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A grad-school essay in 4 acts, a reviewer’s perspective

Priya Narasimhan
Priya Narasimhan
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A grad-school essay in 4 acts, a reviewer’s perspective

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Priya Narasimhan
Priya Narasimhan

I review dozens of grad-school applications every year, and the essay (also known as a statement of purpose, or a personal statement) can make an application — and the candidate — stand out.

If you’re applying to grad school, try to structure your essay to make it memorable, and to make it easier for the reviewer (the faculty member at the school you’re applying to) to learn about you, what makes you tick, why you’re a great candidate, and what sets you apart.

Know your audience before you write

Research each department or university that you’re applying to. As you do your research, figure out what gets you excited and what you see yourself doing.

  • Look up the website of the department of the university that you’re applying to. Most departments have a mission statement (written by the department head/chair), a list of research areas, a list of their faculty.
  • Read the mission statement and learn the key research areas. Here is an example of my department’s research areas.
  • Read any newsletters or magazines from the department. Here is an example of The Circuit magazine from my department.
  • Determine which research areas you fit into, and figure out which faculty in the department work on those areas.
  • Review those faculty’s webpages and look for their recent publications (last 2–4 years) to understand what their recent activities are. You don’t need to read the publications. You just want to understand what their active areas of research are.
  • Check out the social-media accounts (Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube) of the department and the university, to learn about the new breakthroughs and exciting news that the department is putting out there. This tells you what the department and university have been recently proud of doing.

As you do this research, write down the phrases and words that resonate with you and that capture your aspirations and interests. These words will help you when it comes time to write the essay.

Always think of the reviewer, the faculty who are going to read your essay. Write for them, write to them, write as if you’re talking to them.

Photo by Honey Yanibel Minaya Cruz on Unsplash

Write the essay

Think of the essay in 4 parts (acts). Each part may have multiple paragraphs.

If you’re applying to multiple departments and universities, be prepared to tailor your essay in each instance. The essay will have an overall similar structure, but there will be parts that differ for each audience.

I use the adjective “tailored” below to signify “tailored to the audience,” meaning that you will need to write a different version of those paragraphs or sentences for each department or university you’re applying to.

Act I: What motivates you

This section is usually 1–2 paragraphs.

  • Talk about yourself. The opening 1–2 sentences of your essay should be memorable, and should capture what makes you, you. Make it personal, but make it relevant to your grad-school application. Anything goes. A moment that set you on your career track. An interaction with a teacher that changed you. An experiment that made you think. A topic that fascinates you. Where your drive and ambition come from. Your purpose.
  • What fields are you most interested in? Explain which areas of study you are most interested in, and why
  • Why do you want grad school? Explain why you took the step of applying for grad school.
  • What are your ambitions? Explain what type of career you ultimately want to be in. It could be entrepreneurship, industry, or academia.
  • Why will grad school help you? Explain what doors you feel will open because of grad school, and why grad school is an important next step in your career ambitions.
  • Why this university? (tailored) Explain what attracted you to this university, and this department.

Act II: What has prepared you

This section is usually multiple paragraphs, and is the meat of your statement.

  • What have you done, on your own initiative? Your official undergraduate coursework and grades are already on your transcript (that you’ve submitted with your grad-school application). So, this is not about your coursework. This is about the list of things that you’ve done to increase your knowledge and your experience when nobody asked it of you. Provide a high-level summary of the types of activities before you dive deeper.
  • Examples of your initiative. Here’s where you talk about research projects you’ve done, industry experience you’ve had, internships you’ve undertaken, prototypes you’ve built at home, courses/training you’ve undertaken, classes you’ve taught, mentoring you’ve done, mentoring you’ve sought, startups you’ve done, competitions you’ve entered into, papers you’ve read, presentations you’ve done. These examples serve to show the reviewer how you pursue your passion, and how you’ve gone outside of your prescribed undergraduate curriculum to do so. In each instance, describe what you did and what you learned in the process.
  • Talk about failures and lessons learned. How you handle failure shows maturity. If there are failures in your professional career with relevant takeaways from them, talk about how they shaped your thinking. A lab experiment that did not work, and how that changed how you view empirical research. A prototype that fell apart the day before a demo, and how that made you do things differently. A startup that you tried to get off the ground and couldn’t, and what you learned in the process.

Act III: What you hope to do — tailored

This section usually has multiple paragraphs, and is shorter than Act II.

  • Research areas that inspire you. Talk about which research areas or new developments in the department you’re inspired by. What did you find exciting about them? Why are you ready to work on these areas? Relate the preparation that you’ve undertaken (relating back to your material in Act II) to the research areas that the department has highlighted.
  • Faculty whom you want to work with. Talk about which faculty you want to work with, or you want to take courses from. Be specific as to why. Be selective about the faculty, so that the reviewer understands that you have done your homework and that you are focused. Explain how you are prepared to work with those faculty. For example, if you want to work with a faculty in research area X, explain how you’ve done internships/projects that relate to area X.
  • What skills you hope to acquire. Talk about how you hope that your grad-school experience will help you to acquire new skills, new knowledge, new experiences, and how this will help you with your career ambitions (relating back to your material in Act I). For example, if you want to do a startup, become a professor, work in a certain type of career, talk about why a grad-school experience at this specific department/university will help you do that.

Act IV: Why you’re a perfect fit — tailored

This section is only a single paragraph or so. Think of this as your closing statement. You want the reviewer to know that you’ve done your homework, that you are prepared, that your personal ambition aligns with the mission of the department.

  • Explain how your personal ambition (industry, academia, entrepreneurship) aligns with the department’s and the university’s mission.
  • Explain how your research interests (areas X, Y, Z) align with the department’s. From your homework, you should be able to see which active research areas in the department align with your own.
  • Explain how you can see yourself as an active contributor, and a force for good in the department. Explain the types of activities you hope to start or engage in. For example, if you hope to be a teaching assistant, you might say, “I enjoy teaching, I’ve had experience tutoring students, and I hope to be a teaching assistant for courses such as ….” If you’re a tinkerer at heart, you might say, “I thrive in a maker culture, I enjoy hackathons and I hope to start one on topic ABC.”

Write to be understood

Write for clarity, write as if you were sitting in front of your reviewer, and you had a chance to speak to them personally. Your essay is an example of your writing abilities, and the reviewer is thinking about how you might come across in a scientific paper.

  • Avoid flowery language, and replace longer words with simpler ones: peruse (read), erudite (knowledgeable), esteemed (prestigious), postulate (think), expeditious (rapid).
  • Avoid slang: FWIW, BTW
  • Avoid using technical acronyms that only a fraction of your audience might understand. You don’t know which faculty member might review the application.
  • Avoid quoting what others have thought about you. The essay is about what you think.
  • Avoid duplicating your resume. The faculty reviewing your application can read your resume. The essay provides the context for your resume, and does not need to duplicate it. The essay also does not need to cover every single point in your resume.
  • Avoid using the passive voice. The passive voice makes it ambiguous as to who deserves the credit for an action. This is your personal statement. Use the active voice. If you did something, say, “I ….”

Finally, write with enthusiasm. This is your personal statement. Let your accomplishments sing. Tell your story, your way. Let your enthusiasm and passion for your career jump off the page.

This article captures my personal and unofficial opinions, based on my first-hand experience in reviewing grad-school applications in the field of electrical and computer engineering. It’s the advice I share with my own students. It’s the advice I intend to share with my son when he’s ready to apply to grad school. These are not broad opinions for other fields or to be construed as official instructions of any kind.

I will update this document, as I see examples of grad-school essays that leave their mark on me, or as I hear questions from students who are in the process of writing their essays. Contact me on twitter, if you have additional questions.

Happy writing! And, good luck with your grad-school application. ❤️🎓