The Writing Center @ The University of Wisconsin - Madison
The Writer's Handbook
Writing Application Essays

Frequently Asked Questions

**Important note: Expectations for application essays vary widely. The answers below are meant to give some general guidelines, but may not be applicable to the particular program to which you are applying.

Is it all right to use the first person?

In most cases it's essential. The application essay is about you and what you think about yourself and the field you want to study.

How far back should I go in tracing my background?

For your essay, choose the details that you want to highlight in order to best answer the question at hand. The application itself may provide you with a chance to give detailed educational and job history.

Stories about how one became interested in a particular field might reference things as far back as grade school. At the same time, mentioning academic accomplishments prior to college might be viewed as naive. More recent honors will carry more weight.

How long should the essay or statement be?

Your essay should never exceed the limit given in the application instructions.

If no limit is specified, make your essay no longer than two pages.

How much of the information already in my application should I repeat?

Admissions reviewers may not read every detail of your application carefully. Therefore, highlight information from your application that you definitely want noted.

Do not merely list things, though. Be sure to explain the significance of the items you mention and make them relevant to the essay as a whole.

Should I include or explain negative experiences? Should I call attention to a low (or high) G.P.A.?

In some cases, yes. If something in your academic record is weak or questionable, a thoughtful explanation could help.

Discussing a negative experience that taught you something valuable or helped you make important life or career decisions can sometimes be a good way to provide a reviewer with insight into your character and professional goals.

However, if you don't want to draw attention to a particular situation (or have nothing positive to say about it), you might best avoid bringing it up at all.

How "personal" should I be?

By their nature, these essays are "personal" in that they ask you not only to tell things about you but to reflect on their significance to your past and future educational and career goals.

Some applications specifically request that you provide a personal narrative, while others focus more on educational and professional experience.

In either case, it's important to connect your experiences (personal, educational, or professional) to the goals and requirements of the program to which you are applying and to be guided by the essay instructions as to the main content of your essay.

How experimental should I be?

Sometimes doing something unusual with your essay can be a way to stand out from the crowd.

It can be risky, however, and it requires a high degree of sophistication and skill. Whatever flashy or clever tactic you choose to use, you have to be able to use it to complete the task at hand, which is to demonstrate your preparation and suitability for the program to which you are applying.

At the same time, readers of experimental essays have vastly different reactions to them. While some appreciate a break from the more standard essay, others may see it as a failure to follow instructions. A safer strategy is to use compelling details and a clear, artful writing style.

Should I format this as a standard essay (with an introduction, body, conclusion)?

To one degree or another, yes. You want to give your essay a discernable shape -- one that indicates a direction, takes your reader to a destination, and helps him or her understand the significance of what you've written about.