Grad School Application Essays 101

Why starting at the End should be the Beginning (of your application process)

Whether you’re applying for an MBA, MS, MA or PhD, applying to grad school means writing essays. Whatever your program calls it (personal statements, statements of intent, statements of purpose, supplemental essays), this form of writing may seem familiar (“it’s just like a college application essay, right?” … wrong!)––but it’s a whole different ballgame. Our best advice: Don’t start writing until you have figured out the end of your story, described as a crisp set of well thought out longer-term goals. Defining this end point gives you the key to help guide everything you will eventually flesh out in your applications.

Grad School Application Essays are Different Than Any Other Type

The biggest mistake graduate applicants make is thinking that graduate school application essays are similar to undergraduate essays, or even a cover letter. They’re not! This is not a place for “finding” or “expressing” yourself, nor is it an exercise in selling your resume. Graduate school admissions is about a professional who already has a good grasp of their area (you) laying out a clear, plausible, considered future plan for their career. You’re not (only) selling you as you are, you’re (also) selling the you that will ultimately be. The one who emerges from the program after it’s done. That’s the person the school is evaluating. What does that person look like? How much future potential does that person have? The school is looking at that future you and wondering, “Do we want to gamble on THAT person adding value to us and to our brand?”

The context provided by your longer-term aspirations makes it easier to provide cohesive, focused answers to critical questions about you as a candidate (today) that allows the admissions officers to understand your past grades, your past achievements, your test scores, all the “You To-Date” stuff. Admissions committees ultimately want to understand who you are and what motivates you, where you are going, why you have chosen this “mission,” how you plan to get there, why you will succeed, and how their particular graduate program makes sense for you on this career path. Which, translated, ultimately adds up to “what’s therefore in it for us” (Cynical much? Haha––we know, but it’s a helpful lens, trust us). Each element of your story needs to fit together to address these precise issues––crisply––in order to create a unique and compelling picture of you as a candidate. Your goal in each application is to provide genuine and credible support for your candidacy in the context of your longer-term aspirations.

The Key to A Well-Thought Application Essay

So, before you start writing, we suggest you outline the key elements of your story by working backwards from your overarching goals. Step #1: Define your mission. What is it you really want to do 7 – 10 years after completing your target graduate program? Where do you see yourself? In what role, in what type of organization, responsible for what kinds of things, having what kind of impact, and leveraging what knowledge and skills? Next up is to addres why have you chosen this as your personal and/or professional mission? What experiences, people and influences in your life have inspired, fueled or shaped these aspirations? Being able to clearly convey these elements of your “why” will help you build belief in the reader that you are motivated to finish what you’re about to start. Anyone can state a tasty sounding goal. Few have the drive to follow through. That’s why… you need to sell them on your why.

If thinking about this is causing discomfort, guess what––that means you’re in a perfect starting place. It’s the folks who navigate these tough questions who ultimately deliver substance in the finished product. If you have all the answers already, there’s a good chance you haven’t dug deep enough yet. But let’s not minimize it too much. Getting comfortable with a reasonably well-defined long-term picture of where you are headed is not always easy, and worse, it can be frustrating. Developing real clarity is easier said than done, but boy is it worth the effort. Your reasoning, your motivation, it all may continue to evolve and change as you progress on this journey. That just means you’re thinking deeply, and it’s a great sign. All that thinking will magically translate to your written work, and will be evident to the gatekeepers scouring the applicant pool for the serious among the casual.

Graduate programs don’t exist to simply hand people more education and career options. They exist to provide access to tools, resources and opportunities that qualified students can take advantage of in order to prepare for and achieve their unique mission. Great schools don’t want capable students who simply want to get in, show up, and have a career handed to them. A great school wants students who see themselves as on a meaningful mission, will work hard to attain their goals, and have a plan to uniquely and deliberately leverage what the school has to offer. It’s good for you, and it’s also great for them. Your success leads to brand burnishing, funding, resources, attention, to keep the wheels turning, and it’s this cycle that undergirds every school’s ultimate objectives. Understanding all of this will make you a better salesperson for yourself when you’re penning those essays.

A Great Essay Makes You Stand Out

On the one hand, the competition could not be stiffer. Illustrious programs, attracting attention from the world’s very best, for what usually amounts to very few available spots. And yet, the vast majority of your competition will not have gotten this memo, or internalized it. This is where you can develop an advantage. Put in the work, do the deep thinking, and deliver crisp, thoughtful essays, and magically, that alone will put your essay into a pile unto its own. That’s a good pile to be in! It is much harder for candidates to distinguish themselves when they have not given enough thought to what they want to accomplish in the future, and why. Simply put, you need to have and to “own” a tangible and meaningful mission, and the school needs to believe in it. So, aim high, articulate aspirational goals that are genuine and authentic, make them credible by using your application to demonstrate relevant skills, insights and commitment, and explain convincingly precisely how you plan to leverage the school’s resources to capatult you toward that future you you’re asking them to gamble on.