How To Write A Killer Graduate Admissions Essay

Part 2 - The Who, What, Where

This is the second post in a three-part series. Before you dive into this post, make sure you read my starting notes and tip about brainstorming in Part 1 linked below. And if you have already done so, you'll find a lot more detail in the tips below regarding how to approach answering the three big questions I introduced in Part 1: Who are you? What have you accomplished so far? Where do you want to go from here?


How to write a killer graduate admissions essay

Part 1 - Brainstorm

Part 2 - The Who, What, Where (this post)

Part 3 - Voice


Tip : Who are you? You are more your motivations, less your accomplishments.

"Tell me a little about yourself." We've all encountered this question in one form or another. And while it's perfectly acceptable to note a couple of big accomplishments or what you studied in undergrad, we all know those details barely scratch the surface of who you truly are. It is important, therefore, to give the audience - whether this is in an interview, on a date, or in an admissions essay - a glimpse of the human beneath the resume. I find the best way to do this in formal settings is to speak about what inspires you, what makes you tick, and what keeps you up and night. Usually it's those one or two key motivations that have driven you to your accomplishments and which are also at least partially responsible for your decision to pursue this degree.

A very effective way to illustrate your motivations and also capture the attention of the reader is with a vivid but concise anecdote, followed by a summary of what the reader should take away from your anecdote, hence answering the "so what?" mentioned in Part 1.

Tip : What have you accomplished? Use focus and framing when detailing accomplishments.

What to focus on

A common mistake candidates make when detailing their accomplishments is to repeat their resume. While it's acceptable and even necessary to mention a few sentences on your educational and professional background, instead of describing everything you have done, choose three projects, which ideally highlight different strengths, and elaborate on them. You may also choose to remind the reader of any renowned or impressive programs, organizations, or collaborators you have on your resume.

How to frame

When discussing successful projects, it's usually best to describe first what resulted from your work, and then describing your contribution in driving those results. Basically, help the reader contextualize your work. Here's an example:

"I lead the marketing efforts for my local library and have helped increase subscription rate." - Doesn't tell me much.

"The subscription rate at my local library went up 24%, driven by an online marketing campaign I helped design and execute. For context, for four years before this, the annual subscriptions had dropped every year." - Wow, that's very impressive! I really want to invite this person for an interview just to learn about this marketing campaign.

Achievements aren't always quantifiable. For example, an experience may have helped you learn a new skill or step into a leadership role. Don't ignore these vital details - they show self-awareness and growth, both valuable qualities! Here's the last example modified:

"The subscription rate at my local library went up 24%, driven by an online marketing campaign I helped design and execute. For context, for four years before this, the annual subscriptions had dropped every year. While I only had experience in print advertising, I realized the need to go online to attract new members and volunteered to learn about digital marketing, eventually becoming the expert on my team."

Speaking of learnings, the best learnings and insights typically come from failed projects. If you took an attempt at something interesting but it failed to materialize, describe your thought process and the lessons you learned. Especially if you are applying to a PhD program, demonstrate that you are familiar with the trial and error nature of the research process and that you know how to bounce back from failures. There are few qualities as critical as resilience and the ability to learn from failures, so do not shy away from speaking about this if you feel it portrays an important experience. Similarly, if there are any less than ideal components in your application, your admissions essay might be a great place to address this head-on. Here's an example:

"I learn best by conducting research. In college, I took on several research projects per semester, beyond the general course load. While this means that my GPA was lower than I had hoped for, it was a price I was willing to pay since, I was able to publish one first author and two second author papers in Journal A by my senior year."

Tip : Where do you want to go? Communicate vision, not (only) occupation.

When writing about what you want to do after your degree, it's important that you are not too near-sighted, nor too detached from reality. I have read essays that simply state the job role the candidate deems most suitable after the degree; I have also read essays where someone promises to change their country after their degree. It's not that strong essays exclude either of these - typically, they include both and in proper proportions.

One approach to mastering this section is to start with a brief description of the future of your field. An aspirant for a PhD in AI might state her vision for where Al is going to be 10 years and what role she wants to play in that journey. This helps ground the candidate's vision in real-world trends. The candidate may then mention the steps to realize this vision, describing the short-term steps and then build to the long-term goals.

Once you've painted a vivid picture for the reader of your vision, it's a great time to remind the reader how this this particular program you’re applying to is an essential step in your career progression. To top it off, tie future vision back to the motivations you outlined earlier in your essay.

Congratulations, you've come full circle.


Don't forget to read:

Part 1 - Brainstorm

Part 3 - Voice