst of the scene and vividly conveying what the author saw.
- Vivid, visual opening: You can almost smell the burnt trees and see the ranches and farms thriving behind their protective forests.
- A clear theme that ties the essay together: The writer clearly states an interest in the clash between economic and environmental concerns throughout the essay. Discussion of coursework taken and how it influenced the author’s decision to pursue both master’s and PhD in Environmental Studies also flows through the essay.
- Solid structure: Thanks to the continued theme of the clash between economic and environmental concerns, this is a very easy essay to read. Mentions of different courses that piqued the writer’s interest also help to hold this essay together.
- Good use of transitions: Transitions help your reader move from one topic to the next as you connect the topic in the preceding paragraph to the topic in the next. They can consist of a few words or a phrase or simply the repetition of the topic by name as opposed to using a pronoun. The writer used the terminology connecting economics and the environment at the end of the first paragraph, and uses the same words at the beginning of the second one.
Grad school essay example #2: The engineering student
A simple bridge truss was the first structure I ever analyzed. The simple combination of beams that could hold cars, trains, and trucks over long spans of water fascinated me. Having the tools to analyze the loads on the truss further increased my interest in structures. READ MORE>>>
- Attention-grabbing opening: This writer immediately shared his fascination with bridge truss designs and makes the reader want to learn more about structural engineering.
- Consistent use of opening imagery: The writer begins his essay with the image of the first structure he ever analyzed – a simple bridge truss. This bridge truss becomes the basis for all of his future study of structural engineering and design. Toward the end of the essay, he states that design structure has fascinated him since he saw that first image of a bridge truss for his first engineering class.
- A clear theme that ties the essay together: The theme of structural design runs throughout the essay. It is mentioned right at the beginning of the essay, in following paragraphs and in the final paragraph as well. Toward the end of the essay, the writer discusses how a grad degree in engineering will help him reach both his short- and long-term goals.
- Solid structure: Since the theme of structural design and engineering are so strong throughout the essay, it is easy to follow along as the writer talks about different classes he has taken, an internship he did, and even an experience as a student volunteer.
- Good use of transitions: The author ends his first paragraph talking about the textbook for his first engineering class, and continues on this theme in the next paragraph. He then transitioned from classes he took to student volunteer research he participated in. When discussing what he plans to study in grad school, the same terminology is used again, joining the whole essay into one cohesive whole.
Grad school essay example #3: The public health student
What if people lived healthier lives, practiced preventive medicine, and took precautions against illness and disease? My days in the physical therapy department often made me think about the prevention of injuries as well as the injuries themselves. I was already doubting my future career choice as a physical therapist. READ MORE>>>
- Attention-grabbing opening: The author of this essay makes an early case for why he wants to leave the field of physical therapy and move to the public health arena. You can almost feel the writer’s frustration with physical therapy and their need to find a way to reach a broader population, provide primary care to them, while challenging and motivating the writer to improve.
- Consistent use of opening imagery: The idea of providing primary care to large populations and the benefits the population could get from this care are woven through the whole essay. Finding ways to improve the health of underprivileged populations is also found throughout the essay.
- A clear theme that ties the essay together: Provision of primary care to large communities is a theme that runs throughout the essay. The author’s work at a county health clinic cemented this idea and led to him choosing to pursue an education and career in public health.
- Solid structure: The theme of providing primary care to large underprivileged populations is a theme that ties this personal statement together.
- Good use of transitions: The words “public health” occur in every paragraph. The author ends the second paragraph talking about work in the field, and begins the next paragraph by mentioning field experience. This makes it easy to follow the flow of the essay.
Grad school essay example #4: The physician assistant student
I was nine years old and in the middle of Mrs. Russell’s third grade class when my stomach began to itch uncontrollably. I remember thinking to myself, “Did I get bitten by a bug?” Completely distracted by the incessant itching, I asked Mrs. Russell if I could go to the nurse’s office. When the nurse lifted my shirt, I saw the biggest “bug bites” I had ever seen covering the majority of my stomach. READ MORE>>>
Note: The character limit for the CASPA PS is 5,000 characters with spaces. You need to keep this limit in mind as you write your personal statement.
- Attention-grabbing opening and consistent use of opening imagery: The writer of this essay immediately grabs the reader’s attention by making them feel her fear and frustration of having an undiagnosed medical condition. You can also feel her relief when she is finally diagnosed – and treated – by a PA.
- Vivid, visual opening and consistent use of opening imagery: Your heart beats a little faster as you read how a 9-year-old girl’s medical condition couldn’t be diagnosed until a visit with a PA who helped her discover her passion. She continues to illustrate her love of all things medical throughout the essay.
- A clear theme that ties the essay together: Her essay has a clear theme – her interest in medicine and healthcare, and her connection with PAs. This theme is touched upon in every paragraph of her personal statement. Whether discussing her love of learning or the skills learned through sports, the ultimate goal of becoming a PA comes through.
- Solid structure: The author’s themes of love of learning and medicine, and the desire to become a PA to help others flow through this essay. They make it cohesive, readable, and interesting.
- Good use of transition: The writer shows how her interest in being a PA grows throughout her life through a series of events – her illness, attending a youth leadership forum where she first saw infected human organs, and finally her mother’s own illness and the care given by the same PA who diagnosed the author at the age of 9. The imagery of the “itchy little” girl from the first paragraph appears again in the last paragraph, pulling the entire personal statement together.
5 FATAL FLAWS TO AVOID
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Applying to Graduate Programs
- Writing Statements of Purpose and Other Application Essays
As noted in the application qualifications and admissions criteria section of this website, the statement of purpose (in other words, the primary application essay; sometimes also called personal statement , background statement , and other names) can play a major role in determining whether an applicant is invited to interview and in final selection decisions. Specifically, the statement can be used to assess the applicant’s fit with the program, match with faculty members, writing ability, and more. Thus, spending the time to craft a well-written statement of purpose or other types of application essays is necessary in order for your application to have a chance of succeeding. To help with this process, here we provide an overview of the process of writing such statements and other application essays.
Types of Statements of Purpose and Other Application Essays
Depending on the program, you may be required to provide a statement of purpose , application essay , autobiographical essay , personal statement , career goal statement, background statement , or other similarly named piece of writing. Each of these commonly is your opportunity to provide information about yourself beyond that communicated in the rest of your application materials. You may also be asked to provide supplementary essays such as a diversity statement.
Typically, graduate applications provide an essay prompt which includes specific questions or themes that you should address in the essay. Common themes include: 1,2
- Your long-term career plans
- Your research interests or areas of interest in psychology
- Your reasons for choosing the program that you are applying to
- Your prior research experiences
- Your academic background or objectives
- Your motivation for pursuing your field of study
It is common for programs to specify how the essay should be formatted, or at a minimum, its maximum length. For instance, an application essay may be stated to be “no longer than 2 double-spaced pages” or no more than 500 words. It is important to follow all directions and not exceed that limit.
Using the same exact essay for each application is not advised . 1,3 Each program typically has specific information that they are seeking, and if you do not directly address those details in your essay, your application will suffer. You may be able to reuse different parts of your application essays, but you should expect to have to write new material for each application.
Are there example statements of purpose that I should examine? A variety of online sources do contain example statements, and you can find links to example statements at the bottom of this page. However, application essays in general are unique to each individual – each person has a different set of experiences and different aspects that they may wish to emphasize. Moreover, writing an application essay that resembles someone else’s can result in that essay appearing derivative – and given the highly competitive application process, that is something you should avoid. Thus, examples are for reference only.
How to Write a Statement of Purpose and Other Application Essays
When writing an application essay, it can be helpful to rely on the following steps. Please note that these procedures represent a common approach for writing application essays; you may wish to adapt some of the steps, or use/add others, for best results. 1,3
At this first stage, jot down your thoughts as you think of answers to the essay prompt. Try to think of themes that you wish to emphasize, as well as concrete examples that you may wish to describe in the essay. You can organize them into clusters (for example, write ideas in circles and draw connecting lines). Remember that the overall goal of the essay is to convince the admissions committee that you are an attractive candidate and a good fit for their program.
This is an optional step. Take your brainstorming/clustering notes and organize them into an outline of how the essay will be structured. You might have a chronological structure that begins with your earlier experiences and advances towards your more recent activities. Alternatively, you may organize your essay around themes (for example, research topics). A common outline involves an opening paragraph, then discussion of academic accomplishments, research experience, other experiences, future plans and suitability for the program of interest, and a concluding paragraph. 4
3. Freewriting/initial draft
Often one of the biggest hurdles is just getting words on the page. The key here is to not worry about having your words sound perfectly the first time around. Try drafting several sentences, a paragraph or two, and see whether your thoughts translate well into prose. It is common at this stage to discard whole sections of text in favor of new material. At this conclusion of this process, you should aim to have a completed first draft.
It is easy to get burned out on writing, so after you have completed that first draft, set it aside for a while. Then, return with fresh eyes and read through it carefully. You are likely to find areas that need improvement – be sure to take notes or highlight them. It can help to read the essay out loud; a general rule is that if it sounds unusual when spoken aloud, it should be rewritten. Then, revise the essay.
5. Solicit feedback
Have another individual or individuals read your essays critically and provide feedback. Your mentor can be an ideal person to provide that feedback; alternatively, you might try a university writing center or your peers.
6. Revise and finalize your essay
Using the feedback and your own thoughts while reading the essay, edit it further until it is a polished product. Be sure to proofread, check formatting, and make sure that all aspects of the essay prompt are clearly and thoroughly addressed.
Statement of Purpose Do’s and Don’ts
Here are some recommended elements to include, strategies to try, and recommended elements or strategies to avoid. 1,3
- Do emphasize your individual strengths
- Do customize each statement to the program that you are submitting it to
- Do provide specific examples of relevant experiences (such as research, coursework, etc.)
- Do thoroughly address all aspects of the essay prompt
- Do use clear topic sentences, connective words or phrases, and paragraph transitions (for more information, please see the improving scientific writing section of this website)
- Do consider emphasizing your fit to the program that you are applying to
- Do consider discussing faculty mentors of interest
- Don’t use jokes, humor, or try to be funny
- Don’t excessively self-disclose personal problems
- Don’t be very general or vague in your research interests
- Don’t include complaints and criticisms
- Don’t use clichés such as “since my childhood I have always been interested in” or “I just want to help everyone”, unless you can genuinely and convincingly use them
Financial Aid, Fellowships, and Scholarship Application Essays
As you complete your graduate applications, you might also consider applying for financial aid or some sort of graduate research fellowship such as the Ford Foundation Fellowship or the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship . Such fellowships typically require a background statement that is similar in some aspects to the statement of purpose.
Workshops and Downloadable Resources
- For in-person discussion of the process of applying to graduate programs in psychology, neuroscience, and related fields, please consider attending this department’s “Paths to PhDs” workshop and other related events (for dates and times, please check the undergraduate workshops calendar).
- Tips for Applying to Graduate Programs in Psychology (a brief summary) [ PDF ]
- Applying to Grad School Videos
- American Psychological Association (2007). Getting in: a step-by-step plan for gaining admission to graduate school in psychology . Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Keith-Spiegel, P., & Wiederman, M. W. (2000). The complete guide to graduate school admission: psychology, counseling, and related professions . Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Slideshow guide to writing winning statements of purpose from UCLA
- Guide to writing statements of purpose from Purdue Online Writing Lab
- Tips for writing the statement of purpose from UC Berkeley
- 10 tips for writing statements of purpose from USC
- 11 tips for writing powerful statements of purpose from CrunchPrep.com
- Choosing a graduate program from the Association for Psychological Science
- Smart shopping for psychology doctoral programs [PDF]
APA Videos on Graduate Applications
- Preparing and applying for graduate school in psychology [12-part video series]
- Preparing and applying for graduate school in psychology [video slides in PDF format]
- UCSD Graduate Division Statement of Purpose Prompt
- UCSD Career Center Graduate Application Process
- UCSD OASIS Language and Writing Program
- UCSD Writing Programs and Resources
- UCSD Muir College Writing Hub
- UCSD Writing Hub
1 American Psychological Association (2007). Getting in: a step-by-step plan for gaining admission to graduate school in psychology .
2 norcross, j. c., & hogan, t. p. (2016). preparing and applying for graduate school in psychology: 12 modules. american psychological association [video workshop]., 3 keith-spiegel, p., & wiederman, m. w. (2000). the complete guide to graduate school admission: psychology, counseling, and related professions . psychology press., 4 rutgers university camden college of arts and sciences. writing a personal statement ., prepared by s. c. pan for ucsd psychology, graphic adapted with permission from leoncastro under creative commons attribution-share alike 4.0 international license..
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Whether you’ve just finished your undergraduate degree or you want to pivot your career, grad school may be the next logical step in your educational and professional development.
But how do you apply to graduate school so you have the best chance at receiving that coveted acceptance letter? Read on to learn how to submit the perfect graduate school application to impress admissions officers. For information on due dates and a printable timeline, check out our grad school application checklist .
How Grad Schools Evaluate Your Application
The exact criteria for graduate school admissions vary depending on the school and program. Still, there are certain qualifications, including GPA and grades from specific undergraduate courses, that all admissions officers consider. Most graduate programs look for a minimum 3.0 GPA.
A Graduate Record Examination (GRE) score of at least 318 is considered strong and can help your application. A professional resume with work experience related to your program is often helpful or required. Programs typically ask for letters of recommendation and a graduate school admissions essay as well.
Are You a Good Fit for the Program?
Whichever program you apply for, you must first make sure it’s a good match. Consider the following questions before submitting your application:
- Do you love the field of study the program you’re applying to focuses on?
- Do you have an undergraduate degree or work experience in an area related to your graduate school program of choice?
- Will earning this degree help you advance your career or earning potential?
- Do you have the resources to pay for graduate school, either through your own funds or through loans, grants and scholarships? For more information about this, see our guide on how to pay for graduate school .
Taking time to reflect on these questions can help you decide whether graduate school is right for you. You can also reach out to professors, students and alumni to get a better feel for your prospective program. You might even schedule a tour of the campus before applying.
Do You Have Relevant Internship or Research Experience?
Internships and relevant work experience may not make or break your graduate school application, but they can help set your application apart from the rest. Once you’re in a graduate program, you may be required to complete an internship or research work to graduate.
What Does Your Statement of Purpose Demonstrate?
A statement of purpose or personal statement tells admissions committees more about you. This essay should touch on your interests, especially as they relate to the graduate school program. The statement of purpose should also describe what you can bring to the program and why you want to be a part of it.
What Do Your Letters of Recommendation Demonstrate?
Letters of recommendation are important for graduate school because they show that credible academics and professionals think highly of you and believe you would be a good asset to the program you’re applying to.
An effective letter of recommendation is written by someone who knows you well academically or professionally, such as a professor, mentor or work supervisor. It should include titles of relevant research articles you’ve written, academic awards and honors and relevant academic activities like projects, presentations or research studies.
What Do Your Undergraduate Transcripts Show?
Simply put, official undergraduate transcripts verify that you attended the school you said you did and maintained a GPA that’s consistent with the program’s requirements. Undergraduate transcripts also allow admissions officers to see whether you took courses relevant to your prospective course of study.
How Are Your GRE Scores?
Most graduate school programs require students to take the GRE as part of the application process. An overall score of 318 or higher is considered a good score, so you’ll want to give yourself plenty of time to study and retake the test if needed before your grad school application is due.
Is Your Prior Academic Experience Relevant?
While you don’t always need an undergraduate degree in the same field as the graduate program you’re applying to, admissions officers typically consider relevant undergraduate coursework, research projects and work experience when reviewing applications.
Statement of Purpose Tips
Your statement of purpose gives you the chance to show some individuality and let your personality shine through. You should aim to leave a memorable impression and craft a well-written, concise statement of purpose to boost your application. See our tips below for writing a statement of purpose.
Follow the Prompt Carefully
Be sure to answer all of the questions in the prompt to give admissions officers all the information they need. Additionally, make sure to follow any guidelines for things like style, font and file format. While these factors may seem small, incorrect formatting can lead to your application being disqualified.
This is your chance to tell your story. Write a statement of purpose that only you could write. Does your passion for medicine date back to an injury or illness you had as a child? Did you grow up watching Law & Order and feel inspired? These details remind graduate admission committees that you are a well rounded person with much to offer.
Discuss Your Goals
Aside from how your own personal and career goals relate to the program, you should also touch on how you can contribute to your school or program of choice. Do you plan on collaborating with colleagues or contributing to your institution’s research goals? Make this known in your statement of purpose.
Know Your Audience
What is the culture of the school or program you’re applying to? What does the institution value? Spend some time on its website and social media accounts to find out. You can even reach out to current students and alumni to get a better idea so you can tailor your statement of purpose accordingly.
Proofread and Revise as Needed
Don’t just write your first draft and send it off. After writing it, take some time to sleep on it, then come back and read and revise with fresh eyes. You should also have someone like a professor or tutor read your statement of purpose and provide feedback.
The interview is a big part of the graduate school application process if your program requires one. Make sure to come ready and prepared.
Do Your Research
Read up on the university and program you’re applying to so you can sound knowledgeable and interested during the interview. Answer questions such as, how big is the program or school? What have its graduates gone on to do? What are the program requirements?
You can also read up on any academic articles or research professors in your program have created.
Prepare Questions for Your Interviewer
Remember, this isn’t just about the school interviewing you. You’re also interviewing the program to determine if it’s a good fit for you. What career and network opportunities are available to students and alumni? What about grants and scholarships? Will you be paired with a mentor or an advisor?
Practice With Mock Interviews
Practice makes perfect. Look into common graduate school interview questions, and practice with a professor, classmate or friend. You can even practice solo using these 20 Graduate School Interview Questions .
Bring a Professional Portfolio
Depending on the nature of your work, it may be helpful to bring in a professional portfolio, such as if your speciality is print graphic design. Other subject areas like writing or research lend themselves to online portfolios, which you can send to your interviewers ahead of the scheduled interview.
What Does a Grad School Application Look Like?
In addition to your transcripts, test scores, statement of purpose and portfolio, your graduate school application will require some basic background information about you.
- Full legal name
- Any previous legal names used
- Age and date of birth
- Social Security number
Ethnicity information about applicants and current students is used by the university to see if it is meeting diversity quotas and to share with stakeholders. You may select one particular ethnicity, or choose options like “other,” “multiracial” or “decline to state.”
Scholarships, grants and special services can be available to active-duty and reserve military service members and veterans.
- Current mailing address
- Current phone number
- Current email
- The program you’re applying to
- Any speciality or concentrations available as part of your program
- Specialities in your program that you want to focus on
- Research topics or projects you want to pursue
History of Education
- Undergraduate degree and major
- Academic achievements and awards
Standardized Test Information
- *GRE scores (Check with your program as some may no longer require or accept GRE scores )
- Scores from any other required tests
Deadlines for financial aid often coincide with deadlines for admissions. Make sure to submit the FAFSA to ensure you qualify for as many financial aid resources as possible. Visit the Federal Student Aid website for more information, and check out our guide on how the FAFSA differs for graduate school .
- Relevant work history related to your program
- Internship or research experience related to your program
Do you speak the primary language spoken in the area where your campus is located? Do you speak more than one language? These are things admissions officers will want to know.
- Certifications or special licenses or training
- Special Awards
- Contact information, like phone numbers and emails, for professors, mentors and work supervisors who are willing to provide a reference
When submitting your online application, make sure to upload all required documents so your application will not be disqualified.
- Graduate school application fees can range from around $60 to more than $100. You must pay this fee before you can submit your application.
Confirm and Submit Form
- Finally, make sure to confirm that all your information is correct and all necessary documents are uploaded before you submit your application.
This article was originally published on Forbes.com on Feb. 3. 2023. Author is Ryah Cooley Cole, and Editor is Brenna Swanston.
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Articles & Advice > Graduate School > Articles
6 Tips for Writing a Killer Grad School Application Essay
You don't have to write the great American novel to get into grad school. You probably only have 500 words or fewer! Here are six ways to make them count.
by Dawn Papandrea Freelance Writer
Last Updated: Mar 16, 2023
Originally Posted: Jan 15, 2014
As any graduate school admission officer will tell you, numbers don’t always tell the complete story. If that was the case, students would be admitted or denied solely on their numerical grades and test scores. Instead, graduate school applications usually require an essay component so that school officials can get a sense of a student’s personality, ideals, and commitment to their studies. Depending on the type of program you wish to enter and the essay question itself, the writing portion of your application could be a chance to tout your achievements, offer a lighthearted glimpse into your personality and writing style, and/or explain what contributions you’d make as a student. Don’t fret: you don’t have to write the great American novel to get into grad school. On the contrary, you probably have to share your thoughts in 500 words or fewer. Here are six ways to make those words count.
1. Don’t become a graduate school essay cliché
Grad school essays may require you to answer a specific question (i.e., Discuss a piece of literature that changed your life.); ask you for a general statement (Tell us about yourself.); or about your goals (What do you hope your graduate studies will help you achieve?). No matter the question, you don’t want to end up boring the admission committee with a clichéd response. They have already read thousands of submissions detailing how a traumatic childhood experience influenced your career goals or how a volunteer endeavor changed the way you see the world. Don’t write about lofty ideals or brag about academic triumphs either, just because you assume it’s what admission officers want to hear. Instead, write about something that’s honest, reveals your personality in some way, and makes you a standout applicant.
Related: 7 Ways to Stand Out as a Graduate School Applicant
2. Follow the directions
Forget about the content of your essay for a second. The quickest way to blow it is to ignore the directions. If there is a suggested word count, aim to come as close to it as possible. If there is a direct question, answer it without veering off on a tangent. If you are asked to submit the essay as a single-spaced document in Comic Sans font (okay, probably not, but you never know), then so be it.
3. Keep it clean
You should have impeccable spelling, grammar, and punctuation throughout your essay, and avoid texting slang or vulgar language unless there is an absolutely compelling reason why it needs to be in your story. (Hint: there’s probably not.) If you’re sending in a hard copy, it should be on also be on crisp, white paper without fold marks, crumples, or pizza stains. If you’re emailing or attaching a file, be sure it’s named appropriately, and keep the formatting simple (or as directed).
4. Tell your story, in your words
Ditch the thesaurus. Admission folks will not be impressed by a litany of 14-syllable words or Shakespearean quotes, unless there is a reason why they tie into your story. Use conversational language and a consistent, friendly tone. Try reading your essay out loud to make sure it sounds natural. And this probably goes without saying, but it’s a good reminder anyway—never, ever plagiarize or lift words from another source in your personal essay. With the exception of a quote, which you’ll attribute appropriately, the words in your essay must come from your brain. Better yet, they should come from your heart. Try these brainstorming techniques to help get past writer’s block.
Related: Good Strategies for Writing Grad School Personal Essays
5. Take the Instagram approach
No, we’re not saying to use photos and hashtags in your essay. It’s just a modern way of telling you to “show, don’t tell” (remember that from Creative Writing 101?). In other words, be descriptive and detailed, use colorful metaphors, and avoid superlative terms. You want to try to take your reader to a place or time and help them understand who you are and what makes you tick. Generalized statements like “attending BLANK University will help me achieve my dreams” or “BLANK made me the person I am today” are throwaway sentences.
6. Know your audience
You should never write a one-size-fits-all essay if you’re applying to multiple programs and schools. Even if the topics are similar, you still want to tailor your writing so that each university you're applying to feels like you’re writing it for them. For instance, you might take a different approach for a small Christian university like Olivet Nazarene in Illinois as opposed to a large urban public institution like New York University or a more specialized program like at the Rhode Island School of Design .
Related: 3 Great Grad School Application Essay Examples
Writing your grad school essays needs to be handled with care. They carry big weight in the graduate admission process, and you only have one chance to submit them, so you want to get it right. Now that you’re armed with these prose pointers, you can put them into practice and wow any grad school admission officer. Happy writing!
While you’re working on your essays, make sure you’re on track with your other steps in the application process with our Essential Grad School Search and Application Timeline .
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Who is Eligible to Apply?
If you have completed your undergraduate degree (bachelor's or equivalent) or will have completed it prior to your intended matriculation date at Yale, you may apply to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS).
A master's degree is not required to apply for a PhD at Yale, although some programs give preference to applicants with post-baccalaureate training. Consult your program of interest directly for information on how it evaluates applications.
We value diversity of all kinds at the Graduate School, and we encourage students from all backgrounds to apply if Yale is a good fit for your intellectual and professional goals. All are welcome to apply, without regard to citizenship or immigration status, socioeconomic level, race, religion, gender identification, sexual orientation, disability, etc.
Requirements for All PhD and Master's Degree Applicants
You will need to provide the following with your application for admission:
- A statement of academic purpose. You will find the prompt for the statement of purpose in our Application Question FAQs .
- A list of all the prior colleges or universities you have attended, accompanied by unofficial transcripts from each school. Unofficial transcripts should be uploaded with your application. Official or paper transcripts are not needed at this time.
- Three letters of recommendation. Enter the names of your recommenders directly in the application, and they will receive a link to upload a letter on your behalf.
- $105 application fee or fee waiver.
- Standardized tests . GRE requirements vary by program. TOEFL or IELTS are necessary for most non-native English speakers.
- Resume/CV .
- Some programs have additional requirements, such as a writing sample . You can find information about any specific requirements on the program's website.
Where Do I Begin?
Decide if you will apply for a PhD or a terminal Master’s (MA, MS) in one of the programs available at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences . (Note that you will earn one or more Master's degrees en route to a PhD) Learn about the program: its faculty, course offerings, and resources. Read the faculty's research publications. If you can identify and articulate why the program is a good fit for you and show how your preparation and interests align well with it, you will have a strong application.
A note to students applying to one of Yale’s professional schools or programs:
- If you are applying for a PhD in Architecture, Environment, Investigative Medicine, Law, Management, Music, Nursing, or Public Health, or for an MS in Public Health, or an MA in Music, be sure to use the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences PhD/Master's application.
- If you are applying for any other degree at one of the University’s professional schools (Art, Architecture, Divinity, Drama, Environment, Global Affairs, Law, Management, Medicine, Music, Nursing, and Public Health), visit that school’s website for further instructions. Those programs have separate admissions policies and processes that are administered by the professional schools, not GSAS.
Application deadlines vary by program, so please see Dates and Deadlines for information about your program of interest.
All new students enroll in the fall, and the admissions process begins nearly a year in advance of matriculation.
Some PhD and Master’s degree programs require Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores. Check your program's standardized testing requirement before you apply.
In addition, applicants whose native language is not English may need to take an English Language test (TOEFL or IELTS).
The application for Fall 2024 entry is now available.
Be sure to complete and submit the application before your program's application deadline.
Your application fee or an approved fee waiver, is due upon submission of your application.
Your letters of recommendation do not need to be received before you will be able to submit your application. However, since programs begin reviewing applications shortly after the respective application deadline, please be sure that your letters of recommendation are submitted promptly.
What Happens After I Submit My Application?
The faculty admissions committee in each department and program begins reviewing applications shortly after their application deadline. Led by the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) or Director of Graduate Admissions (DGA), the committee will recommend students for admission to the Graduate School. Once confirmed by the deans of the Graduate School, the admissions office will release final decisions to applicants.
Unlike undergraduate admissions, the admissions office and staff of the Graduate School maintain the application, the application process, and other administrative transactions, but the admissions staff does not review applications or make admissions decisions. That responsibility is handled by the faculty of each department or program.
Most admissions decisions are provided between February and early March. You will receive an email notification when your admissions decision is available.
If you are accepted for admission, you will need to decide if you wish to accept our offer by April 15. We abide by Council of Graduate School's April 15 Resolution , regarding graduate financial support.
Ready to apply? Begin your application today.
- Why Choose Yale Graduate School?
- Dates and Deadlines
- Standardized Testing Requirements
Non-Degree Program Applicants
Looking for non-degree programs? In some cases it is possible to enroll at the Graduate School as a non-degree student. Non-degree students receive a transcript and many of the benefits of being a Yale student, but do not earn a degree upon completion of their enrollment. We offer three types of non-degree programs.
- Non-Degree Programs
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Gre prep online guides and tips, 3 successful graduate school personal statement examples.
Looking for grad school personal statement examples? Look no further! In this total guide to graduate school personal statement examples, we’ll discuss why you need a personal statement for grad school and what makes a good one. Then we’ll provide three graduate school personal statement samples from our grad school experts. After that, we’ll do a deep dive on one of our personal statement for graduate school examples. Finally, we’ll wrap up with a list of other grad school personal statements you can find online.
Why Do You Need a Personal Statement?
A personal statement is a chance for admissions committees to get to know you: your goals and passions, what you’ll bring to the program, and what you’re hoping to get out of the program. You need to sell the admissions committee on what makes you a worthwhile applicant. The personal statement is a good chance to highlight significant things about you that don’t appear elsewhere on your application.
A personal statement is slightly different from a statement of purpose (also known as a letter of intent). A statement of purpose/letter of intent tends to be more tightly focused on your academic or professional credentials and your future research and/or professional interests.
While a personal statement also addresses your academic experiences and goals, you have more leeway to be a little more, well, personal. In a personal statement, it’s often appropriate to include information on significant life experiences or challenges that aren’t necessarily directly relevant to your field of interest.
Some programs ask for both a personal statement and a statement of purpose/letter of intent. In this case, the personal statement is likely to be much more tightly focused on your life experience and personality assets while the statement of purpose will focus in much more on your academic/research experiences and goals.
However, there’s not always a hard-and-fast demarcation between a personal statement and a statement of purpose. The two statement types should address a lot of the same themes, especially as relates to your future goals and the valuable assets you bring to the program. Some programs will ask for a personal statement but the prompt will be focused primarily on your research and professional experiences and interests. Some will ask for a statement of purpose but the prompt will be more focused on your general life experiences.
When in doubt, give the program what they are asking for in the prompt and don’t get too hung up on whether they call it a personal statement or statement of purpose. You can always call the admissions office to get more clarification on what they want you to address in your admissions essay.
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What Makes a Good Grad School Personal Statement?
A great graduate school personal statement can come in many forms and styles. However, strong grad school personal statement examples all share the same following elements:
A Clear Narrative
Above all, a good personal statement communicates clear messages about what makes you a strong applicant who is likely to have success in graduate school. So to that extent, think about a couple of key points that you want to communicate about yourself and then drill down on how you can best communicate those points. (Your key points should of course be related to what you can bring to the field and to the program specifically).
You can also decide whether to address things like setbacks or gaps in your application as part of your narrative. Have a low GPA for a couple semesters due to a health issue? Been out of a job for a while taking care of a family member? If you do decide to explain an issue like this, make sure that the overall arc is more about demonstrating positive qualities like resilience and diligence than about providing excuses.
A great statement of purpose uses specific examples to illustrate its key messages. This can include anecdotes that demonstrate particular traits or even references to scholars and works that have influenced your academic trajectory to show that you are familiar and insightful about the relevant literature in your field.
Just saying “I love plants,” is pretty vague. Describing how you worked in a plant lab during undergrad and then went home and carefully cultivated your own greenhouse where you cross-bred new flower colors by hand is much more specific and vivid, which makes for better evidence.
A strong personal statement will describe why you are a good fit for the program, and why the program is a good fit for you. It’s important to identify specific things about the program that appeal to you, and how you’ll take advantage of those opportunities. It’s also a good idea to talk about specific professors you might be interested in working with. This shows that you are informed about and genuinely invested in the program.
Even quantitative and science disciplines typically require some writing, so it’s important that your personal statement shows strong writing skills. Make sure that you are communicating clearly and that you don’t have any grammar and spelling errors. It’s helpful to get other people to read your statement and provide feedback. Plan on going through multiple drafts.
Another important thing here is to avoid cliches and gimmicks. Don’t deploy overused phrases and openings like “ever since I was a child.” Don’t structure your statement in a gimmicky way (i.e., writing a faux legal brief about yourself for a law school statement of purpose). The first will make your writing banal; the second is likely to make you stand out in a bad way.
While you can be more personal in a personal statement than in a statement of purpose, it’s important to maintain appropriate boundaries in your writing. Don’t overshare anything too personal about relationships, bodily functions, or illegal activities. Similarly, don’t share anything that makes it seem like you may be out of control, unstable, or an otherwise risky investment. The personal statement is not a confessional booth. If you share inappropriately, you may seem like you have bad judgment, which is a huge red flag to admissions committees.
You should also be careful with how you deploy humor and jokes. Your statement doesn’t have to be totally joyless and serious, but bear in mind that the person reading the statement may not have the same sense of humor as you do. When in doubt, err towards the side of being as inoffensive as possible.
Just as being too intimate in your statement can hurt you, it’s also important not to be overly formal or staid. You should be professional, but conversational.
Graduate School Personal Statement Examples
Our graduate school experts have been kind enough to provide some successful grad school personal statement examples. We’ll provide three examples here, along with brief analysis of what makes each one successful.
Sample Personal Statement for Graduate School 1
PDF of Sample Personal Statement 1 – Japanese Studies
For this Japanese Studies master’s degree, the applicant had to provide a statement of purpose outlining her academic goals and experience with Japanese and a separate personal statement describing her personal relationship with Japanese Studies and what led her to pursue a master’s degree.
Here’s what’s successful about this personal statement:
- An attention-grabbing beginning: The applicant begins with the statement that Japanese has never come easily to her and that it’s a brutal language to learn. Seeing as how this is an application for a Japanese Studies program, this is an intriguing beginning that makes the reader want to keep going.
- A compelling narrative: From this attention-grabbing beginning, the applicant builds a well-structured and dramatic narrative tracking her engagement with the Japanese language over time. The clear turning point is her experience studying abroad, leading to a resolution in which she has clarity about her plans. Seeing as how the applicant wants to be a translator of Japanese literature, the tight narrative structure here is a great way to show her writing skills.
- Specific examples that show important traits: The applicant clearly communicates both a deep passion for Japanese through examples of her continued engagement with Japanese and her determination and work ethic by highlighting the challenges she’s faced (and overcome) in her study of the language. This gives the impression that she is an engaged and dedicated student.
Overall, this is a very strong statement both in terms of style and content. It flows well, is memorable, and communicates that the applicant would make the most of the graduate school experience.
Sample Personal Statement for Graduate School 2
PDF of Sample Graduate School Personal Statement 2 – Musical Composition
This personal statement for a Music Composition master’s degree discusses the factors that motivate the applicant to pursue graduate study.
Here’s what works well in this statement:
- The applicant provides two clear reasons motivating the student to pursue graduate study: her experiences with music growing up, and her family’s musical history. She then supports those two reasons with examples and analysis.
- The description of her ancestors’ engagement with music is very compelling and memorable. The applicant paints her own involvement with music as almost inevitable based on her family’s long history with musical pursuits.
- The applicant gives thoughtful analysis of the advantages she has been afforded that have allowed her to study music so extensively. We get the sense that she is insightful and empathetic—qualities that would add greatly to any academic community.
This is a strong, serviceable personal statement. And in truth, given that this for a masters in music composition, other elements of the application (like work samples) are probably the most important. However, here are two small changes I would make to improve it:
- I would probably to split the massive second paragraph into 2-3 separate paragraphs. I might use one paragraph to orient the reader to the family’s musical history, one paragraph to discuss Giacomo and Antonio, and one paragraph to discuss how the family has influenced the applicant. As it stands, it’s a little unwieldy and the second paragraph doesn’t have a super-clear focus even though it’s all loosely related to the applicant’s family history with music.
- I would also slightly shorten the anecdote about the applicant’s ancestors and expand more on how this family history has motivated the applicant’s interest in music. In what specific ways has her ancestors’ perseverance inspired her? Did she think about them during hard practice sessions? Is she interested in composing music in a style they might have played? More specific examples here would lend greater depth and clarity to the statement.
Sample Personal Statement for Graduate School 3
PDF of Sample Graduate School Personal Statement 3 – Public Health
This is my successful personal statement for Columbia’s Master’s program in Public Health. We’ll do a deep dive on this statement paragraph-by-paragraph in the next section, but I’ll highlight a couple of things that work in this statement here:
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- This statement is clearly organized. Almost every paragraph has a distinct focus and message, and when I move on to a new idea, I move on to a new paragraph with a logical transitions.
- This statement covers a lot of ground in a pretty short space. I discuss my family history, my goals, my educational background, and my professional background. But because the paragraphs are organized and I use specific examples, it doesn’t feel too vague or scattered.
- In addition to including information about my personal motivations, like my family, I also include some analysis about tailoring health interventions with my example of the Zande. This is a good way to show off what kinds of insights I might bring to the program based on my academic background.
Grad School Personal Statement Example: Deep Dive
Now let’s do a deep dive, paragraph-by-paragraph, on one of these sample graduate school personal statements. We’ll use my personal statement that I used when I applied to Columbia’s public health program.
Paragraph One: For twenty-three years, my grandmother (a Veterinarian and an Epidemiologist) ran the Communicable Disease Department of a mid-sized urban public health department. The stories of Grandma Betty doggedly tracking down the named sexual partners of the infected are part of our family lore. Grandma Betty would persuade people to be tested for sexually transmitted diseases, encourage safer sexual practices, document the spread of infection and strive to contain and prevent it. Indeed, due to the large gay population in the city where she worked, Grandma Betty was at the forefront of the AIDS crises, and her analysis contributed greatly towards understanding how the disease was contracted and spread. My grandmother has always been a huge inspiration to me, and the reason why a career in public health was always on my radar.
This is an attention-grabbing opening anecdote that avoids most of the usual cliches about childhood dreams and proclivities. This story also subtly shows that I have a sense of public health history, given the significance of the AIDs crisis for public health as a field.
It’s good that I connect this family history to my own interests. However, if I were to revise this paragraph again, I might cut down on some of the detail because when it comes down to it, this story isn’t really about me. It’s important that even (sparingly used) anecdotes about other people ultimately reveal something about you in a personal statement.
Paragraph Two: Recent years have cemented that interest. In January 2012, my parents adopted my little brother Fred from China. Doctors in America subsequently diagnosed Fred with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD). My parents were told that if Fred’s condition had been discovered in China, the (very poor) orphanage in which he spent the first 8+ years of his life would have recognized his DMD as a death sentence and denied him sustenance to hasten his demise.
Here’s another compelling anecdote to help explain my interest in public health. This is an appropriately personal detail for a personal statement—it’s a serious thing about my immediate family, but it doesn’t disclose anything that the admissions committee might find concerning or inappropriate.
If I were to take another pass through this paragraph, the main thing I would change is the last phrase. “Denied him sustenance to hasten his demise” is a little flowery. “Denied him food to hasten his death” is actually more powerful because it’s clearer and more direct.
Paragraph Three: It is not right that some people have access to the best doctors and treatment while others have no medical care. I want to pursue an MPH in Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia because studying social factors in health, with a particular focus on socio-health inequities, will prepare me to address these inequities. The interdisciplinary approach of the program appeals to me greatly as I believe interdisciplinary approaches are the most effective way to develop meaningful solutions to complex problems.
In this paragraph I make a neat and clear transition from discussing what sparked my interest in public health and health equity to what I am interested in about Columbia specifically: the interdisciplinary focus of the program, and how that focus will prepare me to solve complex health problems. This paragraph also serves as a good pivot point to start discussing my academic and professional background.
Paragraph Four: My undergraduate education has prepared me well for my chosen career. Understanding the underlying structure of a group’s culture is essential to successfully communicating with the group. In studying folklore and mythology, I’ve learned how to parse the unspoken structures of folk groups, and how those structures can be used to build bridges of understanding. For example, in a culture where most illnesses are believed to be caused by witchcraft, as is the case for the Zande people of central Africa, any successful health intervention or education program would of necessity take into account their very real belief in witchcraft.
In this paragraph, I link my undergraduate education and the skills I learned there to public health. The (very brief) analysis of tailoring health interventions to the Zande is a good way to show insight and show off the competencies I would bring to the program.
Paragraph Five: I now work in the healthcare industry for one of the largest providers of health benefits in the world. In addition to reigniting my passion for data and quantitative analytics, working for this company has immersed me in the business side of healthcare, a critical component of public health.
This brief paragraph highlights my relevant work experience in the healthcare industry. It also allows me to mention my work with data and quantitative analytics, which isn’t necessarily obvious from my academic background, which was primarily based in the social sciences.
Paragraph Six: I intend to pursue a PhD in order to become an expert in how social factors affect health, particularly as related to gender and sexuality. I intend to pursue a certificate in Sexuality, Sexual Health, and Reproduction. Working together with other experts to create effective interventions across cultures and societies, I want to help transform health landscapes both in America and abroad.
This final paragraph is about my future plans and intentions. Unfortunately, it’s a little disjointed, primarily because I discuss goals of pursuing a PhD before I talk about what certificate I want to pursue within the MPH program! Switching those two sentences and discussing my certificate goals within the MPH and then mentioning my PhD plans would make a lot more sense.
I also start two sentences in a row with “I intend,” which is repetitive.
The final sentence is a little bit generic; I might tailor it to specifically discuss a gender and sexual health issue, since that is the primary area of interest I’ve identified.
This was a successful personal statement; I got into (and attended!) the program. It has strong examples, clear organization, and outlines what interests me about the program (its interdisciplinary focus) and what competencies I would bring (a background in cultural analysis and experience with the business side of healthcare). However, a few slight tweaks would elevate this statement to the next level.
Graduate School Personal Statement Examples You Can Find Online
So you need more samples for your personal statement for graduate school? Examples are everywhere on the internet, but they aren’t all of equal quality.
Most of examples are posted as part of writing guides published online by educational institutions. We’ve rounded up some of the best ones here if you are looking for more personal statement examples for graduate school.
Penn State Personal Statement Examples for Graduate School
This selection of ten short personal statements for graduate school and fellowship programs offers an interesting mix of approaches. Some focus more on personal adversity while others focus more closely on professional work within the field.
The writing in some of these statements is a little dry, and most deploy at least a few cliches. However, these are generally strong, serviceable statements that communicate clearly why the student is interested in the field, their skills and competencies, and what about the specific program appeals to them.
Cal State Sample Graduate School Personal Statements
These are good examples of personal statements for graduate school where students deploy lots of very vivid imagery and illustrative anecdotes of life experiences. There are also helpful comments about what works in each of these essays.
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However, all of these statements are definitely pushing the boundaries of acceptable length, as all are above 1000 and one is almost 1500 words! Many programs limit you to 500 words; if you don’t have a limit, you should try to keep it to two single-spaced pages at most (which is about 1000 words).
University of Chicago Personal Statement for Graduate School Examples
These examples of successful essays to the University of Chicago law school cover a wide range of life experiences and topics. The writing in all is very vivid, and all communicate clear messages about the students’ strengths and competencies.
Note, however, that these are all essays that specifically worked for University of Chicago law school. That does not mean that they would work everywhere. In fact, one major thing to note is that many of these responses, while well-written and vivid, barely address the students’ interest in law school at all! This is something that might not work well for most graduate programs.
Wheaton College Personal Statement for Graduate School Sample 10
This successful essay for law school from a Wheaton College undergraduate does a great job tracking the student’s interest in the law in a compelling and personal way. Wheaton offers other graduate school personal statement examples, but this one offers the most persuasive case for the students’ competencies. The student accomplishes this by using clear, well-elaborated examples, showing strong and vivid writing, and highlighting positive qualities like an interest in justice and empathy without seeming grandiose or out of touch.
Wheaton College Personal Statement for Graduate School Sample 1
Based on the background information provided at the bottom of the essay, this essay was apparently successful for this applicant. However, I’ve actually included this essay because it demonstrates an extremely risky approach. While this personal statement is strikingly written and the story is very memorable, it could definitely communicate the wrong message to some admissions committees. The student’s decision not to report the drill sergeant may read incredibly poorly to some admissions committees. They may wonder if the student’s failure to report the sergeant’s violence will ultimately expose more soldiers-in-training to the same kinds of abuses. This incident perhaps reads especially poorly in light of the fact that the military has such a notable problem with violence against women being covered up and otherwise mishandled
It’s actually hard to get a complete picture of the student’s true motivations from this essay, and what we have might raise real questions about the student’s character to some admissions committees. This student took a risk and it paid off, but it could have just as easily backfired spectacularly.
Key Takeaways: Graduate School Personal Statement Examples
In this guide, we discussed why you need a personal statement and how it differs from a statement of purpose. (It’s more personal!)
We also discussed what you’ll find in a strong sample personal statement for graduate school:
- A clear narrative about the applicant and why they are qualified for graduate study.
- Specific examples to support that narrative.
- Compelling reasons why the applicant and the program are a good fit for each other.
- Strong writing, including clear organization and error-free, cliche-free language.
- Appropriate boundaries—sharing without over-sharing.
Then, we provided three strong graduate school personal statement examples for different fields, along with analysis. We did a deep-dive on the third statement.
Finally, we provided a list of other sample grad school personal statements online.
Want more advice on writing a personal statement ? See our guide.
Writing a graduate school statement of purpose? See our statement of purpose samples and a nine-step process for writing the best statement of purpose possible .
If you’re writing a graduate school CV or resume, see our how-to guide to writing a CV , a how-to guide to writing a resume , our list of sample resumes and CVs , resume and CV templates , and a special guide for writing resume objectives .
Need stellar graduate school recommendation letters ? See our guide.
See our 29 tips for successfully applying to graduate school .
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Author: Ellen McCammon
Ellen is a public health graduate student and education expert. She has extensive experience mentoring students of all ages to reach their goals and in-depth knowledge on a variety of health topics. View all posts by Ellen McCammon
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Statement of Purpose Format for Graduate School (SOP)
When it comes to applying to graduate school, there are many things students must prepare, including a graduate school recommendation letter and graduate school CV.
However, the most important element in your graduate school admissions package is the Statement of Purpose, also known at many universities as the “personal statement.”
In this article, you will learn why the Statement of Purpose is so important for graduate school admissions, how the Statement of Purpose format differs from college application essay formats , and how to format a successful Statement of Purpose for graduate school–with examples!
Table of Contents
What is a statement of purpose.
- How to Format a Statement of Purpose
- Statement of Purpose Format and Structure
- Statement of Purpose Sample Examples
In graduate school applications, a statement of purpose (SOP) (or personal statement) is the one part of the application that allows applicants to construct a narrative of their choosing that includes all relevant parts of their academic and personal histories. This includes academic and professional interests and accomplishments, personality, values, and worldview, as well as how both the student and graduate program can add value to each other.
Difference between the Statement of Purpose and college admissions essays
At the graduate school level, students often have years of research and academic experience. In the case of MBA programs, applicants also often have years of work experience they can include in their essays.
- How to write an effective MBA admissions essay
This makes graduate school admission essays or personal statements distinct from undergraduate application essays. Graduate school applicants have a significant amount of material and context with which to differentiate themselves and stand apart from other applicants. The scope (how much is covered) and depth (how detailed the experiences are) are both much more complex for a Statement of Purpose.
Do I need to write a Statement of Purpose for college?
The graduate Statement of Purpose allows applicants to summarize non-quantifiable qualities for consideration by an admissions committee. This may include an applicant’s personal or professional strengths, as well as goals or passion for certain subjects.
The graduate school application process is often competitive. In addition to being academically qualified, students must demonstrate a commitment to the program. Remember, one concern graduate programs have is that students will drop out and not continue to pay tuition.
Effect of Covid-19 on the Statement of Purpose
COVID-19 has reduced the feasibility of standardized testing, and there are increased concerns by wider society over the equitable nature of standardized testing in general.
For example, NYU Stern School of Business on June 15th became the fourth top-25 business school to announce that its full-time MBA program would not consider the GMAT or GRE any longer .
Further, Michael Hunt, director of the University of Maryland McNair Scholars Program has gone on record stating that
“[My] goal is to “remove barriers and not maintain obstacles under the guise of academic freedom or other university policies. I pray that one day, we will not need committees or a pandemic to determine if something is equitable.”
This leaves the Statement of Purpose, academic background, resume/CV , and letters of recommendation as the primary determinants of graduate admission.
How long should a Statement of Purpose be?
Generally, a Statement of Purpose should be between 500 and 1,000 words long and should not exceed a single page. But this can depend on the school or program to which you are applying, as well as on the extent of your academic experience.
Graduate Statement Of Purpose Format Guidelines
We have already covered how to write a Statement of Purpose for grad school (with examples).
Read over these resources and watch our Wordvice Webinar Series for how to write a winning Statement of Purpose :
General Statement of Purpose Formatting Rules
Unlike a college admissions essay, a grad school Statement of Purpose is generally not uploaded in a text box or input field in some platforms, as the Common Application essay is.
Applying to graduate school means applying directly to the graduate program and its parent department. Graduate programs are separate entities within their universities. Applying to the College of Arts & Sciences is different than applying to a university’s College of Engineering.
As a result, most graduate school applications are simply uploaded directly to the program. So, you will likely be uploading a Word .doc or Adobe .pdf file.
Microsoft Word (.DOC) format
Typical file types for a Statement of Purpose are .doc or .docx. There is a downside to Word files being editable, and there are sometimes conflicts among the different Word versions (2010 vs 2016. vs Office365). One benefit of Word files is that anyone can view them.
If maintaining the visual aspects of your essay is important, this is a safe choice. PDFs prevent formatting issues that might arise with older versions of Word documents.
To make the statement easier to read, applicants should follow the following rules:
- Use 1-inch margins . Microsoft Word uses this setting by default.
- Use a traditional Serif font. These types of fonts include Times New Roman, Courier, and Garamond and are the “classy” fonts you typically see. They add professionalism to your essay. Avoid minimalist sans Serif fonts.
- Use a standard 12-font size.
- Use 1.5- or double-spacing. Readability is very important for your Statement of Purpose. Double spaces are not an issue as the essay should already fit on 1 page.
- Add a Header with your First Name, Last Name, university, and other required information.
- Clearly separate your paragraphs. By default, just press ‘ENTER’ twice.
Additional Statement of Purpose Format Tips
- Review and Revise. Make sure your Statement of Purpose is formatted properly and error-free, including spelling and grammar errors. One great way to prepare your admissions essay is by using an application essay editing service that specializes in Statement of Purpose editing and personal statement editing .
- Write clearly and concisely.
- Avoid clichés and repetitive language.
- Avoid casual, colloquial, and text message-based formatting. This includes emojis and hashtags!
- Do not write a wall of text. Admissions counselors only skim statements of purpose . Make your writing readable by adding line breaks and separate paragraphs.
Statement of Purpose Format and Structure Outline
One of the most important characteristics of a strong Statement of Purpose is its structure. Layout the information in such a way that the reader can easily understand it. Well-organized statements keep readers interested.
In general, a Statement of Purpose should follow the format of an academic essay .
Introduction – State your goals and introduce yourself
The first section of the application should clearly and concisely explain what the student hopes to achieve by completing the program. For a history student, the goal may be to earn a PhD that allows them to take a historian position at a major non-profit institution or museum upon graduation. For a chemistry student, the goal may be to move into a postdoctoral research position at a major university with the hope of becoming a professor later.
Or perhaps an applicant has goals of going into the private sector. Regardless of the field of study, your professional experience, academic history, prior internships or jobs, and goals should be introduced here.
Tips for writing the Introduction for the Statement of Purpose
- Grab attention. Your introduction is the first impression you make on your reader.
- Write a compelling first sentence. Consider using an anecdote, quotation, or gripping personal story.
- Preview. The second half of your introduction should briefly preview the other sections of your Statement of Purpose.
Main Body – Academic and career history
In the first part of the body, you must support the idea of you being a qualified candidate with details about your academic and career history as well as examples of projects, accomplishments, and learning experiences.
Start with a brief history of your undergraduate experience and academic results. Then, move on to extracurricular, professional, and career experiences and achievements. As a graduate studies applicant, professional and career experiences will naturally be more diverse and therefore help you stand out.
You should of course emphasize your academic experience and grades. Mention how you took advantage of your university’s resources and if you developed any special relationships with professors–that is especially what PhD advisors are looking for!
In the second part of the body, support your assertions with examples.
Tips for writing about academic and career history and goals
- Interest in the program. Why are you interested in this particular graduate program?
- Academic goals. As a graduate student, you are entering into a research environment. What tangible research goals do you hope to achieve?
- Career and professional goals. What are your post-graduate plans? Specify if you have academic or private industry goals.
- Strengths and weaknesses. Give context to why and how you developed your strengths and weaknesses. Demonstrate self-awareness as to how your behaviors and personality affect others–collaboration and equity are huge concerns!
- Provide context, not a CV. Fit your achievements and experiences into your compelling narrative, not as standalone.
- Give examples. Extend your personal narrative with compelling examples. The more specific you are, the more convincing your narrative becomes. If you are applying to a program in statistics, write about your poker games with your grandpa and the moment you learned the power of weighted expected value.
Main Body – Why you are a fit for the program ?
Students’ goals and interests must align with the mission and values of a college or university when being considered for admissions. A common tactic is to highlight a few professors in the department, which demonstrates that the applicant has done the research, whereas other students discuss the accomplishments of prominent alumni they admire.
Students can use this space to create an impressive application by creatively demonstrating their knowledge of the school and department while matching it with their goals.
Tips for writing about fit with the program
- Align with the program . Use the university’s program description as a guide on how to align your Statement of Purpose with the graduate degree program. Refer to your experience in the context of the program.
- Community and culture. Nowadays, universities seek students who can be representatives of and contributors to their community. How do your history and goals fit into that program’s city, university, and culture?
- Your benefit to the program. You are not giving just your money and time to the graduate program; the admission committee wants to know what benefits you seek to get out of it. This is where you can reference specific departments and professors in the program and any academic contributions of theirs you are familiar with.
Conclusion – Summary
The conclusion must accomplish two goals: package everything together and leave the reader interested in knowing more. If you can accomplish the second part, you will likely get a passing grade on your Statement of Purpose.
Reflect on what attending the program would mean to you, both professionally and personally, as you give one final thought or insight. Write about both the impact you hope to have on the world and the impact attending the program would have on yourself.
Tips for writing the Statement of Purpose conclusion
- Keep it succinct. This section will usually contain no new information, so don’t repeat any information.
- (Re)State your value. You are your own best marketer here. Display confidence not just in your abilities but in your decision to apply and stick with your decision. You also bring a unique profile of academic, career, and personal experiences and goals. You may not gain admission, but make sure it’s because you’re not the right fit, NOT because your value was understated or misunderstood.
Statement of Purpose Format: Structure and Summary
Be sure to check our article on how to write a Statement of Purpose for grad school.
We also have recommendation letter templates and dozens of other useful resources to help you prepare your admissions essays.
If you need editing or proofreading, you can start by checking out our professional proofreading services , including admissions editing services , SOP editing services , and college and graduate essay editing services .
How to Write the Graduate Admissions Essay
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It should come as no surprise that most applicants do not enjoy drafting their graduate admissions essay. Writing a statement that tells a graduate admissions committee all about you and can potentially make or break your application is stressful. Take a different perspective, however, and you will find that your admissions essay is not as daunting as it seems.
What is its Purpose?
Your graduate school application provides the admissions committee with a great deal of information about you that cannot be found elsewhere in your graduate application. The other parts of your graduate school application tell the admissions committee about your grades (i.e., transcript ), your academic promise (i.e., GRE scores ), and what your professors think of you (i.e., recommendation letters ). Despite all of this information, the admissions committee does not learn much about you as an individual. What are your goals? Why are you applying to graduate school?
With so many applicants and so few slots, it's critical that graduate admissions committees learn as much as possible about applicants so as to ensure that they choose students who best fit their program and are most likely to succeed and complete a graduate degree. Your admissions essay explains who you are, your goals, and the ways in which you match the graduate program to which you are applying.
What Do I Write About?
Graduate applications often ask that applicants write in response to specific statements and prompts . Most prompts ask applicants to comment on how their backgrounds have shaped their goals, describe an influential person or experience, or discuss their ultimate career goals. Some graduate programs request that applicants write a more generic autobiographical statement, most often referred to as a personal statement.
What is a Personal Statement?
A personal statement is a general statement of your background, preparation, and goals. Many applicants find it challenging to write a personal statement because there is no clear prompt to guide their writing. An effective personal statement conveys how your background and experiences have shaped your career goals, how you are well matched to your chosen career and provides insight into your character and maturity. No easy feat. If you are asked to write a generic personal statement, pretend that the prompt instead requires you to discuss how your experiences, interests, and abilities have lead you to your chosen career.
Begin Your Admissions Essay by Taking Notes About Yourself
Before you write your admissions essay you must have an understanding of your goals and how your experiences to date prepare you for pursuing your goals. A self-assessment is critical to gathering the information you need to write a comprehensive essay . You likely will not (and should not) use all of the information that you gather. Evaluate all of the information you gather and determine your priorities. Most of us have many interests, for example. Decide which are most important to you. As you consider your essay, plan to discuss the information that supports your goals and what is most important to you.
Take Notes on the Graduate Program
Writing an effective graduate admissions essay requires knowing your audience. Consider the graduate program at hand. What specific training does it offer? What is its philosophy? How well do your interests and goals match the program? Discuss the ways in which your background and competencies overlap with the graduate program's requirements and training opportunities. If you're applying to a doctoral program, take a close look at the faculty. What are their research interests? Which labs are most productive? Pay attention to whether faculty take on students or appear to have openings in their labs. Peruse the department page, faculty pages, and lab pages.
Remember That an Admissions Essay is Simply an Essay
By this time in your academic career, you have likely written a great many essays for class assignments and exams. Your admissions essay is similar to any other essay you have written. It has an introduction, body, and conclusion . Your admissions essay presents an argument, just as any other essay does. Granted, the argument concerns your capacities for graduate study and the outcome can determine the fate of your application. Regardless, an essay is an essay.
Beginning is the Hardest Part of Writing
I believe this holds true for all types of writing, but especially for drafting graduate admissions essays. Many writers stare at a blank screen and wonder how to begin. If you search for the perfect opening and delay writing until you find just the right angle, phrasing, or metaphor you may never write your graduate admissions essay. Writer's block is common among applicants writing admissions essays . The best way to avoid writer's block is to write something, anything. The trick to beginning your essay is to not start at the beginning. Write the parts that feel natural, such as how your experiences have driven your career choices. You will heavily edit whatever you write so don't worry about how you phrase your ideas. Simply get the ideas out. It is easier to edit than write so your goal as you begin your admissions essay is to simply write as much as you can.
Edit, Proof, and Seek Feedback
Once you have a rough draft of your admissions essay, keep in mind that it is a rough draft. Your task is to craft the argument, support your points, and construct an introduction and conclusion that guides readers. Perhaps the best piece of advice I can offer on writing your admissions essay is to solicit feedback from many sources, especially faculty. You may feel that you have made a good case and that your writing is clear, but if a reader cannot follow it, your writing isn't clear. As you write your final draft, check for common errors. Perfect your essay as best you can and once it's submitted congratulate yourself for completing one of the most challenging tasks entailed in applying to graduate school.
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The Penn State Smeal Master of Finance program features a two-part application process. During this process, you will be required to submit the following:
- Copies of official educational transcripts (and copy of degree certificate if applicable)
- Program-specific questions: Ensure that you respond to all questions requesting information, especially when it is marked as required.
- Reference contacts (3): Provide the names, titles, relationships, and contact information for three professional or academic references. A letter of recommendation will not be requested or required. In the event we need more information, we will reach out to your references.
- Official English language proficiency exam scores (for international applicants )
- Application fee: $65
- Within 24 hours of starting your Graduate School Online Application, you will receive a link to complete your virtual interview and essay. Please check your spam folder or inbox filters for the invitation.The virtual interview consists of answering three behavioral questions in a recorded video format within a timed session. The essay portion requires a written response to an admissions essay question within a timed session. Your interview and essay should be completed within seven days of submitting your Graduate School Online Application.
To be considered for admission, all components of the application process must be completed, submitted, and received by the respective deadline.
The Penn State Smeal MFIN has multiple application deadlines throughout the year. Applications are reviewed and decisions are made on a rolling basis.
All applications will undergo a comprehensive review process conducted by both the Penn State Smeal MFIN program admissions office (assessing MFIN requirements and admissions criteria) and the Penn State Graduate School (verifying educational documentation, credentials, and international visa requirements). You may receive communications from representatives of either department.
Admission is granted in two stages: first by the Smeal MFIN program and then by the Penn State Graduate School. The Graduate School requires a recommendation from the Smeal admissions office before taking action on your application. To confirm the receipt of your application materials and check the status of your application, it is recommended that you contact the Smeal admissions office at [email protected] .
Academic Integrity and Plagiarism
The Penn State Smeal College of Business has a strong commitment to ethics and integrity as reflected in our Honor Code . The admissions committee will not tolerate any form of plagiarism or appearance of impropriety in an applicant’s materials. To ensure academic integrity, all essays will be confirmed through iThenticate authenticity software.
For more information on academic integrity and plagiarism: " Academic Integrity " and "Academic Integrity, Plagiarism, and Copyright"
Failure to follow these guidelines will result in a deny decision.
Ready to begin your application? Visit our Apply page to take the next step.
How to Handle a Law School Interview Question You Don’t Know How to Answer
If a question stumps you, craft your answer based on what the interviewer is trying to evaluate.
Answering Law School Interview Questions
Applicants should prepare for an law school interview much like a job interview. (Getty Images)
Whether they involve live or recorded questions , law school interviews give admissions committees a chance to see who you are as a person, beyond the story presented by your transcripts , test scores, resume and essays.
This is why applicants should prepare for a law school interview as if it were a job interview. Dress professionally, articulate your points carefully and do your research.
Most importantly, be ready to answer basic questions like why you are applying to law school and why you are specifically interested in attending the law school the interviewer represents. Law schools are not interchangeable, so come up with some reasons for why the law school matches your strengths and interests.
Expect a catchall question like, “Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?” And if you are interviewing with an admissions officer, be sure to prepare a few questions to ask your interviewer , as well.
However, there is no way to anticipate every possible question that an interview may include. Sometimes you’ll face odd questions that might leave you momentarily stumped. The key to preventing a brief pause from snowballing into a collapse of confidence is to understand the purpose of the question.
The Key to Answering Unexpected Law School Interview Questions
When admissions officers throw you a hardball question, they are rarely seeking a specific “right” answer. Rather, they want to gauge how your mind works, how you respond to a challenge and how you express your interests and values.
Instead of trying to answer a tough question at face value, think carefully about what the interviewer is looking for. Is there a character trait that the question is meant to elicit, like integrity , resilience or quick thinking?
For example, imagine the interviewer asks for your favorite book, but you’re not much of a reader, or your favorite book would sound embarrassing, trite or obscure. Rather than offer a cliché answer like "To Kill a Mockingbird," think of another book you enjoyed that would communicate thoughtfulness or empathy. Perhaps a great novel from another country could show you are well-rounded and eager to engage with other perspectives.
What to Do if Stumped by an Interview Question
If an answer to an interview question does not readily come to mind, resist the urge to ramble on, thinking aloud. But don’t take a pass or avoid the question altogether.
Instead, tell the interviewer that it’s a good question and you’ll have to think about it for a second. Rather than search high and low for an answer hidden in the wrinkles of your brain, think to yourself: "What is this interviewer trying to get at?"
If the question is about a time when you worked with someone who you didn’t agree with, and you don’t have an example of this, then think about another time you have had to resolve a disagreement. Or think about a time a coworker took an approach to a problem that was not the way you would have handled it, even if it was not objectionable to you. Either way, you would be showing open-mindedness and communication skills.
If your answer does not address the prompt directly, acknowledge this. You could say something like, “I don’t think I’ve ever confronted that exact situation, thankfully. Do you mind if I tell you about a disagreement I had to handle in a different context?”
Likewise, if a question asks for a leadership experience, and you haven’t taken an active role in any jobs or extracurricular activities , think about more subtle ways to show leadership. For example, think of a time you took initiative or acted courageously , even if you were part of a team.
Fortunately, unlike job interviewers, law school interviewers are not looking for the absolute best candidate to fill one position. They are looking to build a balanced class of students. There is no need to come across as perfect; just be professional, collegial and committed to law school.
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About Law Admissions Lowdown
Law Admissions Lowdown provides advice to prospective students about the law school application process, LSAT prep and potential career paths. Previously authored by contributors from Stratus Admissions Counseling, the blog is currently authored by Gabriel Kuris, founder of Top Law Coach , an admissions consultancy. Kuris is a graduate of Harvard Law School and has helped hundreds of applicants navigate the law school application process since 2003. Got a question? Email [email protected] .
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Yes, ChatGPT can help with your college admissions essay. Here's what you need to do to stay within the rules.
- Students who use tools like ChatGPT to write their college essays need to walk a fine line.
- Colleges will likely penalize students who submit completely AI-generated applications.
- Using AI to edit or draft the essays may be acceptable though, a tutoring company founder says.
The education sector has had a rough ride with generative AI.
After the release of ChatGPT, some colleges and schools were quick to put a blanket ban on the bot when students began using it to write their essays. Professors and teachers were left with the difficult task of navigating the new concept of AI plagiarism.
Now, several colleges have changed their tune and are encouraging students and staff to use generative AI as a tool — as long as they don't use it to cheat. However, the guidance is still pretty vague, especially when it comes to admissions and college essays.
"The landscape is shifting, but colleges are not unified in their approach to GPT," Adam Nguyen, founder of tutoring company Ivy Link , told Insider. "If you look across the landscape of college admissions, especially elite college admissions, there are no clear rules on whether you could use GPT or not."
In February, I tested the chatbot's ability to write college application essays . The results were relatively successful , with two private admissions tutors agreeing the essays definitely passed for ones written by a real student and probably would have had a shot at most colleges, but probably not the most selective institutions.
There are telltale signs when an entire essay is AI-generated, Nguyen said. For example, there tends to be a lot of repetition, and the essays are generally mediocre.
"If an essay is clearly written by AI, I think they will penalize the student and that application," Nguyen said.
While it's clear students should be writing their own work, it's less clear if students are allowed to use the tech to help them draft or edit essays.
As colleges grudgingly accept that AI is not going anyway, Nguyen said there's a fine line for students to walk.
"If you fill in the details, restructure the essay, and provide the specific language and sentences, that will make the essay your own," he said. "I think many colleges would be fine with that."
He continued, "I would suggest not using it as a default. If you're really stuck, you could use it to start." He suggested that, as a general rule, at least 80% of the essays needed to be edited and changed to be on the safe side.
"If an essay's really good, it won't raise any suspicion, and I don't think most colleges will care that you use GPT to start, as long as they can't tell either," he added.