Your personal statements (also called letters of intent) for graduate school, are super important. Everyone gives you their ideas one what to say and what not say (I’ve got my thoughts on that too!), but I really wanted to focus on the step-by-step process of how to go from a blank page to your first draft.
My (limited) Qualifications:
Before we start, I want you to know that what I’m going to share is based off my experiences. This is the process I used to write a 2-page essay that won me a Fulbright Fellowship and the chance to live in Mexico for a year all-expenses paid (which has now turned into 3). This is the same process I’m using to write my essays for my grad school applications.
Apart from my experience writing essays, I’ve been a committee member on lots of different scholarship selection committee including Fulbright, Hubert Humphrey Fellowship, ExxonMobile- Mexico Research Scholarship, and Cargill Global Scholars. So I’ve seen a lot of personal statements / essays / letters, etc.
I’m not trying to say that this makes me an expert (Trust me, I’ve got a lot left to learn!). BUT I do want you to know I’ve had experience on both sides of the table so to speak.
Step 1: Start early
This should be pretty obvious, but I put it because… well… you need to start early!
DO NOT wait until the last minute to write your essays. I repeat: DO NOT wait until the last minute to write your essays.
You should start drafting your essays about 6 months before they’re due. For my Fulbright essays, I started in April or May and didn’t turn the essays in until October. This gives you plenty of time to change and revise your essays. My first draft essay looks NOTHING like the essay that won the grant.
Step 2: Brainstorming & Introspection:
If you think you can write your grad school admissions essay without doing this, you’re either 1) a hyper-focused prodigy, or 2) you need to rethink your decision to go to grad school. I’m sorry if #2 is a little harsh, but I don’t believe in sugar coating things.
Graduate school is a huge decision in every way possible. You should spend sometime doing some “soul searching” to figure out why you truly want to go. Your conscious rationalization might not even match whats going on in your subconscious once you start probing.
If you’re not very good at introspection, I suggest Don Asher’s book, “Graduate Admission Essays.” (<– affiliate link – helps pay for website) It is very useful for graduate school admissions in general, but it also has some great pre-writing questions to get you thinking about your professional / academic life.
In my essays for Fulbright, I started with a (hackneyed) explanation of my passion for teaching inspired by my wonderful high school Spanish teacher. After several months of revising (and guidance from an amazing mentor), I was able to draw a meaningful thread through most major events in my life (literally from birth) and show how those antecedents, more than inspired me, compelled me to go to graduate school.
Ok, that’s a little dramatic sounding – but it was truly an emotional and stirring experience. I even cried once… or twice.
Nothing should be overlooked during this process. Look at everything you’ve done: jobs you’ve had, people who have mentored you, classes you’ve taken, books that have inspired you.
The point is, you really need to look inside yourself and reflect on what you find.
Step 3: Word Vomit Everything:
I liked to say “Word Vomit” because to begin your first draft, you’re just going to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard in my case) and start writing the answer to the question “Why do you want to go to pursue graduate studies in Speech Language Pathology?” without thinking or stopping or editing.
You might think, “AH! But that’s not the prompt!” And you’re right; it is probably not the exact prompt for every school. But I bet it is pretty close, and “pretty close” is good enough for now.
Don’t worry at this point if you have too much content or if it is completely filled with atrocious grammatical errors. This is a precursor to rough draft.
I wrote in stream of consciousness, just typing the answer as it came to me. Imagine you’re sitting on a comfy couch having a cup of coffee (or wine, depending on which gets you going better) with someone who asks you why’re interested in the field. You’ve got nothing but time and someone who is super interested in your answer. Tell them everything!
This super-rough-draft was three pages long and riddled with errors, errant thoughts, and all sorts of stuff that (while true) I would never show to grad schools. But the point was to get the answer onto paper!
At this point, no experience is too small to exclude. During a conversation with my mentor about my essays for Fulbright, I mentioned that I was the only person in my family to have traveled to a foreign country. Her jaw dropped a little as she asked, “and why isn’t that in your essay?” I went on to turn that seemingly useless fact into one of the cornerstones of my essay because it intimately related to the mission of the Fulbright program. This is a perfect time to bring up,
Step 4: Get some brilliant reviewers
cannot should not try to do this on your own. Find a mentor / someone to help you.
Why? Because we get tunnel vision when reading our own writing, after a few passes we tend to skip things and to think it is a lot better than it actually is. Also, we’re so close to our own lives that we sometimes can’t make sense of it – a third party can make connections we take for granted.
My advice for selecting a mentor
- Someone who is a talented writer
- This is a tough and delicate thing to figure out. If the person is a professor, do they teach writing courses (good sign!) Are they published? (good sign!) Does they often get asked to write letters of recommendation (good sign!) Have they won grants in the past? (good sign!)
- Someone who works in the field
- Business people write differently than engineering people write differently than speech language pathologists. You want someone who knows your field and what is abuzz in its sphere of influence.
- Someone who has experience with admissions essays
- Many of your college professors have probably served on an admissions review panel for graduate students before. These are the perfect people to give you advice on your essays because they know all of your competition and what reviewers will look for!
As a final note, you don’t have to know your mentor very well before beginning work with him/her. I actually didn’t know my mentor before she agreed to look at my essays. My academic advisor suggested I contact this professor who “had some experience” with Fulbright. I wrote her a polite (and proper) email asking if she could spare some time to work with me. As it turns out, she is an alumnus of the program and a former member of the national selection committee! Her advice was AMAZING (and probably a huge part of why I won the grant!).
Once you have a mentor, ask them to read the essay multiple times. In fact, ask as many people as possible to read your essays. Just because someone reads the essay doesn’t mean they have to follow their advice!
Step 5: Trimming it Down & Shaping It Up
This is something you should be doing simultaneously with your mentor.
At this point you have a good source of raw material from which to build your essays. Unfortunately, it is probably too much material. So you have to trim it down and shape it up.
Start cutting down the essay little by little to get it down to around 1 page. You’re going to have to make a lot of tough decisions about content.
My first piece of advice is to focus on what only you can talk about. If you know one of your letters of recommendation is going focus on teamwork, don’t waste space on that in your essay – focus on something only you can focus on – like how you felt during your first linguistics course or how shadowing an SLP showed you the impact speech therapy can have on a child’s life.
Second piece of advice: don’t be afraid to delete and remove sentences or even paragraphs. Sometimes, you know you need a smoother transition or a shorter way of expressing an idea, but you’re too attached to what’s already written to make changes. When this happens, open a new word document and start typing there until you’ve got the idea out, then copy and paste it into the main essay. Sometimes getting your work out of your sight helps you to get your mind off of it.
Once you get down to around a page-ish, you’re ready to start customizing the letter for each school/program to which you’re applying.
Step 6: Tweaking & Customizing:
First, a tip on organization. I use Dropbox. I suggest creating a folder for each university that you’re applying to. In each folder, create a copy of your “base draft” of the essay. In a new word document, but that school’s specific essay requirements at the top. Into the document, paste chunks of your “base essay” together and start tweaking it.
One thing to help customize your essay is simply to mention the school’s name. Most SLP programs are pretty similar, but if you’re applying to a unique one, find a way mention it! If you’re interested in a specific area of research, mention the name of a faculty member conducting research in that area. Check out the program’s mission statement as well for good key words that their faculty will like to hear.
Most importantly, make sure you’re following the school’s prompts to the letter. You don’t want to get rejected because some student worker automatically rejected your application because your essay was 301 words when the limit is 300.
I know it might seem a little general, but really what you need to do is START WRITING.
By the time you’ve got a first draft, I’ll have up my next post with specific tips for refining and editing the essay.
Go, get started!
Credits: Featured Image Base from Freepik.com