Graduate School Application Letters

Writing an essay, or personal statement, is often the most difficult part of the application process. Requirements vary widely in this regard. Some programs request only one or two paragraphs about why you want to pursue graduate study, while others require five or six separate essays in which you are expected to write at length about your motivation for graduate study, your strengths, and weaknesses, your greatest achievements and solutions to hypothetical problems. Business schools are notorious for requiring several time-consuming essays.

An essay or personal statement for an application should be essentially a statement of your ideas and goals. Usually it includes a certain amount of personal history, but unless an institution specifically requests autobiographical information, you do not have to supply any. Even when the requirement is a “personal statement", the possibilities are almost unlimited. There is no set formula to follow, and, if you do write an autobiographical piece, it does not have to be arranged chronologically. Your aim should be a clear, succinct statement showing that you have a definite sense of what you want to do and enthusiasm for the field of study you have chosen. Your essay should reflect your writing abilities and should reveal the clarity, the focus, and the depth of your thinking.

Before writing anything, stop and consider what your reader might be looking for; the general directions or other parts of the application may give you an indication of this. Admissions committees may be trying to evaluate a number of things from your statement, including the following things about you:

  • Expectations with regard to the program and career opportunities
  • Writing ability
  • Major areas of interest
  • Educational background
  • Immediate and long-term goals
  • Reasons for deciding to pursue graduate education in a particular field and at a particular institution
  • Maturity
  • Personal uniqueness- what you would add to the diversity of the entering class

There are two main approaches to organizing an essay. You can outline the points you want to cover and then expand on them, or you can put your ideas down on paper as they come to you, going over them, eliminating certain sentences, and moving others around until you achieve a logical sequence. Making an outline will probably lead to a well-organized essay, whereas writing spontaneously may yield a more inspired piece of writing. Use the approach you feel most comfortable with. Whichever approach you use, you will want someone to critique your essay. Your advisor and those who write your letters of recommendation may be very helpful to you in this regard. If they are in the field you plan to pursue, they will be able to tell you what things to stress and what things to keep brief. Someone from your career services office can also critique your essay.

In every case, essays should be typed. It is usually acceptable to attach pages to your application if the space provided is insufficient. Neatness, spelling, and grammar should be perfect.