Graduate Application Essays

Graduate school, then, is quite different from undergraduate school. It takes longer, it requires much more focused and sustained work, it involves much more intensive relationships with faculty and other students, and it makes considerably greater demands on your personal identity. You can get through your undergraduate education, if you care to, without ever really thinking about who you are or what you want to accomplish in the world. In graduate school, though, your personal identity will almost certainly undergo great change. In particular, you will acquire a particular sort of professional identity: you will become known as the person who wrote such-and-such a paper, who did such-and-such research, who refuted such-and-such theory, or who initiated such-and-such line of inquiry. This process can be tremendously satisfying. But it's definitely not for everyone. (http://www.acm.org/crossroads/xrds3-4/gradschool.html)

Graduate School Timeline -- courtesy of Bed, Bath, and Beyond (yep, I'm not kidding!)

You’ve thought it through and decided graduate school is the path to take to achieve your goals. So now it’s time to gather all the information you need and take the necessary steps to get into the school of your choice. The timeline below will help you prepare for graduate school and the GREs, or business school and the GMATs. If you’re planning on attending law school and taking the LSATs, or medical school and taking the MCATs, start the process a couple of months earlier. Those applying to law school also must register with the Law School Data Assembly Service (LSDAS) about 15 months before. The LSDAS prepares a report of your academic history which law schools will request. If you’re planning on attending medical school, file an application through the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS). With the AMCAS, you complete one application and they send it to all the AMCAS member schools you apply to.


Writing the Personal Statement


Classic Application Prompt
: Your application should include a short essay in your own words, describing why you are interested in attending graduate school and why you chose our department. In your essay, specify your particular physics area of interest and discuss your future career plans. (from
University of Denver)

Solid Approach
: Your personal statement is not a biography, resume, or research paper. I tend to think of a personal statement as something like a non-fiction short story with the applicant being the main character. Ideally the reader should find it effortless to logically arrive at the conclusion that the main character would make an excellent addition to their incoming graduate class. (from
PhysicsGRE.com)

Basic Moves of a Personal Statement for  Graduate School Programs

How does one write a successful personal statement? There are two main criteria:

  1. Follow directions exactly;
  2. Distinguish yourself from the crowd.


Follow Directions 

This ought to easy, but applicants often miss this one. If ever there were a time when you wanted to impress an audience with how well you can read and understand directions, this is the time. So, read questions carefully and answer what they ask for; you may need to write differently for each school. Stick to word/page limits!!  Some schools have brief, very focused personal statement questions, some have vague questions with no page limit guidelines, and still others favor a series of essays rather than a single statement. Whichever the case, the key to keeping calm is selecting potential schools early and getting together all the admissions material you need. Since it costs nothing to get the materials, go ahead and gather any school which legitimately peaks your interest. Then, at your leisure:

  1. Read each school thoroughly.
  2. select the schools you want to apply to.
  3. throw the other material out to de-clutter your desk.
  4. rank schools from first to last choice
  5. prepare to write!


Distinguish Yourself from the Crowd 

Let's clarify from the very beginning that we are NOT talking about experimental writing styles here. You are not going to write in theatrical dialogue or trochaic feet or an AABB rhyme scheme or haiku or in cartoon bubbles. The personal statement is an essay, not a piece of performance art.

  1. Motivation for studying -- opening paragraph -- anecdotal/narrative  (why do this?)
  2. Qualities/Experiences -- told by example -- a few focused, well-developed arguments --  no listing, re-hashing of resume (why you? what have you done so far?)
  3. Future Plans -- what organizational settings, research are you interested in?  Not set in stone, but need some indication (what are your plans?)
  4. School Choice -- why this program?  Argument shows "this is me, this is you, this is why we are a perfect match"  (why us?)


Best Practices for all Personal Statements

"Best Practices" is a new fancy term for using techniques with a proven history of working well (sort of like "evidence based", but without the research requirement attached).  There are a couple of them pertaining to personal statement writing that are missed surprisingly often.  Here are a few of the biggies that will help.

  1. Most Important Rule -- say nothing in your personal statement that isn't directly relevant to helping an admissions committee make a decision about your merit as a graduate student. This especially includes quoting other people (why should they care what Einstein or Maya Angelou or Luke/Mark/John or anyone else has ever said?  What does it have to do with your ability to succeed?),

  2. Be truthful.  Do not lie.  I know, this one seems obvious...but you'd be surprised.  You can manage vocabularly choice (and you should), but you may not say something that isn't true.

  3. Keep it positive.  Do not write negatively about yourself or your profession or anyone else!  If you need to explain a dip in grades, do so briefly and objectively; do not belabour whatever trauma/situation caused the problem.  Also, do not write things like "I went into Physics because I don't have great people skills, so I thought working with computers would be a more logical choice" or "I wanted to go into physics because calculations always make sense and going into English would make me unemployable." Such statements reveal how little the applicant understands about work life after college! Just think of it this way: grad school is a more level playing field. So, if everyone is smart, everyone did well in school, most everyone will have a solid graduate career, and everyone is ultimately competing for the same positions, how does any organization decide who they are going to hire? By your soft skills, those intangible people skills.

  4. Details sell.  Lists do not.  Do not rehash your resume.  Instead, choose a few experiences that were particularly meaningful and/or can illustrate qualities  that you want the admissions committee to know.  To succeed as illustrative examples, experiences must have the following 3 parts (you can't expect the readers to fill in missing parts -- they have too many essays to read to spend time performing literary interpretation):

        1. Tell the story (what happened)

        2. Tell what you learned (what you got out of it)

        3. Tell how what you learned applies to success in grad school or in your profession (why it matters).


Letters of Recommendation

Step One:  Who should write the letters? First, check the criteria provided by the school. If none is given (not very common for professional degrees), then you should focus on (in descending order of impact)

  1. professors in your field;
  2. research/internship/volunteer supervisors (faculty);
  3. internship/volunteer supervisors (non-faculty);
  4. professors out of your field;
  5. work supervisors.

Generally speaking, all other recommenders are not considered valid for grad school application (for instance, church pastor, guidance counselor, etc.).

Step Two:  Either visit during office hours or send an email with your name, context of the relationship (course, semester), position for which you are applying (grad school, law school, med school, internship, scholarship, job, etc.), and some brief mention of the project/s you did for class (especially important if it's been a while since you've been a student). This email should request a letter of recommendation so that the recommender has the opportunity to say yea or nea.

Step 3:  After the recommender agrees, then you should provide a copy of your most current resume, a personal statement (if applicable), copies of class work (if applicable), any forms required by the school (with your portions already filled out), an envelope (stamped and addressed if mailed directly to institution), and a due date for completion (MINIMUM of four weeks for a single letter -- if many schools, then minimum 6 weeks). Ask the recommender if they'd like a copy of your transcripts. If not, then save the money!

Step 4:  If you are requesting letters for more than one institution, then ORGANIZE the material before you give it all to the recommender. Clip all info from the same school together, organize pile according to submission date (if different), then place all of the materials in a pocket folder or large envelope of some type. Do this even if all letters are submitted electronically -- a simple, one page list of schools/due dates is very useful.

  1. FYI -- did I mention "ORGANIZE"? Please respect the time constraints for the recommender and do not throw last minute applications into the pile.
  2. Reality Check #1 -- it's smarter to waive your right of access to the letter; most people will feel more comfortable that way
  3. Reality Check #2 -- have reasonable expectations of the recommender. If you are requesting letters for ten schools, then the recommender has to fill out ten sets of forms in addition to the letters. It's likely that a general letter will be written ("Dear Graduate Admissions Committee,") rather than highly individualized letters relating the goals of the institution to your personal plans
  4. Fill out ALL recommender information for them -- make sure to get correct names, positions, addresses, phone #s, email addresses.

Step 5:  Ask the recommender if they want a reminder email or phone call. If they don't, then don't call them.

Step 6:  It is nice to send along a "thank you" of some kind (a simple email would do) when the letter has been finished. You will know this because the school has confirmed your file is complete.

Step 7: Let the recommender know the outcome of the application! Writing letters of recommendation is a pleasurable task (for the most part) but not an easy one, and it's rewarding to know when something works out.

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