How to Write a Grad School Application Essay

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What Is a Grad School Application Essay? | What Are Admissions Officers Looking for? | Before You Start Writing | While You're Writing | When You've Finished Writing | Sample Essay | Grad School Essay FAQs

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. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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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.

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.

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.

Brainstorm Ideas

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:

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.

Be Authentic

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.

Get Feedback

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.

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Lonnie Woods III

Lonnie Woods III is a student affairs administrator, professor, and professional development practitioner whose research examines the career competencies of college students studying arts-related majors. Woods holds a BS in fine art photography from Towson University and an MA in higher education and student affairs from New York University . He has 10-plus years of experience working in higher education, with professional experience spanning various institutions, including Pratt Institute, New York University, The George Washington University , and Columbia University.

Lonnie Woods III is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network.

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Home / Blog / Grad Schools / Write a Graduate School Essay that Will Knock Their Socks Off

Write a Graduate School Essay that Will Knock Their Socks Off

Woman typing her graduate school essay on a very small keyboard.

Writing an amazing graduate school essay is probably far more straightforward than you might think. Graduate school admissions officers aren’t looking for gimmicks. They’re looking for passionate, motivated, and prepared applicants who are ready to hit the ground running in their program. Read on for more details in creating your best graduate school essay.

Know what the admissions officers are seeking

Don’t make assumptions about your graduate school personal statements. Many programs simply ask you to submit a personal statement without any further guidance. Other programs will tell you exactly how they want the essay structured along with word count limits and formatting requirements. Review the prompt thoroughly and plan your essay before you begin writing to ensure that you create an essay that will be an effective and persuasive addition to your application package.

What should you do if the program doesn’t give you any specifics? With greater numbers of applicants to graduate programs, the trend is toward shorter essays. This is especially true of graduate programs in the STEM fields. Unfortunately, longer essays tend to be skimmed rather than read thoroughly, and most any admissions officer will tell you that the best essays that they’ve read are always shorter essays. Think about what is absolutely essential, and write about those aspects of your experience with passion.

Personal, personal, personal

Did we mention personal? Some graduate programs will ask you to write an additional essay about an issue within your chosen field. However, your personal statement should be about you as an individual. Write about issues only if they relate specifically to your personal experiences. For example, ‘In Africa, a child dies every minute. This stark statistic prompted me to join an NGO aimed at providing nutrition and healthcare for children in Namibia.’

Keep your anecdotes focused on your life after you began college

It is common for graduate school applicants to start their personal statements with an anecdote about something that happened during childhood or high school. On the surface, this makes sense because that event was what started the journey that has culminated in an application to the program. However, graduate programs are for professionals, and writing about your childhood is more appropriate for an undergraduate essay than one for graduate school. If you feel that you absolutely must include something from your childhood, use it as the starting sentence of your concluding paragraph.

Know your program and make connections

Securing acceptance into a graduate program is more about being the best match than about being the most highly qualified. Among applicants who meet the program’s minimum requirements, they’ll choose an enthusiastic and informed applicant over one with higher test scores and a better GPA who doesn’t seem to know much about their program.

During your graduate studies, you’ll likely do research, and graduate programs want to know that you can both participate in ongoing research as well as find a mentor for your own project. In your essay, write about professors in the programs whose work interests you and why. Also, there is life outside of the classroom. Does the school have a close-knit traditional college campus? Is it located in the heart of the city? Especially if you will be moving with your family, show the admissions officers that you will thrive in their environment.

Finish with a strong statement about why the school is your top pick

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the school is your only pick. However, generic essays have no place in the graduate school application process. Form letters aren’t persuasive, and generic essays won’t help your application package. If you can’t sincerely write that the school is a top pick, then why are you applying there? Instead, focus on creating stellar essays for the ones that actually interest you. Help the admissions officers understand your overarching vision for your future career and how your time at the school will prepare you to realize these goals.

Need help getting started on your grad school search? Search by location, major, admission difficulty, and more with Peterson’s Graduate School Search .

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Writing a Graduate School Essay

Hello and welcome to the grad school essay help guide. Today’s guide is brought to you by a graduate school graduate and subsequent admissions department committee member. There are many guides out there on the Internet, but this one was written by a professional who has seen thousands of applications. The advice given here is sometimes hard to take, but it is battle-tested.

Your application will be read by faculty members in the department to which you are applying. Thus, describing a desire to study your major is not specific enough. You need to research the specific department to which you are applying, the exact wording of someone’s research interests, and the titles of a professor’s most recent publications. If CVs are posted, skim those as well. Ideally, you will be able to express fascination with a specific professor and research area.


Take a moment to think about which traits you demonstrate:

These characteristics compose your scholarly temperament, which is not the same as your personality. Next, consider the possible academic and professional experiences that you might detail in your statement. What sparked your interest? How have your interests focused over time? How have you distinguished yourself in your major, beyond your GPA? What research projects have you pursued? When brainstorming, avoid crafting full sentences. Jot down ideas, take quick notes, recall details and dates. Some people even speak their initial thoughts aloud.

Elements of the Statement

Your statement of purpose should answer five basic questions:

Plans for Graduate School

Detail what you plan to study and research; explain with whom you plan to study and research. Unlike applying as an undergraduate, do not survey the university website in general. You are applying to a department rather than a university. Professors are not pleased to see too much text about opportunities outside the department. Also, try to avoid the “top topics of the day.” For example, too many applicants in 2021 will be writing about COVID-19. A topic that does not come from news headlines signals a serious, thoughtful, long-term interest.

Apply to programs that fit. The name of the faculty member who mentors you is arguably more important than the name of the university. Do not look at rankings online and never mention them in your statement. Instead, try to be gently self-effacing in expressing your admiration for the program and its faculty. Don’t praise or flatter, but express interest in their work.

Professional Goals

Sketch out your professional goals. For example, if you have a genuine interest in teaching at a community college or are seeking to earn an EDD or other graduate degree in education, you can explain that.

Structuring the Statement

Having answered the basic questions and identified your skills and goals, you are ready to begin structuring your statement. The two common approaches are chronology or argument. Those applying as undergraduates or within a few years of earning a bachelor’s degree should default to chronology. If you are applying with many years of professional experience, then the argument might work for you. Whichever you choose, stress simplicity and comprehensibility over fanciness. Readers want to get a sense of you, not muddle through a disorganized thought experiment.

The Two Approaches

A chronological structure in an essay improves readability and demonstrates your development over time. It is conventional wisdom that you start with your work in your major at college, perhaps picking a research experience that particularly moved you. Rather than dwelling on personal growth, you should write about your academic development.

If you’ve been out of school for more than a few years and especially if you have five or more years of professional experience, you need to structure your essay as an academic argument. Academic papers always have a claim or thesis. Yours? It must answer this prompt: Why are you coming back to school? You will relate a key experience that brought you to the realization that it’s time to return to school for a graduate degree. The body of your statement is structured like an academic essay, each paragraph taking up one of the reasons in your thesis.

Purposeful Paragraphs

Each paragraph should focus on a specific quality or characteristic, something you’ve identified as key to explaining your background and suitability for graduate study. Describe an event, offer more details that serve as evidence, and conclude by explaining why the event was significant in terms of what you learned. Here are some verbs to think about how to describe your experiences:

pursued / focused / cultivated / challenged myself / developed / devoted myself / seized the opportunity / taught /researched / applied / explored / explained / argued a thesis / calculated / tested / analyzed / quantified / deliberated / struggled / defined / refined / drafted / revised / attended / worked / assisted / collaborated / contributed / deliberated / advanced

Don’t just repeat items from your résumé. Instead, explain how each experience affected you, focusing on what you learned that is relevant to your success in your field. Compare:

Bad: “I served as a volunteer teaching women about the importance of breastfeeding.”

Better: “My experience helping women access breastfeeding information and empowering them to use that information has convinced me that information alone is not nearly as useful as information plus a skilled and compassionate guide.”

Detail your experience and what it means, always thinking about which qualities you want to illustrate, plus how it all serves as evidence you are a match for the program.

Introductions and Conclusions

Open your essay as if announcing yourself to your potential graduate advisor because that’s exactly what you’re doing. For example:

“I have been involved in research since the start of my college career: from designing an independent project synthesizing a conductive molecular wire with self-insulating properties, to industrial research on the kinetics of polyurethane chain extension reactions, to my most recent project investigating a protein transport phenomenon in transgenic mushrooms.”

Conclusions exist in order to explain your career plans beyond graduate school. Many Ph.D. applicants imagine becoming a professor, but you need to convey that goal with humility. Securing a tenure-track job is increasingly difficult. At the same time, you don’t want to dismiss the possibility of an academic career.

“I am committed to pursuing a scholarly career in curriculum development focused on K-12 multicultural literacy while recognizing the realities of the academic job market. I would hope to secure a postdoctoral or visiting position…”

“After earning my Master’s in public administration, I hope to work in the area of economic development in Latin America. The setting might be a private (possibly church-based) development agency, the UN, the OAS, a multilateral development bank, or government agency.”

Style & Mechanics

The tone of your statement should be professional. Strive for sobriety and precision. Use the terminology of your discipline but avoid jargon and don’t try to impress anyone. Try to be clear, concise, and engaging. Here, from UC Berkeley, are words and phrases to avoid:

significant / challenging / satisfying / appreciate / invaluable / exciting / appealing / it’s important / I can contribute / stimulating / gratifying / fascinating / meaningful / helping people / remarkable / valuable / helpful

Tricky Topics

Did you have poor undergraduate grades, exceptionally low standardized testing scores, lack of work experience, gaps in your chronology, disciplinary action, or a criminal record? In explaining a deficiency, be very careful with your tone. Avoid sounding defensive. Explain the situation dispassionately and move quickly to note how you recovered from a setback. Bad grades don't have to be explained if it’s a matter of one course in an otherwise outstanding record. Moreover, you don’t have to go into detail about a plagiarism issue if you emphasize what you’ve learned. Move on to highlight later successes.

Scholars have identified “kisses of death” in a statement of purpose. Generally:

Finishing Strong

Once you’ve drafted and polished your statement, take a few days away from it. Read your statement one last time, with this checklist in mind:

Consider printing out your essay and editing with a pen or pencil. It will change your view of the essays. Submit your essay to sites such as Grammarly. Look for errors such as repetitive language, lack of transitions, conditional phrasing, and capitalization errors.

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Graduate School Application Essays

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:

Personal Statement

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:

Before Writing

While Writing

Final Touches

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