Graduate School Essay Dos And Donts

The following are lists of dos and don’ts to consider when writing personal statement.  These lists are based on suggestions which I consider sensible and which are common to those providing guidance. 

  • Prepare an outline of topics you are asked to cover by the graduate schools and others you want to cover and list supporting material under each topic.  This information will be useful when you develop the drafts of your statement.  Typical topics include professional career goals, academic interests and objectives, research experience, practical experience, special skills, and related personal material about your motivation and reason for choosing a program.

  • When writing your statement, stick to the points requested by each program. If a program stresses research, clinical work, or work experience, emphasize those issues in your statement.  Avoid lengthy personal or philosophical discussions unless the instructions specifically ask for them.

  • Look on the web or email the department for information about the professors and their research. Are there professors whose interests match yours'? If so, indicate this, as it shows a sign that you have done your homework and are highly motivated. You might use the names of faculty and their research interests as examples of what you would like to do.

  • Follow the instructions about length.  Usually programs ask for one page, so try to be concise and stick to this limit. Using small print is not a good solution, better send 1 and 1/2 pages of print 11-12 than one page of print size 8 (don't go over two pages though).

  • Emphasize everything from a positive perspective and write in an active, not a passive voice.

  • Demonstrate everything by example; don't say directly, for example, that you're a persistent person, you must demonstrate it.
    Writing about specific experiences has a number of advantages:
    * Specifics keep the reader's attention more effectively than generalities.
    * Drawing on situations in your life will distinguish you from other applicants who superficially may be very similar to you.

  • Make sure your essay is well-organized and everything is linked with continuity and focus. Pay special attention to the first paragraph which should capture the reader’s interest.

  • Check your grammar, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization carefully.  Errors distract from the content of your statement and make admission committee members to assume that your writing ability is weak or you don't care.  

  • Review your essay by asking yourself the following questions:

    •   Are my goals well articulated?

    •   Do I explain why I have selected this school and/or program?

    •   Do I demonstrate knowledge of the program?

    •   Do I include interesting details that prove my claims about myself?

    •   Is my tone confident?

  • Make changes to your statement for each school, read as much as possible about their program so that you can tailor your statement to the program and convince the admissions committee that you will fit well there.

  •  Ask as many others as possible to proofread your work for writing style—grammar, spelling, etc.  You should also ask those who currently study in US graduate schools to critique the content, organization, and clarity since they will be aware of what graduate schools are seeking.

  • Use empty, vague, overly-used words like meaningful, beautiful, challenging, rewarding, etc.

  • Use overly common phrases and nonspecific information. For example:
    "My above qualifications and my placement in the top 10th of my class demonstrate that I have the leadership, organization, and academic ability to succeed well at your school."
    This generic statement says nothing specific about you as an individual. When you're writing, think about whether it's likely that 100 other people said the same thing you did. The personal statement is your chance to show how unique you are.

  • Repeat information from the application unless you use it to illustrate a point.

  • Try to be funny—you don’t know your audience, so humor can backfire.

  • Use statements like “I’ve always wanted to be a . . .” or other hackneyed phrases.

  • Make excuses, but you can talk about the mistakes you've made as a learning experience. If there is something important that happened (poverty, illness, excessive work, etc. ), which affected your grades go ahead and state it, but write it affirmatively, that is, in a way that shows your perseverance.

  • Use special fonts or colored paper.

  • Use slang, technical jargon., long quotations.

  • Write in an arrogant manner.  Instead, make it clear that you are confident about your ability, but still eager to learn what the program has to offer.

  • There is mixed opinion about whether to call attention to and explain any of your obvious weaknesses in your essay.  Some recommend clarifying any weaknesses on your transcripts or your GRE scores in your essay.  Others believe one should only be positive—that if you feel you need to explain something, that you should attach an addendum to your application, make note of it in a cover letter, or ask one of your letter writers who knows you well to discuss it.


    Applying can be complicated and time-consuming. From filling out stacks and stacks of forms to trying to make a good impression on the graduate school admission committee, there's a whole lot to do.

    In many industries, a graduate level education is becoming more and more important. It opens many more doors and provides advancement opportunities that are often beyond what you could expect as an undergrad. Since graduate degrees are becoming more valuable to prospective employers, more students are considering continuing their education to get a Master’s degree or higher. Competition can be intense when applying for graduate programs, and so it is very important to make sure you provide your prospective school with a complete application that stands out. Here are 4 ideas that can help you:

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    1)     Start the application process early.Starting early is important for multiple reasons. It gives you the time you need to complete the application without having to rush things. It allows you to spend time on your personal statement and getting your admissions testing completed. An early start shows drive and motivation, something that graduate schools like. Finally, it allows time for any issues or snags that might arise with the application process.

    2)     Read and follow the directions on the application to the letter. This can be very important. Some schools will not accept an application that is incomplete or has been filled out incorrectly. An application that is completed incorrectly can hurt your chances of being admitted. Take your time with the application and make sure that it is completed correctly and that it reflects your best effort and work.

    3)     Consider your letters of recommendation carefully and ask for them early.  Just like when you applied for college, your graduate program is going to request letters of recommendation. Think carefully about who you’d like to ask to write you a letter. Make sure those you ask know you well and know your work well, so that they can write something that is personalized and meaningful. Don’t be afraid to ask someone to include specific information regarding their experience with you – such as a specific time you did well on a project in their class, your volunteer activities, or other information you think would be of interest to your prospective school. Asking for them early gives the person writing the letter plenty of time to write, in order to receive them before the application deadline. Don’t be afraid to follow up with those you’ve asked for a letter of recommendation, to make sure it is completed and remind them of your deadline.

    4)     Your personal statement could be the most important part of your application. Think about it. Your test scores are likely similar to those of other applicants. Your transcripts show grades that you no longer have any control over. The meat of the application gives mainly demographic and historical data about you. The personal statement is your one chance to show your prospective school who you are – and more importantly, why you should be accepted into their program. It gives you a voice that can tell a story about how you came to love the discipline you’ve chosen and how you will be able to apply your knowledge in the future to benefit yourself and others. Start on your personal statement early and give it a lot of time. Have as many people as you can read your personal statement and give you feedback. Ask friends to proofread it and make sure that there are no grammatical errors in the document.

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