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Graduate School Personal Essay Format

Normally, the length of a personal statement will be dictated by the application—500 words or 800 words are typical limits, as are one-page or two-page limits. If you’re given, say, a count of 1,500 words, you need not write to the maximum length, but to compose only one-half of the word count might be an opportunity missed. In any case, what matters most is that the material you present conforms as closely as possible to these word or space restrictions—parts of your application might literally not be read if you violate the rules—and that your presentation is aesthetically pleasing and easy to read. To achieve these goals, I promote the following tips:

  • If your personal statement is a stand-alone document within your application, open it with a simple heading such as “Personal Statement for Janet Lerner.” Thus, if your documents would get separated somehow, they could more easily be reassembled.
  • If there are any pages to your essay beyond one, number them, and perhaps include your name on those pages as well.
  • Choose a publishing font that is highly readable, such as Times or Bookman. Some fonts allow for more tightness to the text, which is fine as long as the essay remains readable. Ideally, use no more than a 12-point size and no less than a 10-point size, favoring the larger, and use the same font size throughout the document.
  • Allow for ample enough margins that the reader isn’t distracted by cramped-looking text. Margins of at least one inch are standard.
  • Single space your text, skipping a line between paragraphs. You can indent paragraph beginnings or not, as long as you’re consistent.

At times, especially when you fill out an application electronically or have to cut and paste, word limits will be defined by physical space. In such a case, keep enough white space between your text and the application text that the material isn’t crowded, and choose a font different from that used in the application if possible. Also, if your application is electronic and requires you to cut and paste text or conform to a word or character count, check the material that you input carefully to be certain that it’s complete and reads just as you wish it to. In some cases, you may lose special characters or paragraph breaks, and words over the maximum allowable count may be cut off. The safest practice is to proofread anything you send electronically within the very form in which it is sent.

There is really no excuse for careless errors. Having even one in your grad school essay can affect the way you are perceived. Learn about how to avoid these errors with this article.

When you're ready to write your graduate school essay, keep in mind that there are certain things you definitely should do as well as common pitfalls to avoid. Graduate school essays tend to be very specific to the school and program. Because of this, you might simply be told to include a personal statement in your application package or be given a paragraph-long prompt as well as formatting guidelines. Regardless of whether you are applying to an EdD program, an MPA, or med school, follow these guidelines to create your best grad school application essay.

Your graduate school essay should have great content and be free from errors

The first step in writing your best grad school essay is to brainstorm content. What were the pivotal events that led you to the point in your life that you are applying to grad school? Pick anecdotes that you can clearly express to the reader as well as demonstrate analytical skills in your reflection on the meaning of those events. Help the admissions officers experience these events alongside you so that they can gain insight into your background and potential.

Additionally, you'll need to budget enough time to proofread and have others look over your essay. We can all become blind to errors in spelling and grammar that will become obvious when a new set of eyes reads your essay. Also, be selective in who you choose to read your essay. Too many opinions will only confuse you and leave you with an essay that is actually worse than it was before. Pick people who are either professionals or have had success in gaining acceptance to your chosen school or program.

Your grad school essay should be more than a summary of your resume

When writing graduate school essays for admissions committees, strive for depth. It is likely that, now that you are applying to graduate school, you will have numerous experiences in your background that attest to your qualifications for the program. However, instead of briefly writing about many experiences, it is better to go in depth about a handful or even just one.

The admissions officers are looking for much more than just further details on your resume. In your essay, they want you to demonstrate self-reflection, critical thinking skills, the ability to apply what you learned across broad real world scenarios, and what you would do differently if you encountered a similar situation in the future. Although you don't need to cover every one of these aspects within your essay, this can give you an idea of what is important to the admissions officers. Along with the facts of a situation, the essay also needs to include your perspective.

Know your GRE, GMAT, LSAT or MCAT level vocabulary

While your graduate school essay should be written in straightforward language, it should also reflect a command of graduate level vocabulary. However, you need to be able to use those words with precision. If you're not sure, look online for examples. If you're still not sure, leave it out. Better to use plain language well than advanced vocabulary incorrectly. Even so, higher vocabulary gives you a chance to add shades of meaning and streamline your phrasing. Can you substitute one word for a phrase? Can you use an advanced vocabulary word instead of an idiomatic expression? Look for opportunities to include a broader variety of word choices in your graduate admissions essay.

A graduate school personal statement should be concise

Whether your grad school essay is 500 words or three pages, effective graduate school personal statements are succinct. Everything should fit together and flow smoothly within the context of an overarching theme. Decide what you think is most important for the admissions officers to know about you, and then focus on those experiences within the essay. Concise essays demonstrate respect for the admission's officers' time, and that tacit message will be received by the reader. Moreover, writing in this manner lets the admissions officers know that you can organize your thoughts well and express them clearly to others.

Learn more about admissions to graduate school with articles, tips, and strategies from Peterson's.

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