Writing the essay, personal statement or letter of intent

What Admissions Committees Are Looking For:

The most common mistake in the admissions essay is that it fails to demonstrate that the applicant has taken a thorough, probing, and analytical look at themselves and their motivations and objectives. Also, keep in mind that admissions committees are looking for interesting, insightful, and nongeneric essays that tell a story.

Some schools have specific questions that each applicant is required to address in their essay. If the program to which you are applying does not ask you to answer specific questions, try to include the following basic elements in your personal statement:

  • How did your interest in this area of study evolve? What has led you here to the point of applying for graduate school?
  • What are your long-term career goals and how will this graduate education help you accomplish these?
  • What experiences have you had or skills/traits do you possess that will make you successful in this program and in the career field?
  • Why are you applying to this particular school?

How To Get Started

If you are having trouble getting started, use some of the following questions as writing exercises to get the juices flowing and to make your essay unique and interesting:

  1. Can you remember the very first time you realized you had an interest in this field? Describe that moment.
  2. What else has influenced this interest over time? What professors, classes, labs, papers, research projects, books, or ideas have influenced you? What other experiences have influenced you (jobs, volunteer experiences, travel experiences, encounters with people, etc.)?
  3. Can you remember encouraging words you have received from professors, employers, coaches, family, or peers to pursue this field of study? If so, make a list of quotes or paraphrases.
  4. What makes you unique or unusual? What is distinctive about your life story?
  5. Have you had to overcome adversity/obstacles to get where you are?
  6. Make a list of your undergraduate papers, labs, and research projects that might relate to this field. If you can’t remember exact names, paraphrase.
  7. Do you have any publications or presentations at academic conferences? Are there any you could fit in between now and when you would begin your program?
  8. What other academic, internship, work, or volunteer experiences will you acquire between now and when you would begin your graduate program?
  9. What is your GPA in the following areas: overall, year by year, in your major, since you declared your major, etc. Look at your transcripts and see if there are other ways of analyzing your GPA that might be of interest to admissions readers or might explain gaps or low points.
  10. What are your leisure activities? What do you do when you are not being a student?
  11. Can you name specific professors of interest at your top three graduate programs? If so, list them along with their research/academic specialties.
  12. What will you do with this degree (teach, research, work in industry or government, etc.)? Is there something you hope to accomplish in the long-term?
  13. How might you contribute to the academic community you intend to be a part of? How will they benefit by association with you?
  14. Why are you convinced that you are well-suited to this field? What personal characteristics (I.e. compassion, persistence) or skills (i.e. analytical, leadership) do you possess?
  15. Why are you a stronger candidate than another?

For more tips and to see some samples, check out some of our books on writing admissions essays in the Piper Center!