The essay (sometimes called the statement of purpose, the biographical essay, the letter of intent, or the personal statement, depending on the school) is one of the most important parts of your grad school application. Schools place a premium on this essay because they want to see how you write, how you think, and what attributes (both positive and negative) you will bring to their institution. They also want to see if you can effectively articulate your reasons for wanting to attend a particular program or institution, and how your background will help you succeed there. Finally, the application essay helps the admissions office determine the degree of efficacy with which you can create and develop logical ideas while also reaching out and connecting with an audience.
The essay presents a “human” aspect to your application that can be found nowhere else and, in certain situations, can be the deciding factor between a denial or waitlist, or a waitlist and an acceptance.
There is no one way to tell someone how to write a “perfect” personal statement, since everyone has a different writing style and story to tell. However, there are a few rules you can follow that will ensure that you are at least keeping within what will make admissions officers happy:
- Steer clear of gimmicky essays. Things like colored or patterned paper, computer graphics, attached photos of you as a toddler, videos, or DVD essays do nothing but attract attention–the wrong kind of attention. The admissions committee wants to read a clear, well-written, well-though-out statement that demonstrates you are a serious candidate for a degree from their school; they don’t want to have to squint at odd graphics, or wonder why you had that haircut when you were two years old. Also, keep in mind that schools, unless they specifically request it, don’t want to receive your 300-page novel manuscript, life-sized copies of your artwork, or a CD of your band playing live. If you really want to send any additional materials, make sure to contact the admissions office first to see if they want them and, if they do, how you should send them.
- Don’t write a two-paragraph, one-page, double-spaced essay. That’s less copy than most 30-second TV ads have, and how much do you really know about the product once they’re over? Instead, give the Admissions Committee something substantial to read and get to know you with. You can’t really get to know someone in 250 words or less. On the other hand, do not ramble on for 10 single-spaced, 8pt font pages. Respect your audience, and show them that you understand how important their time is by writing a 2-3 page personal statement with default margins in 12pt font that can be read cohesively in a minimal amount of time.
- Avoid thesaurus-speak. If you don’t know how to use a “big” or “fancy” word, or the way you have it in your essay sounds strange, take it out. A big vocabulary is only impressive when it is used correctly (and the indiscriminate use of a thesaurus can often result in application disaster).
- Grammar. Spelling. Punctuation. These are a few of Admissions Committees’ favorite things.
- Present your best side. Don’t use the personal statement to gripe about something that you thought was bad or unfair; if you must, then also take the time to talk about how that negative experience allowed you to grow as a person and allowed you to see things in a different perspective.
- Don’t let your essay be a regurgitation of your résumé. The Admissions Committee has your résumé in front of them; they don’t need to see it again in a longer format. Use the personal statement to anecdotally show them who the person who did all those things and had all those accomplishments is.
- Most importantly, don’t play it safe. Write about something that touched you, something you can be passionate about, something that you know embodies you and what you believe in, even if it seems a little unorthodox. Don’t let a fear of being a little too “out there” keep you from wowing the Admissions Committee or leaving an indelible mark in their minds.
Above all else, make sure you have someone else read and comment on your essay before you submit it, and take their feedback seriously. If they don’t “get” the essay, they think it’s dry or boring, or they raise their eyebrows and ask you if you’re serious, go back to the drawing board. It may take a few tries before you get a good essay but, given that after your standardized test scores and GPA, it’s the most important part of your application, make sure to take your time and do it right.