Remember when you sat down to write your undergrad application essays? It was your chance to show colleges the real you—and the world was your oyster! You could talk about your favorite book character, a beloved hobby, or a cause near to your heart.
Now you’re ready to apply to grad schools, with another application essay (or 10) to write. Like so much of the application process, grad school essays are similar to undergrad…but not quite the same. You need to take a more strategic approach. Here’s how, plus an awesome real-world graduate admission essay example.
The grad school application essay—aka letter of intent, personal statement, statement of purpose, etc.—is your chance to breathe some life and personality into your application. But unlike your undergraduate essay, where you might’ve offered a quippy story, your grad school application essay should be more focused on your academic and professional goals, and why grad school is essential to achieving them. Oh, and it should also give the admission committee a good sense of who you are and what you value at the same time. (No big deal, right?)
All that being said, a lot of the advice that helped you write your undergrad essay still applies: tell a unique story, use vivid examples, be genuine, and, perhaps most importantly, explain why you’d be an asset to the program—and why the program would be an asset to you.
Essay requirements will vary from school to school, but you will likely be asked to write 250–750 words. Common graduate application essay prompts include the following:
- Describe a situation where you overcame adversity/exhibited leadership/learned from failure/experienced an ethical dilemma.
- Why do you need this degree at this juncture in your life?
- What are your short- and long-term career goals?
- What are you most proud of?
- And the big one: why this school?
Regardless of the prompt you choose, the graduate admission committee should come away from your application essay knowing these three things:
- What you want to study in grad school
- Why you want to study it
- Why their institution is the best place for you
Dedicate a paragraph to each one of those ideas, add an attention-grabbing opener and a tidy conclusion, and you’re almost there! The following best practices will take you the rest of the way to a winning grad school application essay.
Stay focused on your academic field and use specific, discrete examples. Was there a clear moment when you knew you had found your calling? Did a particular class assignment, volunteer experience, or work project solidify your interest? Why exactly do you need grad school to achieve your goals?
You’re trying to give the graduate admission committee a sense of who you are and what you value. Show them your passion for your field of study. Why do you love it? Why do you want to contribute to it? What about it challenges and excites you?
Know your audience
Thoroughly research your potential graduate programs (if you haven’t already!), and tailor your essay to each school. Admission counselors want to know why you want to enroll in their program, and you can’t speak to the merits of their program if you don’t know what their program is all about! What specifically attracted you to the school? What would you contribute to the program as a graduate student and eventual alumnus? Take a look at press releases, blog posts, and big events on campus to get to know the school’s personality and what it values.
In a crowd of candidates who also love this field (presumably), what sets you apart? As you consider possible graduate admission essay topics, look for the story only you can tell. Just remember, even some personally meaningful experiences, like the loss of a loved one or a life-changing volunteer experience, don’t really stand out in graduate admission—they’re too common. So if you are considering a potentially well-tread topic, try to approach it in a unique way.
Show, don’t tell
Whenever possible, use stories to illustrate your interest. You shouldn’t fill your graduate personal statement with anecdotes, but you can be straightforward and still infuse some personality into your writing. After all, what’s more engaging: “I frequently left the campus CAD lab just as the sun was rising—and long after I had completed my architecture assignments. I got hooked on experimenting with laser cutting and hardly noticed as the hours passed” or “I really love working with Auto CAD”? No contest.
You can talk about special skills, like a foreign language, computer programming, and especially research in your essay. And you can talk about your academic achievements, internships, published work, and even study abroad experiences. They all make great graduate personal statement fodder. But relevancy is also key. Before stuffing your application essay with every accomplishment and experience from your time as an undergrad, make sure you’re only highlighting those that pertain to your intended graduate studies and future goals.
Explain any gaps
Your grad school application essay is also an opportunity to explain anything in your academic record that might raise an eyebrow among the admission committee, like a semester of poor grades, time off in your schooling, or a less-than-perfect GRE score. For example, if you worked part or full time to help fund your undergrad education, that lends some important context to your experience and achievements; maybe your undergrad GPA isn’t quite as high as it might’ve been otherwise, but graduate admission counselors will likely appreciate your hard work and dedication.
You can also use the essay to own your mistakes; perhaps you didn’t take college as seriously as you should have freshman and sophomore year, but you got your act together junior year. But whatever you do, don’t use your essay to make excuses or blame others.
Strike the right tone
You’ll have four (or more) years of collegiate writing under your belt, and your grad school statement needs to reflect that. Use active language, smooth transitions, an attention-grabbing opening, and a strong conclusion. And even though your graduate personal statement should be focused on your academic goals, it’s not a research paper—and it shouldn’t be full of jargon. Your essay’s tone will ultimately depend on the prompt you choose, but don’t be afraid to infuse it with personality, even humor. People relate to stories; tell yours and tell it well.
Edit—and have others edit too
Set aside time to edit your graduate application essay, checking for style, tone, and clarity as well as grammatical mistakes. (Here are my copyediting tips!) Is your graduate personal statement clear, concise, and well organized? Also revisit the essay prompt to make doubly sure you’ve answered it fully and accurately. Then have other people read your essay to check for these things too. Undergrad professors or mentors are great for this, but you can ask trusted friends too. And don’t forget about any career, writing, and/or tutoring centers at your undergraduate institution; they may be able to review your essay and application, and their services are often available long after you graduate.
For a truly polished graduate essay, remember the little things too, like making sure your files have easily identifiable names. And it might go without saying, but make sure you follow the directions! If the word limit is 600, don’t send in 750. And last but never least: don’t forget that the essay is about you! Any examples or experiences you cite should relate back to you and why you want to go to grad school.
BONUS! Grad school personal statement don’ts
Beyond following the advice above—all do’s, by the way—keep these grad school personal statement don’ts in mind.
- Don’t volunteer potentially damaging information. If you were suspended, arrested, etc., you probably don’t need to discuss it. Why cast aspersions on your character?
- Don’t repeat other parts of your application. Your GPA, test scores, and most activities are covered sufficiently in the rest of your application.
- Don’t be negative. You want the admission committee to see you as an enthusiastic addition to their program, not a grouch.
- Don’t write about controversial topics. You don’t want to risk offending the admission committee. And touchy subjects rarely make good personal statement essays anyway.
- Don’t go for gimmicks. Even though you want to stand out, a gimmicky essay isn’t the way to do it. (For example, submitting a song instead of a personal statement…when you’re not studying music.)
- Don’t stuff your essay with big “smart” words, and don’t use flowery language either. Use clear language to tell a compelling story.
- Don’t lift your personal statement from an existing academic essay or—worse—from someone else entirely. Besides plagiarizing being, you know, wrong, if you can’t get through your personal statement, you definitely aren’t cut out for the writing demands of grad school. Fact.
PS You can apply these tips to scholarship and grant application essays too...
Graduate letter of intent: a real-world example
Master of Education in Instructional Design
University of Massachusetts, Boston
Danielle completed her master’s in 2016. Her studies in Instructional Design were heavily influenced by one of her life’s great passions: Girl Scouts. In fact, while in the midst of earning her graduate degree, she accepted an offer to join the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts full time as their Associate Director of Volunteer Support—a role that distinctly benefits from her graduate studies.
BTW: you'll find even more great grad school application essay examples here.
I wish to pursue graduate study to build a stronger foundation in a skill set I love. I have been using Instructional Design in my volunteer role with Girl Scouts as a Council Facilitator for nearly four years. However, I am only mimicking the best practices set forth by the organization. Working toward a graduate degree in Instructional Design will give me the background knowledge to answer the “why” of creating and delivering adult trainings. I am also interested in UMass Boston’s program specifically because of the strong media and technology focus. Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts (GSEM) volunteers would benefit from greater variety and flexibility in our training offerings, and I would like to help bring that to them. One key area that I would like to work on is creating and delivering more online webinars or hybrid trainings, which would meet the growing demand for more diverse and accessible content.
Aside from my volunteer interests, I believe that an MEd in Instructional Design will also help my current job. I work full time for a small independent financial research company. In addition to research reports, we offer daylong training sessions to our clients in our proprietary analysis methodology. My company’s account management team has expressed interest in modifying some of our core training sessions into an online format. With the skills and knowledge I will acquire through this program, I will be able to help my company expand and diversify our training business line while reducing our capacity constraints.
However, my passion for adult learning truly blossomed through my work with GSEM. As a lifelong Girl Scout, I knew I wanted to stay involved after I graduated from Northeastern University, where I was the President of Campus Girl Scouts and a troop leader. I became involved as a Council Facilitator because I knew each adult I got excited about and prepared to volunteer with Girl Scouts could reach five or 10 more girls.
I remember the day I realized I truly loved this work. After a particularly long day in my office reading reports, I had to deliver a three-hour course on leadership essentials. As I took the subway across town to the training location, all I could think about was how I’d rather be doing anything else. But after I got there and the attendees filed in, I could feel my energy rising. Sharing my knowledge of Girl Scouts with them and watching their enthusiasm to help their girls recharged me. I left the training with 10 times more energy than when I started. I’m looking forward to following this passion and developing a more robust understanding of how adults learn and what makes the content “sticky” so it stays with them when they go back to their girls.
This year I was also selected for a national-level Girl Scout committee, Girl Scouts University Leadership Cadre. The Cadre is comprised of some of the most talented Girl Scout facilitators nationwide and charged with creating personal, professional, and career development learning opportunities for Girl Scouts’ staff and volunteers across the United States, especially online learning assets. We recently had a weeklong conference where I was able to take some video production and storyboarding for webinar sessions that whet my appetite for more learning in this field.
When I chose my undergraduate major, I picked journalism because it was practical. Now that I have more life and career experience, I am ready to go back to school for something else, something I love. I have a passion for learning and sharing that learning with others, as I’ve demonstrated by volunteering my time doing it. There’s nothing more rewarding than helping someone have an “aha” moment or rekindle a lost spark. I know in my heart that adult training and development is my calling because nothing makes me happier than helping others get excited about learning.
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By popular demand: a collection of awesome application essays/personal statements/letters of intent from accepted grad school applications.
Every essay here comes from a successful grad school application. And you’re going to love their stories. (We sure did!)
If you want to learn more about writing the actual essay, personal statement, or letter of intent, check out this advice. And if you’re just looking for grad school help, go here.
University of Connecticut
Class of 2015
Why this essay is great: Try to stop reading this personal statement, we dare you. The introduction grabs you and doesn’t let go. But besides spinning a great yarn that also says a lot about Daniel’s values, this application essay has an important function: it thoughtfully and maturely addresses any concerns the graduate admission committee might have regarding Daniel’s undergraduate academic performance. Showing rather than telling, he depicts a person who is prepared to do the work to overcome obstacles and learn from mistakes. And since he was admitted to the grad program, clearly it worked.
Try. To get. Some. Slee—it’s no use.
It’s 3:00 am, 90 minutes before our day at work in the landfills of rural Thailand is set to begin, and the 60-watt bulb is still shining bright overhead. It is radiant.
Directly on my left is one grown man’s bare armpit; to my right is more of the same. I keep my nose pointed at the ceiling. I can’t lift my arms because I am too big, a Caucasian beetle trying to fit into this Thai ant colony.
I’ve been lying still for the better part of six hours now, unable to determine exactly why my host family insists on leaving the brightest light in the house on all night (to this day, still a mystery). It is not for a child’s sake; I, at 22 years old, am the youngest in the home. I’m also the only American. Five grown men, lined up snugly on a queen-sized mattress, are soundly sleeping while I contemplate excuses for not working in the landfill that day.
Twelve hours later, over sticky rice and “fresh” vegetables (from the landfill), I try to call out some of my bunkmates for being afraid of the dark. Nobody laughs at my jokes, but they don’t stop smiling either. Perhaps they don’t understand my infantile Thai. From what I can understand of them, they enjoy talking about how grumpy I’ve been all day. No sleep for some 60-odd hours and putting in two grueling days in the landfill, filtering through mountains of trash from the nearby city of Khon Kaen, looking for yogurt containers and car batteries in the hot Thai sun—these things can change a man’s general disposition.
But I did wake up and go to work with my host family. No, I was not prepared physically or mentally, nor was I in the best of moods that day. But the smiling way of the Thai people is infectious, and it wasn’t long before I was smiling too that night, stomach full and ready for more...
That was back in the fall of 2008. The study abroad program I was participating in revolved around studying specific issues (damning rivers, mining minerals, razing slums, etc.), staying with a village that was negatively affected by an issue, and then working to help solve the problem. It was not uncommon to have sessions lasting eight or nine hours just to prepare for a town meeting the next day. Free time after exchanges and interviews would be spent working in the fields with the villagers or perhaps working on our program’s publications. It was not your typical study abroad experience. I have yet to learn of another like it.
It was also challenging at times. Thailand changed my view on a lot of things for the better, including what it means to truly work hard. As a waiter back home, it was a routine practice to work 40 hours a week in addition to going to class and studying. Still, sometimes I wonder if I used jobs outside of class as a crutch. I always had the excuse: I have to work to support myself. But so do a lot of people. And for some of those people, like many of the villagers in Thailand, working extra hours is not temporary. It's a way of life.
At the time I'm not sure I truly appreciated the privilege I had of going to college, as my undergraduate GPA might indicate. Part of that disappointing number is that I feel as if I was afraid of putting 100% of my effort into school. If I was to put all my effort in and still get mediocre grades, I would have considered myself a failure. Apparently I couldn’t or refused to handle that. How cowardly, not to mention foolish!
But while I was in Thailand, I developed a confidence in myself that I simply hadn’t been able to locate before. On multiple occasions I tasted the failure that comes with studying complex issues in a foreign land. Each time it tasted horrible. But I worked on these failures.
For example, I nagged my homestay families to help me with my Thai and forced myself to request constructive criticism in a group setting. Through these trials I discovered the sweetest feeling of them all: perseverance. That meal next to the landfill, described above, was one of the most deliciously memorable meals of my life for that same reason. I was exhausted and maybe a little bit grumpy, but I learned to work through it—and smile too.
I am well aware that law school will probably force me to even further revise my definition of hard work and present challenges and setbacks the likes of which I may not have yet experienced. But I would like to face these challenges, and most importantly overcome them, at your school. I hope my letters of recommendation and LSAT score give the indication that I am capable of doing so. This essay, lastly, is a chance for me to convince you that I can and will. I look forward to hearing from you.
Master of Arts, Higher Education Administration
Class of 2017
Why this essay is great: This personal statement takes you on a journey, as Bridget discovers her calling as an undergrad, gets all the hands-on experience in it she can, and figures out the perfect way to make it her career: grad school. And not just any grad school—Boston College in particular! There’s no doubt in your mind that she’s going to take advantage of everything BC’s master’s program has to offer, and she has the real-world experience to back her claims up.
I did not know higher education existed as a field until I came to college. Despite this, it has surprisingly been the field that has had the largest impact on my college experience. It has given me direction going forward.
College has been my most important experience so far, in that it has allowed me to better understand how I interact with my environment and how others experience the world around them. Without the Student Affairs professionals I have interacted with over the past four years, I would not be where I am today. I hope that in my future as a Student Affairs professional I can give students the great experience I have been privileged to receive. I will take the lessons I have learned and those that I will learn in the future to improve the college experience for many future generations going forward.
I have enjoyed being a Resident Advisor, a Parent Orientation Leader, and an Assistant Resident Director while attending the University of Massachusetts Lowell for the past four years. All of these jobs fall under the Office of Residence Life. These opportunities have been cornerstones of my college education. They have taught me the long-term and transferrable skills of organization, conflict management, and supervision.
I have most enjoyed being an Assistant Resident Director, as I get to work with the Resident Advisors and Resident Director in a more administrative capacity. The ARD works closely with the RD to get the work done and hold RAs accountable. I think my favorite part of being an ARD this year has been working with the RAs to make sure they have the best experience they can, while at the same time making sure they complete their work well and on time. I enjoy helping RAs and other students reach their full potential, and I feel that it is a learning process for me too. The ARD position has shown me how much I value helping others on the path I have set for myself through my experiences with the RAs I supervise.
Because of the ARD role I have been afforded, I have had the opportunity to see how this potential career may play out. I feel confident about my ability to transition to the professional side of the field because the ARD position has already forced me to take on many of these steps. I tested the waters of the potential career in my RA role last year; this year as an ARD has shown me that I know I can succeed.
I am passionate about student affairs and higher education because it is an opportunity to work with college students and help them grow and develop. I truly believe that there isn’t a more a rewarding career than one that allows you to help others. This field allows me to assist others every day at a time in their lives when many students need it most. It was my developmental path, and I want to give that support to others.
So far my academics and daily practice have not been linked nor intentional. I am excited to be able to make this so by starting a graduate program in higher education. Understanding my former responsibilities in terms of theory and learn how to turn new theories into practice is a process I cannot wait to begin.
I know the Lynch School of Education can assist me in achieving this goal through their program in Higher Education Administration. The opportunity to study in the Boston area will give me a multitude of professional development opportunities that would be hard to find anywhere else. If I am admitted, I will work hard to maximize my time at the Lynch School and become a young professional who can innovate and improve upon current practices in the field.
Master of Arts, Arts Administration
Class of 2018
Why this essay is great: Haviland draws a remarkable line from her undergraduate studies and goals to the present day. She’s been on a clear path for a long time, and grad school has always been part of the plan and the logical next step for her career. Her unwavering commitment to arts education and dance as a means for furthering social justice will serve her well professionally—and it probably impressed the graduate admission folks too. Haviland also references specific features of Castleton University’s graduate program, showing she’s genuinely interested in the school and its unique strengths.
While contemplating how I should approach my personal and professional goals and how earning an advanced degree will support them, I came upon my application essay for Goddard College that I wrote close to three years ago:
“Often times, children who lack positive, authoritative figures and emotional support end up making unwise choices that stay with them and induce prejudice and judgment from other people who may be ignorant to what caused these children to make the choices in the first place. This cultural stigmatism that exists in our society often leads to these children being segmented into a disenfranchised group as adults. The misunderstanding and neglect that occurs in communities towards socially disenfranchised children goes against everything that I was raised to take in regard when attempting to understand a person.
I envision my studies reaching children and young adults in many different communities. It is my goal to immerse myself in rural, inner-city, and lower-income communities and meet these children before or in the midst of their time when the decisions they make can influence where their life may lead. I believe that the teachings of dance as a holistic lifestyle will provide outlets of knowledge and self-expression for these children and young adults that will lead them in positive directions.”
In this essay we were expected to write about our intentions and ambitions for our studies; to address the passions that acted as the drive for our work during our attendance at the college as well as after graduation. In returning to this essay, I was pleased to discover that my ambition and dedication to using the performing arts as a source of structure and reliability for youth in this country has not changed. When applying to Goddard College for my undergraduate degree I knew that I would want to continue on to pursue my graduate degree afterwards to enhance myself as a qualified candidate working in my field. Earning my advanced degree will enable me to go forth in the world as a confident and learned individual prepared to create the positive opportunities I envisioned years ago.
While earning my advanced degree, I intend to learn the details and structure that is needed to successfully run arts organizations. The closeness that Castleton University has with the Association for Arts Administration in developing its program for the MA in Arts Administration encourages me; it assures me that the quality and rigor of the program at Castleton is the right fit for my personal and professional aspirations. The efficacy of the program combined with the professional portfolio of projects demonstrating a mastery of skills in a range of areas in the arts and the six-credit culminating internship is exactly what I am looking for in an advanced degree program.
My background in the performing arts is broad. Not only have I have spent many years performing in productions of theater and dance, but I have also devoted my time and learning to other aspects of performance arts, whether it be technical, political, and social. My time attending Goddard College has proven to be extremely educational in training me in areas of social justice and cultural realizations of privilege, class, and human rights. With an accomplished and culturally diverse faculty and staff, the College requires its students to incorporate this training into their degrees, which makes for globally conscious citizens.
What I stand to bring to Castleton University’s campus is a vibrant love for the performing arts accompanied by acute social awareness training. My dedication to improving myself as an individual in my career is resolute; earning my advanced degree is vital to my continuing as a professional in a field so important to the foundation of our culture. I look forward to the opportunity of earning my Master of Arts in Arts Administration at Castleton University.
We hope you were inspired by these awesome grad school application essays! (If you’d like your grad school essay/personal statement to be considered for inclusion, let us know!)
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