By Suzanne Zilber, Ph.D. Former Coordinator of the Career Exploration Program, Student Counseling Service, Iowa State University. Other helpful information is available on the Student Counseling Service Web Site http://www.iastate.edu/~stdtcouns/ Introduction
Applications to graduate and professional school often require a personal or autobiographical statement. Although your grades and test scores are probably more important criteria for acceptance, your personal statement can influence whether you are considered a valuable candidate for the program.
A strong admissions essay can accomplish many goals. First, you can sell yourself by highlighting your unique qualifications for the academic program. Second, the essay may be used to supplement or expand on information included in the standard application forms for the program. For example, you may have one line to list “Philanthropy chair of sorority”, and you may want to describe what that entailed further in the essay. Thirdly, you may want to use the essay to explain special circumstances in your academic history (e.g., an unusually poor performance one quarter) if you believe those experiences may negatively affect your chances for admission. Furthermore, if you gain admission, your essay may be used to assign a faculty advisor with similar interests.
Writing an admissions essay can be anxiety provoking, especially for those lacking confidence in their writing skills. This booklet will provide you with guidelines for successfully approaching the challenge to produce a high quality, top notch essay.
The Purpose of an Admissions Essay
In evaluating your application, admissions faculty are primarily trying to determine three things: 1) Can you handle the work?
2) Will you have sufficient motivation to do the work and complete the degree? 3) Will you fit into the program?
The two steps towards achieving these three objectives in your admissions essay are knowing yourself and knowing the program.
KNOW YOURSELF: This step includes being able to identify your interests, abilities, values, and personality characteristics. An excellent way to indicate your motivation or interest in the topic of study is to give a review of your career development (e.g., how you discovered your interest in the topic, and what choices you made which led up to your current decision to apply to graduate or professional school). Overall, knowing yourself will enable you to articulate yourself effectively to admissions faculty.
KNOW THE PROGRAM: This step involves researching the program. The efforts taken to learn about the program before writing will be beneficial to you in a number of ways. First, you will personalize your essay more effectively if you have a lot of information about the program. Making specific references to the program will demonstrate commitment to the admissions committee. Second, the more you know about the program, the more confident you can be that the program fits your goals — and that confidence will show in your writing.
Writing Your Essay
A. Getting Started
One of the hardest parts of writing admissions essays is just getting started. However, if you know yourself and you know the program, you will have a good knowledge base with which to start composing a winning essay. Anxiety about writing skills or the application process can contribute to procrastination. Avoid procrastination by writing a number of rough drafts rather than trying to write a perfect copy the first time. Even if you go through ten drafts before you are satisfied with your work, the more you write, the more likely you will produce an admissionsgaining essay. B. Content
There are seven basic content areas which you might address in your admissions essay: 1) The history of your career interests
2) Coursework related to the program
3) Experiences or research related to the program
4) Research or specialization interests
5) Future career goals
6) Answers to any specific questions the application asks.
7) Why that particular school or program fits you
Which area, or combination of areas, you decide to address will be based on the guidelines for the essay given by in the application, and the type of information you are trying to convey. It will be to your advantage to appear focused in your interests. Try to indicate what you would like to do your research on or how you would focus your studies. Sometimes students are nervous about stating long term career goals. Remember, no one is going to hold you to what you wrote in that essay when you make career decisions 2 to 6 years later, so take a stab at an idea for your future. In addition, essays should be one to two pages long unless otherwise specified in the application.
C. Writing Style
Style is the other important element of your essay besides content. The readers of your essay are not only looking to see what you communicate (content), but also how you communicate. You want to compose a well-thought out essay which uses strong, persuasive language, and gives clear, concrete examples.
Essays should be one to two pages long unless otherwise specified in the application, which means that you will have to write concisely and powerfully to include important content. The following are some editing tips.
1) Circle all prepositions (to, of, in, with, etc…)
2) Underline all passive verbs (forms of “to have” or “to be”) 3) Remove any unessential prepositional phrases.
4) Rewrite with active verbs. Remember it is OKAY to use “I” in these essays. Try to think of active verbs that will communicate the skills valuable to the program. 5) Make sure you have enough commas to facilitate the reading process. You may wish to consult Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, for more assistance. Here’s an example of how to edit a section.
“It is my goal to continue past the master’s degree and earn a doctorate so that I will be qualified to teach literature at a college or university.”
“I plan to pursue a doctorate so that I may teach literature at a college or university.” 2. Descriptions
Another style issue is how to describe your experiences. The essay should generally not be another listing of how you have kept yourself busy the past four or more years. However, if the application blank for the particular program does not ask for a lot of information, you may need to include more biographical data in the essay.
A well described, concrete incident can be a powerful component of an essay. For example, a student recalled that her admissions officer from college remembered her admissions essay three years later, because she vividly described conversations she had with people in Sweden. Within or after your description, you can then state what the incident illustrates about your skills or qualities.
EXAMPLES: Experience Descriptions
1) “At one time, the office in which I work included four former English majors on a professional staff of six. While proofreading pages of the periodical I edit, the four of us would pause occasionally to argue vigorously over an ambiguous line or a questionable comma, and I thoroughly enjoyed even the pettiest and most ridiculous of these debates.” 2) “As a crisis intervention hotline volunteer, I gained confidence in my ability to quickly establish rapport, stay calm, be confrontive, and make ethical judgments. One night, when I was on a shift alone, I received a call from a man who had beaten and tied his wife to a bed and he feared he would kill her. I was surprised at my ability to establish rapport and feel empathy for the “ultimate villain” in my worldview. I successfully got him to do some cognitive restructuring, while I grappled with the ethical dilemma of breaching his confidentiality to trace the hour long call.” Polishing
Finally, your essay should be typed and flawless. Proofread, proofread, proofread. An effective way to proofread for misspellings is to review the essay backwards word by word. Then you can proofread backwards sentence by sentence. Do not rely solely on word processor “spell checkers” — they cannot catch when a “form” should have been a “from”. It is also helpful to have friends, professors, or parents give you feedback on your essay to ensure that you are making sense. Keep in mind, however, that this is YOUR essay. You will be evaluated on your writing ability, so your essay should reflect your work.
Most of the following samples are from essays that admissions faculty at Ohio State University felt were excellent. The students have volunteered to share their writing with the understanding that others will not plagiarize or copy their work.
A word on PLAGIARISM: Plagiarism occurs when someone labels another person’s work as their own. It is a form of academic misconduct and is unethical. A personal statement is just that, personal. Your essay will not be effective unless it honestly reflects you, so please use the following samples as guides only.
An example of a career development introduction, Anne Halverson, German department:
“My interest in German has been developing since I spent my junior year of high school in West Germany and became fluent in the language. When I entered the University of Washington, I enjoyed subjects dealing with the history of the German language and even completed graduate level courses in German dialects and Gothic. My interest in literature, however, grew slowly. As a freshman, I had run into an overtly Freudian professor who insisted that breakfast eggs represented pregnant women. I thought I would never be able to comprehend such interpretations. My fear of literature changed during my senior year when I finally had the chance to study Johann von Goethe, the Romanticists, and the German Minnesang. In these courses, I was able to pursue my major interest–the portrayal of women in German literature.” An example of an effective use of the “listing” approach is in the introduction of Deborah Friedman, Case Western School of Medicine:
“I perceive my future role as one of service to the community. I have always valued community involvement, a value learned by example from my parents. Since high school I have been active in various levels of the community, developing diverse interests and skills. For example, at Princeton University, my involvement included work in and beyond the bounds of the academic community. I devoted much time and energy to musical groups and performances as a flutist on campus. In addition, I enhanced my leadership and organizational skills as an officer in several large extra curricular activities, and exercised communication skills by serving as a Peer Counselor. Finally, I devoted time each year to volunteering in the community: in the local hospital, the Girl Scouts of America, the Association for the Advancement of the Mentally Handicapped, and a New Jersey State policy research organization.” An example of a research experience description, Nancy Gill, Psychology Department: “I have experience in both designing and executing experiments involving human and animal subjects.
I assisted in running rats in a study examining infantile amnesia. This involved training young animals to associate a shock with a tone through classical conditioning and then retesting them when they were older. I assisted in a study examining a rat’s preference for familiar or unfamiliar rats,. The study looked at the effect of genetic familiarity and experiential familiarity. This study assessed the factors associated with the development of social attachment at various ages. I have also worked with children and college students and their perceptions of weight. This involved using tactile and abstract manipulations of objects and its effect on their perceived weight.”
An example of a “creative” essay, Jennifer Smith, English Department: “I was born in Wapkoneta, Ohio, in 1949, and it was there, almost immediately after birth, that I developed allergies to anything that could be ingested or inhaled. These allergies kept me from going outside in the summer which led directly to my present expertise in Golden Age mystery fiction. The highlight of my public school education came from my senior year when I was awarded a complete four-year scholarship from the Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation in honor of allergies above and beyond the call of adolescence. Having achieved a solid B average, I left Wapakoneta High School for Bowling Green where I majored in journalism, English, history, political science, and geology in rapid succession. I finally graduated in 1973 with a B.S. in art education. I would like to say that my eclectic undergraduate studies at Bowling Green gave me an encyclopedic grasp of the humanities, but the only thing I seem to have retained is the ability to cross large, open spaces in a head wind.”
An example of the “power essay”, Jeff Shapiro, School of Law: “I reason clearly, debate well, and write coherent papers. Yet, the intense challenge of law school will sharpen those skills.”
1) Jeff Shapiro, School of Law:
“Finally given the opportunity , I will bring qualities of creativity, persistence, and a developed ability to work with my peers. Hopefully, I will be afforded the opportunity to go into a field, such as my father’s, where I too will be able to make a difference.” 2) Nancy Gill, Psychology Department:
“I am looking forward to continuing my education and pursuing my academic and professional goals in your graduate program. My self-initiative and motivation will enable me to work independently. My knowledge of the research processes, gained through these experiences, has given me the critical skills necessary to execute research in an effective and efficient manner. With my goals and qualifications, I am confident that I can be very successful in you program if given the opportunity.”
Example of Lapse in Academic Performance
1) Jeff Shapiro, School of Law:
“Off to college I went, with no career in mind. Having no focus, I performed poorly and soon realized I needed to take time off. During that time my thoughts began to change towards law. I was called to witness in a probate hearing and enjoyed it.”
For additional essay examples and other tips, you may want to consult Graduate Admissions Essays-What Works, What Doesn’t and Why, by Donald Asher. His book goes beyond just writing the essay and gives excellent tips on the application process in general. (Ten Speed Press, 1800-841-BOOK, 1991) Or you may consult How to Write a Winning Personal Statement for Graduate and Professional School by Richard J. Stelzer which has a special emphasis on admission to law, business and medical schools.
These books and other books about graduate and professional school programs are available in the Career Exploration Library, in the Student Counseling Service, SSB Building. There are peer educators available to help you find the information you need and the library is open most business hours including the noon hour.
You may now feel clearer and more confident about how to write a personal statement. Remember, persistence is everything in both applying to and completing graduate school. Good luck with your application process!
Material in this guide is all original work done in the spring of 1989 for Career Planning Services at The Ohio State University under the supervision of Mark Ballard, M.A. It was revised in October 1991 for the Iowa State University Student Counseling Service Career Exploration Program. Copyright 1996 Suzanne Zilber, Ph.D. Iowa State University Additional Resources for Writing Graduate and Professional School Application Essays Compiled by Miche Rigoni-Roth, Career Services Center, University of Wyoming Ten Minute Guide to Applying to Grad School by Ellen Lichenstein and Sharon McDonnell, Arco Alpha Books
Peterson’s Graduate and Professional Programs Overview book has a section on personal statements.
Write for Success: Preparing a Successful Professional School Application by Evelyn W. Jackson and Harold R. Bardo, national Association of Advisors for the Health Professions, Inc., 1989 Perfect Personal Statements by Mark Alan
Graduate School and You, available from the Council of Graduate Schools.