The graduate school application may very well be the most important one in a student’s life. The school that accepts you is your final education destination, the grand name that stands out above the rest on your resume. That said, you want and need to shine. There’s the applications, the tests, the interviews, the decisions and, of course, there’s that moment you learn whether you got accepted into your dream school. It’s a long, emotional run that requires patience and planning, and that’s where we come in.
Most graduate programs require some sort of personal essay. Some program administrators provide a prompt, but others are so open-ended that the sky is the limit for topics. Applications often ask questions that only allow for literal answers; the personal essay is both your chance to introduce yourself in a creative way—but also your chance to shine. So, rather than stressing about this aspect of the application, see it as a chance to share parts of yourself you likely couldn’t elsewhere (for example, if you bombed a fellowship or internship because of an emergency, you might want to show the admissions committee your perseverance by addressing the situation).
What makes you… you? Think about this in the context of your education and skills and how graduate school will help you become who you want to be in the future. As you probably know, you are not your resume. You are not your extracurricular activities. You are not, essentially, your Facebook profile or your LinkedIn page. There is room for much of this information elsewhere in the application. The most important part of the personal statement is that it is personal. Be real and honest, but save those bits that might be too much information for the happy hour.
What’s your voice and purpose? Dig deep. The decision to attend graduate school is a purposeful choice; it means that there is a career you see in your future and you need education and experience to reach this goal. You need to ask yourself: Why have I chosen this path? What am I hoping to attain through this graduate level education? And finally, why am I the right person to fill a seat in this program?
Remember this while you’re writing: this is your chance to tell your story. Think in meaningful narratives and make a list. You have very little space with which to work, so choose your details and anecdotes wisely. Conversely, choose a topic that can carry the reader through the essay—the admissions offices will easily detect fluffing and space filling. Not to mention your essay will be lackluster.
Identify your goals and share them. It is important to demonstrate that you have plans and, again, purpose for graduate school. People apply to graduate school for a number of reasons: some, because they aren’t ready for the real world—but that’s not you, right? Identify the aspects of the program you are applying to—courses, faculty, or location—that are essential to meeting your career goals. Show that you have done your research and that you are particularly passionate about this graduate program. Let them know if they are your top choice.
Ask friends, family, and mentors you trust to read your personal essay once you have a draft written. Take their feedback into consideration, trust your gut, and finalize your essay. A final word of advice: proofread! Typos are as unflattering as Uggs in the summer.
Rule number one: if you’re asking for a recommendation letter, you should be very sure that you can rely on the person you are asking.
Nearly every graduate school application will require at least one (and probably several) letters of recommendation. And if you’re applying for a teaching assistantship, scholarship or grant you can expect recommendation requirements. A letter of recommendation is like a personal statement in that there is space to share outstanding accomplishments or specific goals for the admissions department to take into consideration when deciding which students may be admitted to the program. Your grade point average is typically used as a benchmark during the initial phase of acceptance and rejections; students applying to some programs must meet a minimum to even be considered. But, personal statements and letters of recommendation can make a huge difference when candidates are otherwise equally qualified.
You will usually be asked for three separate letters, none written by you or an immediate family member (or another person with a relationship to you that could create a conflict of interest). It’s a good idea to keep a list of people who could potentially write you a letter of recommendation. It can be frustrating before applications are due because you’re at the mercy of the person holding the pen. Your best bet is to ask as early as possible and stay organized. Many deadlines fall in November, December and January—for professors, these weeks and months are filled with finals, holidays and the start of a new semester. If you want to be at the top of the queue, request a letter of recommendation early. Allow between three weeks and a month of time for a well-written letter.
Generally, the people writing your letters of recommendation will have been your direct supervisor or professor. This person could also be adviser of the debate club the year you won nationals. Or, maybe this person was your supervisor or adviser at an internship where you performed really well. These are people that have witnessed how you work. Don’t just seek out the most famous professor at your university unless this person knows you well. The most important thing is that this person has a deep interest in your success.
Set up a meeting with the people on your list to speak about your future plans to ask if he or she would support you in your pursuit of a graduate degree. If you’re comfortable, ask if the letter writer can include specific achievements and skills. For example, if you published a research paper during your undergraduate studies, the professor that oversaw that project would be a great person to write you a letter.
Some people you ask to write you a letter might politely decline. If this happens, don’t worry. There are a number of reasons someone might say “no”—mounting personal deadlines, a stressful semester, an illness, a big personal project. A professor might not feel like he or she knows you well enough to write a stellar letter of support. If this is the case, it won’t be good for either of you. You should know if you underperformed in a class or at an internship—and avoid asking that supervisor.
It may feel forward to provide materials for the letter of recommendation, and in some situations it is. But many times, the writer will appreciate any help a student can offer. This professor may have ten other letters to write in two weeks. They will take at least an hour each, if the person writing the letter is thoughtful and thorough.
Those who write letters of recommendation may like to see something they have graded of yours, so keep tests and papers. Give it to him or her when you ask for a letter of recommendation. If you know that a mentor is particularly absentminded, be sure he or she understands the deadline. Send a polite reminder and provide the addressed envelope and letterhead if it will guarantee a timely letter of recommendation.
Some professors or advisors might want to peruse the rest of your application for other material to pull from while writing a letter. Understand that he or she might read your personal statement and pull from that to add to your letter of recommendation.
Some programs require that the student waive his or her right to read the letter of recommendation after it is written. Sometimes, schools also require that the letter be written and sealed in an envelope bearing the writer’s signature along the envelope’s adhesive flap. There isn’t really a way around this, and it gives the professor some comfort knowing that you won’t read his or her words about you. But remember, it’s likely a very positive letter if someone agreed to write it at all.
After the meeting, send a thank you card. It is a nice gesture that will go a long way in showing your appreciation. Once you receive the letters you need, designate a folder just for these documents to keep them safe.