Career Development Center

Application Essays

Writing an essay, or personal statement, is often the most difficult part of the application process. Requirements vary widely in this regard. Some programs request only one or two paragraphs about why you want to pursue graduate study, while others require five or six separate essays in which you are expected to write at length about your motivation for graduate study, your strengths and weaknesses, your greatest achievements, and solutions to hypothetical problems. Business schools are notorious for requiring several time-consuming essays.

An essay or personal statement for an application should be essentially a statement of your ideas and goals. Usually it includes a certain amount of personal history, but unless an institution specifically requests autobiographical information, you do not have to supply any. Even when the requirement is a "personal statement," the possibilities are almost unlimited. There is no set formula to follow, and if you do write an autobiographical piece it does not have to be arranged chronologically. Your aim should be a clear, succinct statement showing that you have a definite sense of what you want to do and enthusiasm for the field of study you have chosen. Your essay should reflect your writing abilities; more important, it should reveal the clarity, the focus, and the depth of your thinking.

Before writing anything, stop and consider what your reader might be looking for; the general directions or other parts of the application may give you an indication of this. Admissions committees may be trying to evaluate a number of things from your statement, including the following things about you:

  • Motivation and commitment to a field of study
  • Expectations with regard to the program and career opportunities
  • Writing ability
  • Major areas of interest
  • Research or work experience
  • Educational background
  • Immediate and long-term goals
  • Reasons for deciding to pursue graduate education in a particular field and at a particular institution
  • Maturity
  • Personal uniqueness-what you would add to the diversity of the entering class

There are two main approaches to organizing an essay. You can outline the points you want to cover and then expand on them, or you can put your ideas down on paper as they come to you, going over them, eliminating certain sentences, and moving others around until you achieve a logical sequence. Making an outline will probably lead to a well-organized essay, whereas writing spontaneously may yield a more inspired piece of writing. Use the approach you feel most comfortable with. Whichever approach you use, you will want someone to critique your essay. Your advisor and those who write your letters of recommendation may be very helpful to you in this regard. If they are in the field you plan to pursue, they will be able to tell you what things to stress and what things to keep brief. Do not be surprised, however, if you get differing opinions on the content of your essay. In the end, only you can decide on the best way of presenting yourself.

If there is information in your application that might reflect badly on you, such as poor grades or a low admission test score, it is better not to deal with it in your essay unless you are asked to. Keep your essay positive. You will need to explain anything that could be construed as negative in your application, however, as failure to do so may eliminate you from consideration. You can do this on a separate sheet entitled "Addendum," which you attach to the application, or in a cover letter that you enclose. In either form, your explanation should be short and to the point, avoiding long, tedious excuses. In addition to supplying your own explanation, you may find it appropriate to ask one or more of your recommenders to address the issue in their recommendation letter. Ask them to do this only if they are already familiar with your problem and could talk about it from a positive perspective.

In every case, essays should be word processed or typed. It is usually acceptable to attach pages to your application if the space provided is insufficient. Neatness, spelling, and grammar are important.

Interviews, Portfolios, and Auditions

Some graduate programs will require you to appear for an interview. In certain fields, you will have to submit a portfolio of your work or schedule an audition.

Interviews are usually required by medical schools and are often required or suggested by business schools and other programs. An interview can be a very important opportunity for you to persuade an institution's admissions officer or committee that you would be an excellent doctor, dentist, manager, etc.

Interviewers will be interested in the way you think and approach problems and will probably concentrate on questions that enable them to assess your thinking skills, rather than questions that call upon your grasp of technical knowledge. Some interviewers will ask controversial questions, such as "What is your viewpoint on abortion?" or give you a hypothetical situation and ask how you would handle it. Bear in mind that the interviewer is more interested in how you think than in what you think. As in your essay, you may be asked to address such topics as your motivation for graduate study, personal philosophy, career goals, related research and work experience, and areas of interest.

You should prepare for a graduate school interview as you would for a job interview. Think about the questions you are likely to be asked and practice verbalizing your answers. Think too about what you want interviewers to know about you so that you can present this information when the opportunity is given. Dress as you would for an employment interview.

Many graduate programs in art, architecture, journalism, environmental design, and other fields involving visual creativity may require a portfolio as part of the application. The function of the portfolio is to show your skills and ability to do further work in a particular field, and it should reflect the scope of your cumulative training and experience. If you are applying to a program in graphic design, you may be required to submit a portfolio showing advertisements, posters, pamphlets, and illustrations you have prepared. In fine arts, applicants must submit a portfolio with pieces related to their proposed major.

Individual programs have very specific requirements regarding what your portfolio should contain and how it should be arranged and labeled. Many programs request an interview and ask you to present your portfolio at that time. They may not want you to send the portfolio in advance or leave it with them after the interview, as they are not insured against its loss. If you do send it, you usually do so at your own risk, and you should label all pieces with your name and address.

Like a portfolio, the audition is a demonstration of your skills and talent, and it is often required by programs in music, theater, and dance. Although all programs require a reasonable level of proficiency, standards vary according to the field of study. In a nonperformance area like music education, you need only show that you have attained the level of proficiency normally acquired through an undergraduate program in that field. For a performance major, however, the audition is the most important element of the graduate application. Programs set specific requirements as to what material is appropriate, how long the performance should be, whether it should be memorized, and so on. The audition may be live or taped, but a live performance is usually preferred. In the case of performance students, a committee of professional musicians will view the audition and evaluate it according to prescribed standards.

Submitting Completed Applications

Graduate schools have established a wide variety of procedures for filing applications, so read each institution's instructions carefully. Some may request that you send all application materials in one package (including letters of recommendation). Others--medical schools, for example--may have a two step application process. This system requires the applicant to file a preliminary application; if this is reviewed favorably, he or she submits a second set of documents and a second application fee. Pay close attention to each school's instructions.

Graduate schools generally require an application fee. Sometimes this fee may be waived if you meet certain financial criteria. Check with your undergraduate financial aid office and the graduate schools to which you are applying to see if you qualify.

Admission Decisions

At most institutions, once the graduate school office has received all of your application materials, your file is sent directly to the academic department. A faculty committee (or the department chairperson) then makes a recommendation to the chief graduate school officer (usually a graduate dean or vice president), who is responsible for the final admission decision. Professional schools at most institutions act independently of the graduate school office; applications are submitted to them directly, and they make their own admission decisions.

Usually a student's grade point average, letters of recommendation, and graduate admission test scores are the primary factors considered by admissions committees. The appropriateness of the undergraduate degree, an interview, and evidence of creative talent may also be taken into account. Normally the student's total record is examined closely, and the weight assigned to specific factors fluctuates from program to program. Few, if any, institutions base their decisions purely on numbers, that is, admission test scores and grade point average. A study by the Graduate Record Examinations Board found that grades and recommendations by known faculty members were considered to be somewhat more important than GRE General Test scores and that GRE Subject Test scores were rated as relatively unimportant (Oltman and Hartnett, 1984). This indicates that some graduate admission test scores may be of less importance than is commonly believed, but this will of course differ from program to program.

Some of the common reasons applicants are rejected for admission to graduate schools are inappropriate undergraduate curriculum; poor grades or lack of academic prerequisites; low admission test scores; weak or ineffective recommendation letters; a poor interview, portfolio, or audition; and lack of extracurricular activities, volunteer experience, or research activities. To give yourself the best chances of being admitted where you apply, try to make a realistic assessment of an institution's admission standards and your own qualifications. Remember, too, that missing deadlines and filing an incomplete application can also be a cause for rejection; be sure that your transcripts and recommendation letters are received on time.

Returning Students

Many graduate programs not only accept the older, returning student but actually prefer these "seasoned" candidates. Programs in business administration, social work, law, and other professional fields value mature applicants with work experience, for they have found that these students often show a higher level of motivation and commitment and work harder than 21-year-olds. Many programs also seek the diversity older students bring to the student body, as differences in perspective and experience make for interesting and often intense class discussions. Nonprofessional programs also view older students favorably if their academic and experiential preparation is recent enough and sufficient for the proposed fields of study.

Many institutions have programs designed to make the transition to academic life easier for the returning student. Such programs include low-cost child-care centers, emotional support programs for both the returning student and his or her spouse, and review courses of various kinds.

Other than making the necessary changes in their lifestyle, older students report that the most difficult aspect of returning to school is recovering, or developing, appropriate study habits. Initially, older students often feel at a disadvantage compared to students fresh out of an undergraduate program who are accustomed to preparing research papers and taking tests. This feeling can be overcome by taking advantage of noncredit courses in study skills and time management and review courses in math and writing, as well as by taking a tour of the library and becoming thoroughly familiar with it. By the end of the graduate program, most returning students feel that their life experience gave them an edge, because they could use concrete experiences to help them understand academic theory.

If you choose to go back to school, you are not alone. A significant number of adults are currently enrolled in some kind of educational program in order to make their lives or careers more rewarding.

Part-Time Students

As graduate education has changed over the past thirty years, the number of part-time graduate programs has increased. Traditionally, graduate programs were completed by full-time students. Graduate schools instituted residence requirements, demanding that students take a full course load for a certain number of consecutive semesters. It was felt that total immersion in the field of study and extensive interaction with the faculty were necessary to achieve mastery of an academic area.

In most academic Ph.D. programs as well as many health-care fields, this is still the only approach. However, many other programs now admit part-time students or allow a portion of the requirements to be completed on a part-time basis. Professional schools are more likely to allow part-time study because many students work full-time in the field and pursue their degree in order to enhance their career credentials. Other applicants choose part-time study because of financial considerations. By continuing to work full-time while attending school, they take fewer economic risks.

Part-time programs vary considerably in quality and admissions standards. When evaluating a part-time program, use the same criteria you would use in judging the reputation of any graduate program. Some schools use more adjunct faculty members with weaker academic training for their night and weekend courses and this could lower the quality of the program; however, adjunct lecturers often have excellent experiential knowledge. Admissions standards may be lower for a part-time program than for an equivalent full-time program at the same school, but, again, your fellow students in the part-time program may be practicing in the field and may have much to add to class discussions. Another concern is placement opportunities upon completion of the program. Some schools may not offer placement services to part-time students, and many employers do not value part-time training as highly as a full-time education. However, if a part-time program is the best option for you, do not hesitate to enroll after carefully researching available programs.

International Students

If you are an international student, you will follow the same application procedures as other graduate school applicants. However, you will have to meet additional requirements.

Since your success as a graduate student will depend on your ability to understand, write, read, and speak English, if English is not your native language, you will be required to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), or a similar test. Some schools will waive the language test requirement, however, if you have a degree from a college or university in a country where the native language is English or if you have studied two or more years in an undergraduate or graduate program in a country where the native language is English. As for all other tests, score requirements vary, but some schools admit students with lower scores on the condition that they enroll in an intensive English program before or during their graduate study. You should ask each school or department about its policies.

In addition to scores on your English test, or proof of competence in English, your formal application must be accompanied by a certified English translation of your academic transcripts. You may also be required to submit records of immunization and certain health certificates as well as documented evidence of financial support at the time of application. However, since you may apply for financial assistance from graduate schools as well as other sources, some institutions require evidence of financial support only as the last step in your formal admittance and may grant you conditional acceptance first.

Once you have been formally admitted into a graduate program and have submitted evidence of your source or sources of financial support, the school will send you Form 1-20 or Form lAP-66, Certificate of Eligibility for Non-Immigrant Status. You must present this document, along with a passport from your own government, and evidence of financial support (some schools will require evidence of support for the entire course of study, while others require evidence of support only for the first year of study, if there is also documentation to show reasonable expectation of continued support) to a U.S. embassy or consulate to obtain an international student visa (F-1 with the Form 1-20 or J-1 with the Form lAP-66).

Your own government may have other requirements you must meet to study in the United States. Be sure to investigate those requirements as well.

When you arrive on your American college campus, you will want to contact the international student advisor. This person's job is to help international students in their academic and social adjustment. The advisor often coordinates special orientation programs for new students, which may consist of lectures on American culture, intensive language instruction, campus tours, academic placement examinations, and visits to places of cultural interest in the community. This advisor will also help you with travel and employment questions as well as financial concerns and will keep copies of your visa documents on file, which is required by U.S. immigration law.

A number of nonprofit educational organizations are available throughout the world to assist international students in planning graduate study in the United States. To learn how to contact these organizations for detailed information, write to the U.S. embassy in your country.

Jane E. Levy
Senior Associate Director
University Career Center
Cornell University

and

Elinor R. Workman

from: Peterson's Guide to Graduate and Professional Programs: An Overview 2002