University Career Center

As part of your application, most graduate schools give you an opportunity to elaborate on your background in a personal essay. The content of your essay will be defined by the guidelines outlined on the application. Some programs will provide little structure, allowing you to choose the aspects of your background you wish to highlight. For others you may be asked to respond to specific questions. The essay is your chance to elaborate on your understanding of the discipline, your academic endeavors, and ideas for future career directions.

Keep the perspective of the admissions committee in mind when writing your essays. They will be reading your essay with some key goals in mind:

  • To learn why you are interested in graduate school
  • To understand how your interests correspond to the interests of their program
  • To assess your writing ability
  • To differentiate applicants who are in the middle range of the applicant pool, with good, although not outstanding, scores and grades

With that in mind, consider these questions before you begin writing:

  • What is unique about your background? Have you faced any unusual hardships or situations? Which of these experiences have influenced your growth?
  • When did you become interested in this field, and what specific experiences have furthered your interests?
  • What have you learned about the program that most interests you?
  • What are your career goals?
  • Are there any inconsistencies or negatives in your record that you should explain?
  • Which personal characteristics and skills will enhance your prospects for success in graduate school and in the professional world?
  • What makes you stand out from the pack? What are the most compelling reasons for this school to be interested in you?

Pay attention to your writing style as well as your content. Keep these points in mind as you work on drafts of your document:

  • Be clear, concise and organized. Write efficiently, with no ambiguity. Develop your ideas in an orderly fashion, using examples when needed.
  • Be positive. Sell yourself, highlighting positive qualities; approach weaknesses in your background cautiously, keeping the tone of your document positive, not apologetic.
  • Be honest and direct. Don’t inflate your achievements, but also don’t underestimate your potential. Be sure to address specific questions that are asked.
  • Be personal. Essays are your chance to convey a more complete picture of yourself, beyond test scores and grades. Take the opportunity to share something of yourself that will have meaning for the admissions committee.