The overall application package will represent who “you” are to people whom you will most likely not know personally. The written expression of your qualities as an applicant will often be a very important way for committee members to get to know why you are an acceptable candidate for their program. Thus, it is essential to take great care in preparing this part of your application. Because graduate schools make important selection decisions that are partly based on what you say in this essay, the writing of it can be an intimidating prospect.
This handout offers some points to consider as you undertake the writing of an application essay.
Start Early! Be Thorough!
If you have begun your application process early, take the time to investigate thoroughly each institution to which you are applying.
Go to the library and locate/browse-through/read texts or abstracts by the school’s faculty members who work in your field or area of interest.
Study and re-study the application materials sent to you very carefully; in particular, read through the school catalog and required course offerings.
Find out if the school and program have web sites where you can learn more about them.
Taking these steps will familiarize you with the department, and allow you to weigh its specific strengths and weaknesses in comparison to those of other schools. While conducting your inquiry, take notes so that you will have something to base your essay on. Additionally, if you happen to know anyone—a friend, family member, colleague, or teacher—who has graduated from a school that you are considering, ask her or him for information as well. Although such people may be very helpful, be careful not to let their advice sway you too much, unless you are quite sure that they are particularly familiar with the department in question, and that their knowledge of it is up to date.
What to Include
The piece of writing that each school requests may be very different from that of others; some programs may even ask for more than one essay. Before you begin to write, study very carefully the essay directions on the application materials sent to you by the school and by the specific department to which you are applying. While some programs leave the content of the essay fairly “open,” others may place explicit content and length restrictions on it. Try to make sure that you have a good idea of what you are being asked to write about.
Whatever the particular form of the essay asked of you, there are a number of basic areas committees are interested in. When evaluating your application, each reader will ultimately have this question in mind: “Why should we let you into our school?” In order to answer this question, try to do the following:
Clearly state your short and long term goals; tell how university “X” can help you meet them.
Describe your areas of research and professional interest. You might indicate how your proposed studies are located within a broad field. For example, someone applying to a composition and rhetoric program might say, “I hope to examine the relationship between rhetorical invention strategies and demonstrated ability to write for members of diverse discourse communities.” Or, someone applying to an engineering program might say, “My particular interests are in optical communications, networks, and signal processing. As an undergraduate research assistant, I studied the principles of wavelet transforms, one of the most recent signal processing techniques, and I developed software models using Matlab to simulate the transform process.