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Graduate School Harvard Application Essay

(By Tracy Bennett, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures)

A filmed personal statement might have helped Elle Woods get into Harvard Law School, but in the real world, you’re better off sticking to these tips.

If you have seen the 2001 film, Legally Blonde, you might remember that Elle Woods, played by Reese Witherspoon, creates a video for her admissions essay to Harvard Law School. As she sits in a hot tub, she states that she will be an “amazing lawyer” because she can discuss important issues, such as the brand of toilet paper used in her sorority house, and she uses “legal jargon in everyday life” to object when men harass her. She can also recall details at the “drop of a hat,” including the recent events on a soap opera. (If you haven’t seen the movie or simply want a good laugh, you can view the clip on YouTube.)

Although the Harvard committee granted Elle admission, you will probably want to take your essay in a different direction. While you cannot change your grade point average or entrance exam scores, you have complete control over the contents of your personal statement. There are many applicants and few spots, so work diligently to persuade readers that you fit their program given your qualifications, interests and professional goals. Use the tips below to prepare and refine your essay.

1. Just get started.

Yes, your first sentence should be compelling and attention-grabbing, but if you attempt to identify your opening line immediately you will probably induce writer’s block. Make an outline or free write. You can tweak the introduction later once you are more aware of your noteworthy accomplishments or the defining events that have led to your career interests.

2. Articulate your reasons for selecting your chosen career.

Although these essays are often called personal statements, they are not an autobiography. Instead, view it as an essay about your journey as an emerging scholar. Provide evidence to demonstrate that you have actively confirmed your interests and that earning an advanced degree will help you achieve these goals. Describe the courses, articles, professors, research, service projects, internships, shadowing or co-curricular activities that have shaped your aspirations. Avoid references to high school accomplishments, gimmicks or clichés such as, “I have always wanted to be a _________.” Cautiously address controversial topics. It is one thing to demonstrate your knowledge of the field by referencing a current debate. It is quite another thing to offend your readers with excessive political or religious rhetoric.

3. Be specific.

For example, it is not enough to say that you aspire to be a social worker because you want to help children. You could do this in a variety of occupations. Similarly, anyone can say that they are interested in law. Earn credibility by demonstrating this passion. Have you worked at a law firm or participated in student government, Model UN and/or mock trial?

4. One size does not fit all.

Unless it is a common application system, such as those used by law, physical therapy and medical schools, you should describe your rationale for selecting the program among other alternatives. By the way, most of the schools that use a common application system will require supplemental essays that inquire about this. For the time being, you may omit it from your initial personal statement. Each institution has its own values, mission and faculty. What led you to select its particular program over others? Was it an emphasis in a particular area (e.g., rural practice, technology) or the research interests of a professor? Was your interest heightened by a conversation with its alumni?

5. Whatever your reasons for applying, be sincere.

Briefly mention any noteworthy and appealing features that attracted you to the program or institution, but do not go overboard. Committee members already know the prestigious awards that they have won, and most of your competition will mention these same attributes. If you offer excessive praise, you may only appear disingenuous.

6. Describe your professional interests, particularly as they relate to research.

If you identified faculty members who share your interest in a topic, describe your desire to work with them. Be specific, but keep your options open, too. Committee members will roll their eyes if you say you are interested in every research area of its faculty. On the other hand, if your interests are too narrow, they may question your ability to collaborate with professors.

7. Demonstrate your motivation and capacity to succeed.

Graduate schools are not only selecting students, but they are also choosing future ambassadors of their program. Persuade them that you will contribute to their reputation as an institution throughout your academic studies and professional career. Avoid summarizing other parts of your application. Instead, you should provide them with concrete examples including relevant publications, presentations, classroom assignments and employment experiences. For example, describing a service project could demonstrate your compassion, which some medical schools value. If you collaborated with others on a research topic, describe your specific contribution. Research in particular is valuable to your readers because you will more than likely need to immerse yourself in this activity during your graduate studies, especially if you are a Ph.D. candidate.

If you have any blemishes in your application, such as low test scores, criminal convictions or poor grades, think carefully before you offer a rationale. If you were to survey career coaches and faculty, some would advise you to describe anomalies because, if you do not, you leave it open to imagination. Others, however, would only encourage you to share details if the graduate program requests it. Advisers on this side of the camp fear that graduate programs may perceive such descriptions as potential liabilities or excuses, especially if your grades were repeatedly low. For example, while committee members may empathize if you reveal that you struggle with test anxiety, they may still question your ability to succeed. Most graduate programs entail tests, and many occupations require individuals to pass licensing examinations before they can enter the fields. Applicants’ inability to perform in this arena may jeopardize the professional standing of the institution.

If you elect to include this information, be brief and positive. Keep it simple and do not be defensive. Perhaps your academic ability improved once you discovered your passion. Maybe you persisted despite a serious illness or death in your family. If you decide not to address these anomalies yourself, consider asking one of your trusted references to include the topic from a positive standpoint in your letter of recommendation.

8. Be concise.

Personal statements are generally no more than two pages. If the sentence is not essential to your thesis, remove it. Also eliminate unnecessary words, such as “in order to,” “I believe” and “the fact is.”

9. Carefully proofread and refine the essay.

Any errors reflect your ability as a writer. Confirm that you used transitions, diverse sentence structures, first person and active voice. Substitute weak words, such as “love,” with a more professional, powerful alternative. Let it sit overnight. Then, read it aloud or backward. Have a consultant at your campus writing center or a professor critique the essay.

10. Enjoy the writing process.

Preparing a personal statement confirms your desire to attend graduate school and clarifies your interests or goals, which is why professional schools require it. A few years from now, this will prove helpful in your professional job search as you write cover letters and respond to interview questions.

Billie Streufert is director of the Academic Success Center at the University of Sioux Falls in South Dakota. With nearly 10 years of experience in career and academic advising, she is passionate about helping individuals discover and achieve their goals. She is eager to connect with students via Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and her blog.

Billie Streufert, grad school, Harvard, personal statement, University of Sioux Falls, CAMPUS LIFE, CAREER PATH, VOICES FROM CAMPUS 

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This is a guest post by Elissa Redmiles for Student Stories. 

If you’re considering applying to graduate school, you will soon be writing the dreaded “personal statement.” Sometimes called the “statement of purpose”, your grad school essay is one of the few things you can change about your application materials at this point.

While your grades, test scores and internships are set in stone, you have the opportunity to use your personal statement to weave together an otherwise disjoint set of college experiences (or a slightly blemished academic record) into a compelling story that garner an admission to your dream school.

Read on for three tips on writing a compelling personal statement, and examine before and after samples from real essays showcasing What To Do and What Not To Do(all three students whose essays are shown below were admitted to their program of choice).

P.S. Cover letters are quite similar to personal statements, so these tips apply to cover letters, too!

Tip #1: Ask, “Why Do I Care?” after every sentence or section of your essay that you write.

Everything you write in your essay should showcase a skill or experience that will make you successful in your graduate program of choice. You should also illustrate why you will later be an illustrious alumnus who is an honorable ambassador of the program. Remember, most graduate programs are hoping for you to a) become an illustrious alumnus who represents the program well and b) eventually give back to the program in some way.

(The essay referenced below was written as part of a “background statement” for admission to a top 10 M.S. in computer science program; the student was admitted.)

What Not To Do:

“I have written automated tests to ensure that every edge case has been handled and corrected. When developing a new feature, I have researched protocols like IMAP, SMTP, and FTP, to ensure my code complies with the various relevant RFCs.”

Why Not: Why do we care that this person has researched (which, since they didn’t specify well assume means googl-ed) a specific set of jargon?  We don’t know why doing this research is impressive. Similarly, we don’t have any context to understand why handling edge cases is impressive. This is a classic case of “so what.” It should be instantly apparent to the reader why something you did was impressive or represents a useful graduate school skill. Additionally, this essay section is loaded with acronyms. While this may be appropriate for a Ph.D. research statement, the acronyms make for challenging reading in a background essay for a more broad masters program.

What To Do:

“I spend my days researching network protocols in order to design and develop novel algorithms that analyze security flaws and improve the speed and efficiency of the existing code base. Simultaneously, I peer review co-worker’s patches and open source contributions, strengthen my soft skills by undertaking training and documentation tasks, and regularly present my features to coworkers and supervisors.”

Why: This essay is written for a broad audience and an admissions committee member who did not have a computer science background would be able to read the essay. Further, we now understand why the author’s research is important: they are developing new algorithms (that sounds pretty cool). Additionally we learn that the author is not only contributing to their field of interest (computer science) they are engaging in team work (important for graduate school), and working on their “soft skills” of writing and teaching, which are important for elements of graduate school (such as teaching assistantships and writing papers to be published in journals).

Tip #2: Reference specific aspects of the program to which you are applying and/or reference faculty members by name.

This should be reasonably self evident, but be sure to thoroughly read the website of the program to which you are applying! If you can, try to use similar language to what they have on their website when expressing yourself in your essay. If you are applying to a Masters or terminal degree program (law, medicine, PT, nursing, etc.), talk about two to three courses you are interested in taking or mention a cool program that the school offers (e.g. a specific clinical rotation program or a special internship). If you are applying to a Ph.D. program, be sure to mention specific faculty members and their research in depth and show how your interests align with theirs (you can certainly do this for masters or terminal programs as well).

(The essay referenced below was written as part of a “personal statement” for admission to a top 15 Masters in Public Policy program; the student was admitted. Full essay sample available here.)

What Not To Do:

“I am very interested in working on issues of defense policy. I believe that the courses I will take while at XX University and the Masters in Public Policy that I will obtain will provide me with a good foundation in order to pursue a career in defense policy.”

Why Not: What we learned from this section of the essay is that the student wants to work in “defense policy.” This is a vague statement: we don’t even know in what area of defense policy the student is interested. Further, the applicant hasn’t taken the time to mention specific defense policy courses. Why does the applicant believe that the courses in the M.P.P. program help the student pursue a career in defense policy? What if the school doesn’t even have defense policy courses or what if the school has a very cool program in defense policy? It isn’t apparent to the admissions committee that the applicant has researched this school and program at all. The applicant should be calling out specific courses and programs in defense policy if they are available at this school, or the applicant should state how the courses offered at the school would help them reach their goal, if courses in defense policy are not available.

What To Do:

“In order to be successful, defense policies must provide the governmental agencies involved in protecting United States citizens as much flexibility as possible while still being able to hold them accountable for their actions.  Courses such as Intelligence Policy and U.S. Defense Policy and Planning would provide me a better grasp of what goes into the decision making process when policies are being created that affect the safety and security of the nation.”

Another Option:

“Coursework such as Quantitative Aspects of Public Policy, Public Management & Leadership, and Finance would provide me with skills and information needed to understand the connections between terrorist organizations. Specifically, coursework in Quantitative Aspects of Public Policy is essential to understanding how to analyze large sets of data about terrorist organizations and their activities. Statistical methodology is vital in both evaluating policy options and decision-making in an uncertain environment. Defense policy decisions are sometimes made when not all the facts are available, requiring the statistical methodology used to make a decision to be accurate.”

Why: In both of these cases, the applicant not only calls out specific courses, but also provides the reader with context about why these courses are important to the applicant and how the applicant is going to utilize this coursework in their future career.

Tip #3: Be clear about your future and how this program will help you get there (or convincingly describe where you’re headed, if you haven’t quite narrowed it down yet).

If you are applying for graduate school, you are usually doing so in order to achieve a specific career path or goal such as becoming a principal, a professor, or physical therapist. Similarly, graduate schools are looking for driven candidates who know what they want and know how this program will help them get there. Be sure to clearly state in your essay what you want to become in the future, and illustrate how this program will lead you to your goal (see Tip #2).

What if you’re future is a bit murkier? Succinctly explain what combination of skills you hope to develop in the program, and what skills you already have, in the context of your broader goals.

(The essay referenced below was written as part of a “personal statement” for admission to a Harvard Masters in Education program; the student was admitted.)

Example (What To Do):

“Throughout my own education, my passion for helping others learn has been the common thread. My goal is to work in education using the software engineering skills I gained as a computer science major and the research skills I developed as a research assistant for multiple projects. I seek to design innovative curriculum and educational technology solutions that make learning more accessible for students. An Ed.M. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education focusing on Technology, Innovation, and Education will help me reach this goal.”

(As an exercise, can you see why the version of the essay above is better than the one below?)

“Through this myriad of experiences, an interest in education has been the common thread. In my future career, I hope to engage students in learning by designing, introducing and assessing technological tools and engaging curriculum that make learning more comfortable and more accessible for students. Thus, I seek to further my education in education with a Masters in Education focusing on Technology, Innovation, and Education.”

About the Author: 

Elissa Redmiles graduated with a B.S. in Computer Science, Cum Laude from the University of Maryland (UMD). Elissa has written admissions essays for, and has been admitted to M.B.A., M.Ed., M.A.T, and multiple M.S. programs. In addition, she runs a resume and personal statement editing business and has edited over 100 resumes, cover letters and essays for her clients. This July, Elissa will be joining IBM as a Market Manager.