By Donald Martin, Author of Road Map for Graduate Study
Essays are really the heart of any application. Why? Because other than conducting an interview (fewer schools are requiring/recommending these), the essays are your primary means of “speaking” directly to the admissions committee.
With that in mind, here are a few pointers to keep in mind as you compose your essays:
Watch how you communicate
How you communicate is often more important than what you communicate. In other words, your tone needs to be positive but not pompous; conversational but not colloquial; thoughtful but not trivial. For example, your comments about yourself should be factual but not self-aggrandizing. It should not sound as though you are congratulating yourself, or think that you are superior to others. When discussing your accomplishments, it is always wise to start off by saying something like: “It was my privilege to” or “I consider it an honor to have...” or “It was very exciting and yet humbling when I...” Also, resist the temptation of being too colloquial. Do not use slang or sound like you are having drinks with your friends. This is a professional conversation. It’s an “interview on paper.” Pretend you are sitting in front of the admissions committee and speaking to them. Be thoughtful in your comments – show that you spent time working on your essays – that you really mean business.
Answer all the questions
This seems like a no-brainer, yet it happens so often. While there are many topics on which you could wax eloquent, stick to the topics raised in the question(s). An applicant’s credibility goes down very quickly when he/she submits a lengthy essay that, while interesting, is not on point.
Keep within word limit
Another huge temptation is to exceed the word limit. This really does hurt you. Application readers are evaluating literally thousands of essay questions. They will look negatively upon an application with ten-page essay questions when the length requested was one page. If you cannot follow directions at this point, it begs the question, “Will this person follow directions as a student?”
Check and recheck for accuracy, correct grammar and spelling
Do not obsess but, at the same time, do your best to ensure that your essays are the best they can be. Have someone else read them for style and accuracy. Remember: Poorly constructed essays are the kiss of death.
Double check its destination
So also are essays sent to the wrong institution the kiss of death. This seems like a no-brainer, but so often essays for one program are sent with the application to a different program. When this happens, your credibility immediately falls. On many occasions I would read an essay that was prepared for another program and mistakenly sent with the application to the program for which I was making decisions. The applicant would indicate that this other program was his/her first choice! My unspoken response: “I hope you get in at the other program, because you have just been denied, or waitlisted at best.”
Consider the option essay
Sometimes you are given an opportunity to complete an optional essay. If this is in the form of another question from the admissions committee, by all means, complete that essay question. If the optional essay is provided for you to complete in any way you wish, be careful. Do not repeat what has already been communicated elsewhere in the application. If you do not have anything to add, then do not add anything – leave the question unanswered. Including an optional, open-ended essay question in the application is usually done for one primary reason: to give the applicant an opportunity to provide additional information that she/he believes will truly help make the application complete. If you believe something important has been missed, this is your opportunity to provide that information. But remember, if you are going to use this question to discuss a part of your application you believe to be less competitive, do not make excuses – provide explanations. One final tip: If an optional essay question is not requested/provided, yet there is something you believe you need to add, you can do so. But keep it short – one page at the most. At the top of the page, write, “Additional information for the Admissions Committee”
You are most definitely not helping yourself by pretending. Sooner or later this will be detected. While not psychologists, admissions staff/professionals are trained to look for fakers, and they are almost always detected.
For 7 ways to get positively noticed as an applicant, 7 deadly sins for applicants, responding to the notification decision, and much more, go to Dr. Martin’s website and review his book Road Map for Graduate Study: A Guide for Prospective Graduate Students. The website address is www.gradschoolroadmap.com.