Before you begin: useful tips for writing your essay

Before you start writing, keep these principles in mind:

Less is more

That is, you have a lot you could say, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you should try to say everything.

Be selective. Organize your statement around a unifying theme rather than merely listing your accomplishments.

Give good examples and explanations

Try to avoid writing sentences that could be cut and pasted out of your statement and into someone else’s with little difficulty. One detail is worth a thousand cliches.

For example, “I have always wanted to study physics because I like science,” is a sentiment with which almost anyone applying to graduate physics programs might agree. Remember that you’re applying to an advanced research degree, so the admissions committee will want to see evidence not only that you like a particular discipline, but that you engaged with the questions of the particular subfield in it—that you’re interested in that subfield’s ideas and research. You’ll need to show how that you’ve taken concrete steps to pursue your interests (like, for example, engaging in undergraduate research) and in doing so, you’ll use the jargon of your field to indicate that you are knowledgeable about it and can talk like someone who will be joining it.

Instead of saying that you “like” something, you can give a describe an experience that inspired or confirmed your interest. Explain how and why it had an effect on you. These details show your enthusiasm and dedication far more effectively than just saying that you like something does.

You may also want to describe a challenge that you’ve encountered while pursuing your academic interests—maybe a lab experiment didn’t turn out correctly or perhaps you encountered an issue with the archive you were studying. Explain how you tried to mitigate an obstacle or (if appropriate) how you overcame it. Including information about a problem that you’ve confronted can demonstrate your persistence and indicate that you’re ready to meet the challenges of graduate study. (Be careful though, an essay full of challenges and complaints may persuade a committee of just the opposite.)

Help your reader

Remember, the reader isn’t inside your head and may not always be able to understand why you are including certain information in your statement or may not be able to easily understand the connections between different parts of your statement. Don’t be afraid to be explicit and to clearly state how a particular experience demonstrates your potential for advanced study or the soundness of your reasons for pursuing it.

Follow instructions carefully

Make sure that your essay is responding to the question(s). Each department you apply to may have different requirements and expectations for their admissions essays. For this reason, ensure that read the admissions directions thoroughly and consult your advisor if you have any questions.

Cover your bases

Make sure that you’ve called attention to your successes and relevant experience and that you’ve explained any discrepancies in your record.

Proofread your essay!

Spelling, typos, and grammatical errors may distract your reader. Because readers often have to make quick judgments about potentially hundreds of candidates, they may be quickly turned off by any errors they perceive and may assume that the writer isn’t fully prepared for graduate study if a statement seems sloppy.

For this reason, leave yourself time to proofread and enlist the help of others to make sure that your essay is clearly written and error-free. Read through our “Get more help with your statement” page for more information about soliciting advice from others.