Your graduate school application essay is your best chance to make a great impression on admissions officers and to distinguish yourself from other candidates. So use that opportunity to write an outstanding essay that highlights your personality and your qualifications – the ones that will make you a stand-out candidate for the university or B-school you want to attend.
What follows is some good advice for you to utilise your time and energy in a way that will be most effective in convincing an admissions officer that you not only will be an asset to their Master’s or MBA programme, but also that you have the personal motivation and commitment to succeed.
Purpose of a graduate school application essay
Your transcripts and standardised test scores demonstrate your ability to handle coursework and study, but that is only part of your story. To get a more complete picture of you as a candidate, admissions officers will often ask for a personal graduate school application essay, which may also be called a statement of purpose or a motivation letter. Whatever it is named, its purpose is clear.
You are investing in a university or B-school by enrolling in its Master’s or MBA programme, and the school is making an investment in you as a student and potential alumnus. So they want to be sure you are prepared, willing, competent, and motivated to make the best of the opportunity you have been given to excel, both academically now and professionally throughout your life.
It is not unusual for a student or professional to evolve in knowledge and skill beyond what earlier transcripts or test scores can reveal. If you fear your transcripts or test scores do not accurately reflect your capabilities, the graduate school application essay is also a perfect opportunity to supplement your academic record.
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Before you begin writing your graduate school application essay
By the time you apply to a Master’s or MBA programme, you have probably done enough self-analysis that you know what your career goals are and how further education will support them. If not, that is certainly your first step. Do you know what you hope to achieve with a post-graduate degree? Are you certain you want to invest this time and money in that particular programme? Have you studied the various career options this degree will allow, and are you committed to this particular path of study? You cannot convince an admissions committee of your commitment if you have trouble convincing yourself. Neither would you want to.
To crystallize what you want to communicate in your essay, start by listing your professional goals and noting exactly how this degree programme will further them. For example, if you are deeply interested in applying for higher-level jobs for which only degreed candidates are eligible, that demonstrates an obvious need for the programme. If you begin the writing process with a clear picture of what the degree will add to your life professionally, you will have a much easier time communicating those points in your graduate school application essay.
Next, think of the experience you hope to have during your Master’s or MBA studies. What amenities, student groups, and career services do you want from the school you select? Illustrating how a particular school meets all your needs and wants demonstrates a fully thought-out decision-making process, which is fundamental to the entire application.
Finally, think of your personal goals. How will your personal life benefit from the degree and experience you will receive by graduating from a challenging Master’s or MBA programme? Search within yourself to find what motivates you most and what that degree will mean to you on a personal level. For example, if you would be the first person in your family to receive a post-graduate degree and that would bring you great pride and fulfillment, or if you think it would demonstrate to your children that anything is achievable with dedication and hard work, that is certainly a personal detail you would want to include.
Writing process for your graduate school application essay
Ideally, by this time in your education or career, you will have learned that procrastination works against you. If not, heed this warning: start early. Allow yourself enough time to make several drafts and to have people with vastly different experiences and viewpoints to read it and offer suggestions.
Overall, you want your essay to reflect your own ideas and ambitions, so it needs to be – above all else – authentic and sincere. Do not attempt to flatter the institution in the hope of winning over the committee, but instead personalise the experience ahead of you with your goals and dreams and how they will motivate you to succeed.
Begin the actual writing process by determining the essay topics available to you. Does the university or B-school to which you are applying have one specific topic or a series of questions from which to choose? Whether you are given a topic or you can pick from a list, make sure your essay stays on topic throughout. Keep a focus on your objectives for the essay, and be careful not to ramble or include too much extraneous information.
Once you have a topic in mind, go back to your initial brainstorming about your personal and professional goals as well as what you want to gain from the experience itself. Where can you draw parallels between what they want to know and what you want them to know? Try to call to mind specific examples in your life that have led to your decision to obtain this Master’s or MBA degree, and include those in your text.
Getting stuck in the writing process is rather common. If it happens, set it aside for a day or week and come back to it with a fresh perspective. Once your mind has time to digest the information, you will be surprised at how easily new ideas will come to you.
Set a goal for a first draft long before the essay is due. Ask friends and relatives with diverse experiences and opinions to critique it, and be open to their suggestions. Once you have a new draft, take it to them again. Chances are they will welcome the opportunity to assist you in pursuing such an important goal.
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Your graduate school application essay is your chance to supplement impersonal transcripts and test scores with interesting information about who you are as a student, as a professional, and as a person. Selling yourself as a candidate in a succinct yet informative way, without being boastful or insincere, can be tricky, but it can be done well if you allow yourself enough time for thorough reflection and multiple drafts. It may be that one opportunity you have to impress the admissions committee that you are the right candidate, and to get the degree you want so badly.
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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 less. 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.
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 e-mailing 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.
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 him or her 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 your 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.
Now that you’re armed with these prose pointers, put them into practice and wow some grad school admission officers. Happy writing!
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