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.
- Examine your brand assets
- Review your prompts
- Write your outline
- Draft your essay
- Edit, edit, edit!
Step 1: Examine Your Brand Assets
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:
Use the series of questions you create, alongside a list of your traits and stories, as a checklist when editing your essay. Your essay should answer all questions and include your most relevant assets.
- 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
Once you know what questions you need to answer, it’s time to tackle what you’re going to say. Before your excitement (or panic) sends you into a furious fit of typing, take a deep breath and consider this: Even decades-practiced writers can benefit from a solidly built outline. Do you have 20 years of essay writing experience under your belt? Well, we do. And we still use outlines.
Here’s why you should use outlines:
In reality, you should spend more time writing your outline than the essay itself. It should include enough detail that you can look at each bullet and know what you’re going to write. If you have to do more research or brainstorming to write your essay after the outline is finished (aside from the occasional misremembered date or a quick thesaurus run), then you're outline is not thorough enough. Go back and rewrite your outline before you continue with your essay.
- 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.
An outline should include: the three main points of your introductory paragraph, the topic sentence and supporting bullets for each body paragraph, and the three main points for your conclusion. Remember, this is only the basic structure of your essay; your final essay should be more detailed, have better flow, and offer a much more engaging narrative than your outline.
The essay-writing process is like building a table and your outline is the blueprint. Without it, there’s little hope of producing a passable result.
⇒ Personal Statements
If 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!
whether you’re writing a personal statement or an essay, and
of which prompt you choose, there are a few things admissions representatives almost always look for (so you should too).
Don’t be afraid to talk about something that was life-changing for you, even if it’s a sensitive topic (e.g., illness, disability, a death in the family), so long as it connects to your brand story. Admissions committees are looking for vulnerability, so you should be digging deep for these essays. That said, here are some things you should definitely avoid in your essay:
- 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
Now, if your outline is the blueprint for your essay, then drafting is like measuring the wood, cutting the pieces, and putting them together. Planning your design required a thoughtful, thorough process. But the building is where the bulk of the work actually happens. An outline without a draft is just an idea.
Your goal in drafting an essay should simply be to put your thoughts to paper, so it’s perfectly okay if you don’t use the right words (or you use too many) the first time around. It’s even okay if your organization is a little scattered, so long as you’re following the outline.
You should go through between three and seven versions of each essay, depending on just how rough your rough drafts look. This is also the point at which you should be incorporating your research. If you learned something helpful at a campus visit or while talking to an admissions rep, this is one place where you can pull it out and say: “See! I was listening.” For example, if an essay asks why you want to attend this school in particular, you could note the atmosphere of intellectual challenge, and then cite an experience where you witnessed two students in a heated academic debate. In this way, your research should come up naturally within your response.
Don’t try to force it. Any research you include should be used to make a point, not just as a quick BTW. Admissions representatives want to know that you visited, and that you found things of interest to you, so you don’t have to be subtle. The fact that you visited is proof of your interest in the school and your investment in the application process; if it’s relevant to do so, show it off! This is especially because school’s keep a close eye on their yield rate.
Step 5: Edit
Now you have a workable table, but it’s definitely not nice enough to show off yet. It’s time for the finishing touches: sanding, staining, and polishing. If you skipped the outline section to get here — go back. No amount of finish can turn a wood block into a beautiful table. You need a plan. If you’ve diligently crafted your outline and drafted your essay, read on.
There are three major steps to editing. The first is content. Ask yourself: “Am I hitting the points I wanted to make?” The second is structure: “Am I conveying this effectively? Does it make sense?” And third is grammar and spelling (we hope we don’t have to define that).
Good essay content means answering yes to these questions:
If you answer no to either of these questions, your essay is not ready. If this is the case, revisit your outline. Does the outline include what was missing? If so, and it was a careless error that it was missed in your essay, go back to step three. If you think your outline was amiss, or if what was missing in your essay is also missing in your outline, then you didn’t write a good outline (sorry, not sorry). Go back to the very beginning, compare your brand assets to your chosen prompt, and see how you can incorporate whatever the missing component is into a New-and-Improved Outline.
Did I answer the questions I outlined when I chose my prompt?
Did I demonstrate the brand assets I intended to highlight?
If you pass this first test with flying colors (two out of two!), then it’s time to turn your attention to structure.
Don’t start your essay with a quote. You’ll be lucky if such an introduction comes off more sincerely than a mass-produced Live Laugh Love sign. You’re an original thinker; show them how novel you can be! In place of a quote, use a hook to grab the reader’s attention in a more unique way. If you can make your introduction vivid, and really put the admissions representative in your shoes, you’ll be much better off.
Don’t include irrelevant details or let yourself wander off on a tangent (you have an outline for a reason). Do, however, use flawless logic. Don’t make your reader guess how your first point connects to your third; draw it out for them. Airtight logic will impress law schools and business schools alike, while trying to make a connection where there isn’t one will confuse and derail. Don’t tell an admissions representative what they want to hear… unless it just so happens to be true.
Lastly, don’t simply copy and paste your outline into your essay. If the reader can tell where each bullet starts and ends, or the first line of the first paragraph is literally the topic sentence from your outline, you’re not trying hard enough. Try to take the reader on a journey; you can start with something small and connect it to something big or you can bring an idea full circle.
Spelling, Grammar, Etc.
Here are some of our most important do’s and don’ts.
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)
As a rule of thumb, you should leave two days between each round of edits so you can come at it with a clear head. Once you’ve edited for content, structure, grammar, and spelling, you should look at the actual length of your essay.
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
What if it’s too short?
What to do about this depends on how you define too short. If you’re at 300 words, and the limit is 600, that’s not enough. But if you’re 90% of the way to your word limit, you’re actually in good shape. Your finished essay should be 80-100% of the max word length. If your essay really isn’t long enough, it’s likely that you haven’t added sufficient detail. Revisit your stories and see if there’s a way to make your descriptions more vivid. Keep in mind that adding more sentences is significantly easier than adding more words to existing sentences.
What if it’s too long?
There is never a good reason to exceed the listed word limit or use an unapproved font for an essay. In fact, if you have to type your essay directly into the school’s application portal, it will be impossible to do so. But if you are submitting your essays through a document upload, you should pay close attention to these limits. If you feel strongly that you have no more fluff left to cut, you can go over the word limit by as much as five percent, but don’t do it on every essay; this shows a lack of foresight rather than a dedication to conveying your message.
So, your essay is officially too long; what do you cut first?
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.
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