Been there, done that.

After six years of grad school, there are a few things I've picked up from personal experience and a whole lot of time talking with other female grad students (AKA procrastinating). I've always wished there had been some kind of handbook about how to handle the whole world of graduate school, so I figured I'd start a friendly place to discuss what it's like to be female in grad school, and maybe pass on some wisdom too!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Dreaded Personal Essay

At some point in the application process everyone is going to have to write one of those essays to the tune of "tell me about yourself." It can be disguised in a million different questions, but at its heart, it's the same essay. The committee deciding whether or not to admit you wants to know a bit more about you, other than your test scores and GPA. Often times there is also an essay on your proposed research that goes along with this, and more often than not, that can seem a whole lot easier. Honestly, every time I come across a personal essay (and they still exist even at this stage of grad school, only now in the form of job applications, etc.), I find myself grumbling. I really really hate writing about myself. The odd anecdote here and there, sure, no problem, but writing a whole essay about me? Bo-Ring.

But, it doesn't have to be.

The past few years I've started editing these things for friends, friends of friends, and a few odd students. I've never sat on an admission's committee, but I have managed to accumulate a few tips on what is going to constitute a good essay. (So far, I have a 100% success rate of edited essays leading to admission--a fact that I am stupidly proud of, despite the fact it has really nothing to do with my work... :) In general, you're looking to do a couple of things with this essay, and it's important to keep them in mind while writing the dang thing:
  1. Make yourself stand out. In a GOOD way. This is the perfect vehicle to note that you are more than a sum of your grades and research projects, but a person who lives and breathes the field you are trying to get into. Or, at least, make it seem that way.
  2. Highlight the important stuff. Have you done an internship/worked in your field? What did you learn? How is that going to help you? Note any other experiences you've had that maybe only get a line on your CV (maybe teaching experience, volunteer experience, the odd job you had before--obviously so long as it has something to do with your chosen field).
  3. Demonstrate why you're the perfect person for the school. Okay, this seems like a total 'duh' but most people don't like praising themselves and sounding arrogant. In these kinds of essays, you're going to have to walk that fine line between sounding snobbish and stating why they totally should want you. Be mindful of it (so don't act totally full of yourself--no one likes that), but you are trying to convince them to take you on, so point out why you're so totally irresistible.

So, how do you go about writing it? Well, there are no hard and fast rules, but in general you'll want to start off with something that's going to be considered a 'hook.' Draw your readers in and remind them that this isn't just any personal essay--this is an essay by someone they're going to want to have at their school. Now, don't go overboard and freak them out, but hit them with your high points first. Remember, you're essay is going to be sitting in a giant stack of others that more than likely the reader is just looking to finish with so they can get on with their lives. So, start off with your strong points: what makes you the most awesome. Don't think you have one of these? Remember, it's all in how you spin it :)

For the rest of the essay you are going to want to continue talking about your selling points. Go into (limited) detail about what your experiences have been that make you the right person for this spot. Be succinct, be honest, and be positive. Don't be down on yourself, ever! You may be reading the thing and thinking "oh crap, I totally sound like the lamest applicant ever" (which, I'll admit, every personal essay I've ever written  makes me think this way), but so long as you come across as honest and earnest, you're on the right track!

Now, there's a few things to watch for in the essay itself:
  • I've already mentioned it, but don't be arrogant. It's not a winning quality :)
    • THIS IS ESPECIALLY TRUE IN FEMALES. I don't know how many articles I've read about how being self-assured in females comes across as being bitchy and unlikeable, even when men are almost required to be so. It's not fair, but it's the truth. Keep it in mind while writing--you can sound somewhat humble, but also incredibly competent at the same time, and it's all in how you phrase it!
  • Don't just dash something off and assume that no one's going to read it. Make sure you put some time into it.
  • Have other people read it and give you feedback (the more the merrier!).
  • Watch for correct spelling and grammar (DUH!).
  • Don't go on forever and ever; a page should be plenty (and most will have word-limits, so make sure you obey them).
  • Remember to look carefully at word choice. Every. Single. Word. Matters. So make them count.
  • Be positive. Even if it kills you.
  • Don't do anything fancy with your formatting--I could go on for pages on this, but I'll spare you all, just keep in mind that what's easiest to read and look the cleanest is by far the best (think of those giant stacks of applications again).
Those are the biggies in this game, at least that I look for first when I'm reading for other people. There are plenty of minor nuances that I get into more detail with when I have individual essays in front of me, but these general things will get you on the right track.

Anyone have anything else to add about personal essays? What has worked best for you?


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  2. word choice is a good one.... every word.

    mine is remembering to use active voice and not passive. I know - obvious - but i forget ...a lot!

  3. Good point, Shelli! I always forget that myself and usually it takes someone else to point it out to me :)

  4. Dang it all...wish I wouldda known you were a whiz at the essay editing a few months ago! I just submitted my PhD program application to the University of Minnesota in December, complete with the dreaded 'personal essay(s...mine had to be split into two).' Hardest paper I've ever had to write. Hands down...and I've several protracted, complicated research papers under my belt. My mom (Ryan's aunt Julie...yup...that makes me his cousin) told me about your blog today. Imma totally diggin it!

    Frankly, I have no idea how my application/essays will be received--no clue what my chances are. I know it's pretty competitive, even though the interdisciplinary program I applied to is still quite new (only 3 yrs old), ugh. I wouldda loved to have your feedback on my essays, especially since I've been out of school for a decade (read: I've done a lot, but not the 'standard' pre-grad school things).

    Presently I'm sitting here in limbo, not knowing if my life will be flipped upside down by school or not. I probably won't find out for another 3-5 weeks, either. Meanwhile...if I meet the 'distant relative' qualification for an essay review, I'd love to email it to you! Although it's too late to make changes now, it'd be helpful to get some case I need to try again later. Great work on the blog, Meradeth!

    All the best,

  5. Hi April! I'd email you, but I don't have an address. However, if you're looking for another set of eyes to go over your essay, do drop me an email! mrs.which (at) I'm not a sure bet, but I have looked at quite a few and can at least give you some feedback :)

    Good luck with the waiting limbo. Seriously, that's the hardest time of life. I'm at the other end, waiting to hear back about jobs, wondering where on earth (literally) I'll be in a year or less. It's hard to not let it make me a little crazy!

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