Essay-writing is perhaps the most daunting aspect of completing a grad school application for many applicants. But, once you’ve established your brand, built your resume, and lined up your recommenders, writing your essays is really about filling in the blanks. To organize your essay-writing process, follow these five simple steps:Note that step one can be done just once and will apply to all essays across all of your applications. However, you'll need to repeat steps two through five for each individual essay.
As you examine your brand assets (key character traits and stories), remember that your goal is to fluidly incorporate them into your writing. Like a political expert on the nightly news, you should be tossing in your own talking points while still answering the question at hand. If you lean too far in either direction (towards your own agenda or too narrowly on the question) you’ll miss the mark. The best way to strike this balance is to view your essay questions through the lens of your desired traits and stories. Make sure to keep these in mind as you choose prompts, write outlines, draft, and edit.
Once all of your essays for an application are drafted, review them to see whether your complete brand story is being told. You should cover all your traits and relevant stories across your application; it won’t hurt if there’s some overlap. It’s a powerful confirmation about you if the same trait appears in multiple assets.
However, focusing on your favorite overcoming-the-odds story in both of your essays, one of your recommendations, and your resume is just too much. Repetitiveness, especially within the essay section, is a waste of valuable application space. You can bet that if you make this mistake, you’ll leave important stories left untold. To learn more about how to tell your complete brand story across your application, watch this.
Step 2: Review Your Prompts
The first thing you should do is review your essay prompts. If you have more than one prompt, and you’re allowed to choose between them, don’t just go for the “easy essay.” You cannot write a winning essay by choosing a prompt based on how short or simple it looks. Instead, choose whichever prompt best aligns with your key character traits and stories. With this lens, you’ll see that some lend themselves better to your brand than others. Pick those.
Once you’ve chosen a prompt, the key to a strong essay is to figure out what they’re really asking. What are the admissions officers trying to learn about you with this question? To help get to the root, rewrite the prompt as a series of questions that you need to answer. For example, if the prompt is “What brought you to this program and what in your background will make you successful in your eventual career?” then you would actually have four separate questions you need to answer:
- What is your desired career?
- What traits and experiences will make you successful in that career?
- What led you to where you are today, applying to this program?
- How does this program fit into your desired career?
⇒ Personal Statements
If your prompt is rather simple, like “Tell us about yourself,” or “Why do you want to go to graduate school?”, you’re being asked to write a personal statement, not an essay. Grad schools often use this unstructured and somewhat daunting format in place of a traditional essay (and we’re convinced this is simply because they like to see us sweat). The advantage of writing a personal statement, though, is that you’ll have ample freedom to explore your own big ideas.
Step 3: Write Your Outline
- When you go to write your essay, you won’t have any lingering questions about what to include or what’s most important.
- You won’t get writer’s block, or feel lost in the middle of typing your essay, because all your thoughts will be easily at hand.
- You can compare outlines across prompts and schools much more easily than full essays.
⇒ Personal StatementsIf you’re faced with writing a personal statement, the outlining process above will be similar, but there’s a bit more legwork before you can start outlining. First, brainstorm. Write down all of your ideas for your personal statement in the form of stories; focus on what you want to get across with each particular story. If you’re at a complete loss (or you’ve already exhausted your two to three core stories in other parts of your application) consider these questions to get your mind going:
If you’re the kind of person who writes better to a prompt, you can “self-assign” one to focus your personal statement on. Options could include a tough decision you had to make, a passion you have, something that changed your life, a time when you overcame adversity, or an intellectual curiosity you have.
- What have you learned about yourself in your undergraduate career and professional life? About the world? About your place in it?
- What have you accomplished academically? In leadership positions?
- What do you contribute to the world professionally? What do you plan to do to contribute in the future, and how will you make it happen?Second, take a closer look at each story. Ask yourself if there’s enough meat on the bones of a given topic. Will it allow you to highlight your brand? Is it suitable for the school you’re writing for?Third, choose just one or two such stories and start outlining!
- Personal growth
- Something new about you (that they didn’t know before)
- How your story connects to why you’re going to grad school
- Writing about generalities; picking a topic that’s too broad
- Writing an “I’ve always wanted to be a ____” essay
- Writing mostly about someone else (an essay is a chance to show off you!)
- Writing multiple responses to just one prompt (one essay at a time here, people)
- Writing about controversial issues that aren’t directly tied to your brand
Step 4: Draft Your Essay
Step 5: Edit
- Did I answer the questions I outlined when I chose my prompt?
- Did I demonstrate the brand assets I intended to highlight?
Spelling, Grammar, Etc.
- Don’t use the wrong school name (this is surprisingly common, so watch out)
- Use legalese or jargon
- Use distasteful humor (since you can’t tell how it’s received)
- Write a business memo (this is not a list of things they should know, it’s a story)
- Write an academic paper (it’s meant to be persuasive, not informational)
- Reveal your personality (don’t be so professional that it hides who you are)
- Choose words that are concise and clear (it’s about effectiveness, not length)
- Demonstrate energy using active voice
- Cut all fluff. This is the equivalent of verbal “ums” and “ahs.” Fluff might take the form of phrases like, “As you can see” or “like I mentioned earlier.” Thank the school for setting a word limit, since this cut will likely improve your writing as a whole.
- Cut within each body paragraph. Remove any sentences or phrases that don’t directly support your topic sentence for each paragraph.
- Cut within the intro. The introduction and conclusion, by their very nature, are doing a lot of the heavy lifting for your essay in just a small amount of space. For this reason, they are the last to be cut. The intro gets cut before the conclusion because, if you’ve written a convincing body, the burden on your intro should be minimal. Cut points that are made in the body of your essay, and leave the intro as a hook.
- Cut within the conclusion. This should be the absolute last section you shorten, because it’s the last thing an admissions representative sees. Think of your conclusion as your closing argument; your last chance to shape their perception of you as a candidate. The only thing you should cut from the conclusion are sentences that are simple reiterations.
Also in this step:
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