FAQ: Admissions Essays

NOTE: This FAQ is a work in progress. If you have a question that is not answered here, email it to me at Omar(dot)Hussein(at)CSULB(dot)edu and I will do my best to either (1) answer it or (2) direct you to an answer that is already posted on this site.

Keep in mind that the majority of this advice is geared toward MA and PhD applications. For advice on applying to professional schools (e.g., MD, JD, MBA), see the “Displine Specific Advice” section of the Admissions Essays page.

**General Disclaimer** I do my best to provide a well-informed, professional viewpoint on all topics discussed here. That said, I’m just one person. You should always practice critical thinking, weigh the evidence in favor of all claims, consult other expert opinions, and make up your own mind.

FAQ

How do I get started writing my statement of purpose or personal statement? I don’t know where to begin.

First, many programs have very specific instructions in their statement prompt. For example, here you can view the instructions for the Fall 2021 CSULB MSW program. If a program offers you a detailed prompt like that one, then getting started should be easy: simply answer the questions in the prompt.

But what if the prompt is generic—something like the following?

Please describe your aptitude and motivation for graduate study in your area of specialization, including your preparation for this field of study, your academic plans or research interests in your chosen area of study, and your future career goals.

In that case, I recommend following the advice in the “5 Minute Summary for People in a Hurry” table on the previous page. In other words, use the “Skeleton” document as a guide to structuring your statement, and look at the sample essays (in the “Samples” section) to get further ideas about how to put the advice from the Skeleton document into practice. I also strongly recommend reading Karen Kelsky’s “A+ Admissions Essays” document and browsing the other resources on the page (e.g., my workshop video) if you need further help. Those resources, along with the advice in this FAQ, should be enough to help you write an excellent essay draft.

How do I stand out compared to other applicants? How can I convey my uniqueness to the admissions committee?

In my opinion, trying to stand out is not a good way to approach writing your admissions essays. To give an extreme example, imagine that instead of answering the essay prompt, you sent in a watercolor self-portrait. Would that stand out? Yes. Would it improve your chances of admission? Not likely. My point is that trying to stand out just for the sake of appearing different or special compared to other candidates will often lead you down the wrong path. Instead, I recommend focusing on being clear and direct, and offering specific concrete examples and/or brief anecdotes to make your statements more vivid, convincing, and memorable. In other words, don’t just tell—also show. For example, an applicant to an education program could write something like: “In my work as a tutor at the University Learning Center, I have developed the ability to effectively serve diverse populations of students.” This sentence is “telling” the reader what the applicant did. This is an important first step for orienting the reader, but now the applicant should follow this up with a specific example that “shows” the reader: “For example, last semester I worked regularly with an English language learner whose first language is Cambodian. She was having difficulties with some of her writing assignments, so I worked with her weekly to improve her facility with academic English. I also helped explain some of the cultural aspects of academic writing at a U.S. university, such as the American concept of what plagiarism is and how to avoid it.” This concrete example makes the previous “telling” clearer and more memorable.

How can I improve my vocabulary so that I “sound smart”?

Trying to sound smart almost always backfires and results in the exact opposite. Or, to put it more gently, the best way to sound smart is to try to be as clear, concrete, and direct as possible. When you make clear statements and the reader understands exactly what you mean, the reader will view you as smart and educated. On the other hand, if you go out of your way to use abstractions or “big words” to sound smart, you will usually just confuse the reader. And the confused reader will not think “Wow, this writer is so smart.” They will think “Wow, this person doesn’t know how to write clearly.” For example, contrast these sentences:

(1) Writing is difficult, but it gets easier with practice.

(2) The process of textual production is onerous, yet it becomes perfunctory as a result of successively repeated efforts.

These sentences mean essentially the same thing, but the first one is clear and makes sense, while the second one is unnecessarily difficult to read. If someone were to write the second one in an email to me, for example, I wouldn’t be impressed by the author’s vocabulary. I’d be dumbfounded that the author uses so many words to say so little.

Also, unnecessary abstraction can make things confusing. Contrast these two sentences:

(a) The bully punched the small kid in the arm.

(b) The bully behaved aggressively toward the small kid.

When I read (a), I know exactly what happened. When I read (b), I don’t. It’s not that (b) is grammatically incorrect. It’s not even that (b) is unnecessarily verbose, like (2) above. It’s just that (b) is kind of vague and abstract. What exactly does “behaved aggressively” mean? “Behaved aggressively” could mean a whole range of abusive behaviors, including yelling, insulting, threatening, throwing things… you get the picture. If I want to say that the bully hit the small kid in the arm, I should just say that directly. Being direct doesn’t make my writing sound “stupid” or unintelligent. Quite the opposite. It makes my writing seem no-nonsense and on-topic. Those are good qualities. See this post on abstraction and vagueness from the Thesis Whisperer for more on this point.

Now, does this mean that you should never use abstractions? Does it mean that you have to deliberately “dumb down” your writing to make it accessible? No. If you are talking about an abstract concept, abstract terms are necessary. For example, if I was writing a philosophy paper on the nature of “freedom,” that’s an abstract concept. You can’t pick up freedom or buy it at the store. So, of course you’ll have to use abstract terms to talk about it. Or consider mathematics: the number three (or any other number, for that matter) is an abstraction—you can’t go visit the number three, or capture it in a net, or observe it in the wild. So, if we were discussing philosophical concepts in math, we would need to speak in abstractions.

However, it’s best to use abstract terms when discussing abstract things, and concrete terms when discussing concrete, definite things.

The same goes for technical terms or “jargon.” Sometimes these are necessary. But if a particular term might not be familiar to your reader, you should define it.  How do you know when you’ll need to define a term? My advice is to write your admissions essay at the level of an academic conference presentation. At a conference, you assume that the audience is made up of smart people who know the basics of your field. But you don’t assume that they work in your area of specialty or that they’ve read all the same things you have (they probably haven’t).

Where do I include my research interests in the essay?

This question sometimes comes up because I don’t list a specific “research interests” paragraph on the “Skeleton” document. That’s not because I don’t think you should discuss your research interests in your statement of purpose—in many cases, you absolutely should. But a separate paragraph on them is not necessary for all disciplines. For some fields, you might only need to mention your research interests briefly in the introduction paragraph and maybe again when re-stating your goals. For example, if you’re applying to a professional program that may not be research focused (e.g., some MSW programs), you might not need to mention any particular research focus (although, for an MSW program you might discuss what population you’re especially interested in working with). For MD programs, you generally don’t discuss research interests—it’s assumed that your ultimate specialty will be determined in medical school. For personal statements for JD programs, you’re usually not encouraged to discuss specific aspects of the law and are instead required to focus on personal qualities that’ll make you successful in law school. There are other examples. But the point is that each person’s situation is different, and each field has its own specific expectations. So, my best advice is always to talk to mentors and advisors in your field. Browse trustworthy websites in your discipline (e.g., university websites, blogs of famous academics). Talk to people who’ve recently been admitted to grad school in your discipline. Find an open house or Q&A session for the program you’re interested in (these are often listed on the program’s website). ). Or reach out to someone at the school whose job it is to answer such questions (e.g., the equivalent role to CSULB’s graduate advisors). All of those sources will help you decide whether or not to include specific items (such as a research interests paragraph) in your essays. If you want a model for an essay that does include a separate paragraph on research interests, see the “poli sci” example on the previous page. And remember to take a “jazz” approach to materials like the Skeleton document—that is, don’t treat them as the unimpeachable, “Gospel” truth. Instead, you should re-work them, remix them, and make them your own.

Should I praise/flatter the school?

For example, should I say things like “your excellent world-class faculty will give me the top-notch education that I need to succeed in my field”? No—at least not when you’re applying to grad school in the English-speaking world (i.e., the United States, England, Ireland, Canada, Australia, or other English “commonwealth” countries). Anecdotally, some Asian students have told me that certain business schools in East Asia expect such flattering language somewhere in the statement as a culturally-mediated form of courtesy. I’m not entirely sure whether that’s true or not. But for programs in English-speaking countries, such flattery is considered empty at best (i.e., it’s not saying anything useful and should be deleted to save space), and annoying or offensive at worst.

Should I mention the names of specific professors that I’d like to work with?

Like most of the advice on this page, the answer depends on your specific discipline (see my answer above to “Where do I include my research interests in the essay?”). Here’s a smattering of (often conflicting) advice from different fields:

Computer science & linguistics:

“…to demonstrate fit for the program, it’s a good idea to name 2 or 3 faculty members as potential advisors, and explain which aspects of their research appeal to you. In addition to underscoring your fit for the program, it will also be used in the admissions process to help route your application to those faculty members for their input. As a general rule of thumb, I recommend 2 or 3, because if you only name 1 person, there’s a risk that they will not be taking new advisees, which will hurt your chances; and if you name a large number of faculty, it could make your interests look unfocused. Do your homework and browse websites of interesting faculty in each program you apply to. Also keep in mind that different faculty have different roles: in many departments, it is the tenure-track/tenured faculty who do the bulk of the research and advising of Ph.D. students.” Source.

Philosophy:

Some [applicants] mention retired faculty or faculty who are not at all research active. This is more understandable, but you should generally do your research, because if you say ‘I want to work with X’ and X is retired or not the kind of faculty member who should be working with graduate students, your statement is not very compelling. My preference is that if you don’t know the someone’s work at all, don’t mention them. You might look through our roster and notice a strength in a certain area—just mention that strength rather than saying you want to work with specific people. Like ‘Your department has strengths in X and Y, this is attractive to me because … I am particularly intrigued at the prospect of working with Professor A. Her work in area X has had a strong influence on my own studies and trajectory …’ etc. If you say ‘I’m interested in working with professors A, B, and C’ when B is retired and C hasn’t published in 20 years, it’s pretty clear you just read through our faculty website and listed everyone with an AOS in your area. Source.

The CSULB MS in Biology lists as a pre-requisite for applying that each applicant must have:

“…a faculty member in the department who agrees in writing to serve as the thesis advisor to the student prior to their acceptance into the M.S. program. Applicants are encouraged to contact Biology faculty members to inquire about being their thesis advisor and openings in their lab. It is beneficial to do this before submitting your departmental application (search the list of research faculty for potential advisors).” Source.

So, if you were applying to the CSULB MS in bio, you’d clearly need to mention the name of the faculty member that agreed to be your advisor.

With all this varying advice, what should you do? As I indicated in my answer to “Where do I include my research interests in the essay?” above, no two people, schools, or situations are going to be exactly alike. Your best bets are always to talk to trusted advisors and to find helpful “insiders” who can tell you exactly what a particular program is looking for. You should also scour the web for trustworthy info on what is commonly expected in your discipline. Synthesize all the information and advice that you can, and then use your best judgment and critical thinking. Ultimately these are your application essays. You want to feel reasonably satisfied with whatever you submit. So, you have to make the final judgment call.

How personal is too personal? How much information is too much information?

Remember Larry McEnerney’s advice: with any piece of writing, ask yourself who’s reading it and why they’re reading it (see my page on Audience for more info on this point). For admission essays, the answers are simple. Who’s reading it? The admissions committee—a small group of (usually senior-level) faculty members in the department you’re applying to. Why are they reading it? To decide whether you, in particular, are a good fit for their program, in particular.  So, one guideline is: don’t write anything in the essay that you wouldn’t feel comfortable blurting out loud in a room full of senior faculty members whom you don’t know very well (or at all) and are hoping to make a good impression on.  

I also agree strongly with Karen Kelsky’s advice on this topic:

…Writing is hard, and even harder to do well.  Transforming the complexity of your life to a one page essay can be brutally hard.  Huge quantities of detail, enormous amounts of what makes you YOU, have to be left out.

After the initial work of getting your thoughts and background and goals on paper, you may not be the best judge of what version of that information actually speaks most effectively to OTHER PEOPLE.  Your readers and editors and advisors and professors and TAs, etc. may have a more hard-eyed insight into what “works” and what doesn’t, in the effort to achieve your goals.

Listen to them, and take your ego [i.e., your self] out of it. Source.

But now you might be thinking: What if I need to tell them about some very personal event in my life to show some remarkable aspect of my character? For example, I overcame a drug addiction and now I’m a straight-A college student. Shouldn’t I get personal in telling this “hero’s journey” story? Or what if the essay prompt asked me to discuss adversity I’ve overcome? Or what if I’m applying to a people-centered profession like therapy or clinical psych, and I want to show the committee that I am empathetic toward patients and clients because of my own experiences with mental illness/trauma/substance abuse (to name a few examples)—shouldn’t I get deeply personal and detailed in discussing my background?

Maybe. There are always exceptions to every rule. BUT keep in mind that graduate admissions essays are professional documents. You shouldn’t disclose information that you wouldn’t disclose in a professional setting, such as at an academic/professional job site, for instance, or a graduate seminar. If you share “too much information”—even if that information is powerful or relevant—it will very likely make it seem that you “have no boundaries” or are hopelessly unaware of appropriate professional behavior. Such “excessive disclosure” is one of what Appleby and Appleby (2006) refer to as “kisses of death” (or KODs), which are defined as “aberrant types of information that cause graduate admissions committees to reject otherwise strong applicants” (p. 19). They go on to describe several categories of KODs (quoted beneath the headings that follow):

Personal mental health.

The discussion of a personal mental health problem is likely to decrease an applicant’s chances of acceptance into a program. Examples of this particular KOD in a personal statement included comments such as “showing evidence of untreated mental illness,” “emotional instability,” and seeking graduate training “to better understand one’s own problems or problems in one’s family.” More specifically, one respondent stated that a KOD may occur “when students highlight how they were drawn to graduate study because of significant personal problems or trauma. Graduate school is an academic/career path, not a personal treatment or intervention for problems.”

Appleby and Appleby (2006), p. 20

Excessive altruism.

Admissions committees are not impressed by statements such as “I want to help all people,” “I’m destined to save the world,” or “I think I am a strong candidate for your program because people have always come to me with their problems; I am viewed as a warm, empathetic, and caring person.” One respondent offered the following advice: “Everybody wants to help people. That’s assumed. Don’t say the reason you want to go into clinical psychology is to help people.” Thus, a personal statement should focus on the student’s professional activities such as research interests and pursuits, academic strengths, and professional experiences rather than on purely personal characteristics and motives. It is better to allow letter of recommendation authors to describe strong personal qualities than to include them as self-perceptions in a personal statement.

Appleby and Appleby (2006), p. 20

Excessive self-disclosure.

Promiscuous self-disclosure characterized another KOD in personal statements. An example of such disclosure was “a long saga about how the student had finished [school] over incredible odds. Much better to have a reference allude to this.” However, one committee chair noted that graduate admissions committees do not always view this type of information negatively if an applicant has written it in a professional manner that is appropriate for the context of a formal application.

‘The applicant mentions in the personal statement that he/she decided to pursue a career in clinical psychology due to personal family experience with psychopathology. This isn’t always a kiss of death, but a sensitive area such as this should be communicated carefully. If the applicant is “spilling” overly personal information in a written statement, I often view this as a “worry sign” or an indication of poor interpersonal boundaries.’

Appleby and Appleby (2006), p. 20

Professionally inappropriate.

A final example of a KOD that can occur in a personal statement is any professionally inappropriate information that does not match the context of the application. One applicant admitted to feeling “a thrill of excitement every time he/she steps into a morgue.” Another wrote “a 10-page narrative of herself as Dorothy on the yellow-brick road to graduate school.” A third indicated that he or she “had performed (acted?) in pornographic movies, which was not well received by the admissions department in consideration for acceptance into graduate school.” Other types of professionally unsuitable content include using excessive or inappropriate humor, “cutesy/clever stuff,” and excessively religious references (e.g., “I am a gifted therapist naturally. God has given me natural talents that make me a very good clinician. This was recently demonstrated when I helped my devil-worshipping brother go on the right path, God’s path.”). As one respondent noted, “Being religious is OK, but it has little relevance to research or psychology graduate school.”

Appleby and Appleby (2006), p. 20

See also the next question below:

Should I write a “sob story” to show how remarkable I am for overcoming adversity?

No. Even when you are asked to write diversity statement, or asked to describe overcoming adversity, these prompts are not asking you to describe tales of woe. As an op-ed from the Daily Bruin helpfully explains, “diversity statements… require [applicants] to describe their past and possible future contributions to an environment of equity, diversity and inclusion…  Diversity statements don’t rely on personal traumas or hardships, and they can explore applicants’ experiences more deeply – and equitably” than a simple litany of bad things that happened to you. For more on writing diversity statements, see the “Diversity Statements” section of the previous page.

How do I answer a question that asks me to describe my strengths and weaknesses?

The strengths part is relatively easy. One model you can use is “tell” + “show” + “lesson learned”:

  • Tell-Show-Lesson Learned
    • Tell: First, tell the reader one or more of your strengths in clear, specific terms, e.g. “One of my strengths is my ability to use active empathetic listening to build trust with my clients.”
    • Show: Next, “show” the reader a brief but detailed concrete example of what you just told them: “For example, in my role as an academic advisor, I recently helped an older student apply to graduate school for the first time. I listened attentively to the students’ concerns—she was struggling with imposter syndrome and concerned that her age might be a barrier to success in her program. I was then able to reassure her and help her to feel more confident in completing her application…”
    • Lesson Learned: Finally—and perhaps most importantly—explain what you learned and how it relates to your area of specialty or how it has helped prepare you for graduate study: “Experiences like this one have taught me the importance of forming personal connections with mentees. I look forward to continuing to develop my skills in this area in graduate school.”

For the weaknesses part, let’s start with what you shouldn’t do. Don’t disclose an actual troubling weakness, for example “I’m always late” or “Part of me is not sure if I can make it through grad school.” If your goal is to be admitted to the program, such comments are not going to help. But you also don’t want to state a fake weakness that’s actually a strength in disguise: “I care too much” or “I work too hard.” Such answers are phony, and the admissions committee will see right through them. So, what should you do? Describe an area of ignorance—something that you know you need to learn more about. It could be a particular population that you need to learn how to serve better, or it could be some highly technical aspect of your field. State that you’re already trying to learn more about it and that you look forward to continuing to learn about it in grad school. Here’s an example: “One area of weakness is that I need to learn more about serving students with learning disabilities. While I have significant experience working with students with conditions like ASD, for example, I have less experience serving students with grapho-phonic processing disabilities and other specific learning disabilities. While such topics were covered in my education coursework, it is a vast field and I know that I need to learn more about it so that I can better serve all populations of students. I look forward to learning more about this topic in graduate study.” This response shows “reflective practice”; that is, it shows that this applicant thinks carefully about their work and how to do it better. That’s exactly what they’re trying to get at with these “strengths and weaknesses” questions. The committee wants to know how good you are at reflecting on your practice.

How do I write about my experiences (e.g., work, research, conferences)? What’s the best way to include specific examples and anecdotes to make my essay more memorable?

Writing about experiences is another great opportunity to use the Tell-Show-Lesson Learned structure described in the answer to the previous question above. The following example is modified from the Skeleton document, which gives very similar advice:

  1. Tell what you did: “In my sophomore year, I worked in Dr. Abdullah’s zebrafish lab researching the topic of… My duties included…”
  2. Show some particular aspect of the experience that highlights your strengths or technical skills that you developed:  “The next year, I was third author on a paper reporting our findings on…”
  3. Lesson Learned–describe the lesson you learned and/or how this experience has prepared you for graduate school: “This experience taught me the importance of…” OR “I learned valuable skills/techniques, including… This knowledge is essential for an aspiring…, and I look forward to continuing to develop my skills in graduate school” OR “These skills will serve me well in my future role as a…”

How do I answer a question that asks me to describe an ethical conflict I’ve faced?

Here’s an example of an ethical conflict question:

Describe a situation in which you were confronted with an ethical conflict. How did you resolve it?

Why do programs ask such questions? What do they want to figure out?

In my view, they want to see evidence that you (1) engage in reflective practice (see my answer to “How do I answer a question that asks me to describe my strengths and weaknesses?” above), (2) communicate well with colleagues/supervisors, and (3) respect, reflect on, and follow the ethical, moral, and legal obligations that are part of your professional/academic role.  

With these points in mind, your answer should, at minimum, tell the reader the following:

What happened (including the who, what, where, and when): For example, “In my job as a counselor at a women’s shelter, I was recently approached by a client asking me for recommendations for where she could get an abortion.”

Why EXACTLY it was an ethical conflict: By definition, an ethical conflict involves two ethical principles that are in conflict with each other. In other words, the story that you tell should involve you being pulled in opposite directions by two competing ethical principles. Make sure you state these competing principles EXPLICITLY or the reader will not understand why this story involves an ethical conflict (see the advice from Jim Pryor discussed below). For example (continuing from the previous example above) “This request presented an ethical conflict for me, because, as a devout Catholic, I am ethically opposed to abortion. That is, on the one hand, I have a moral obligation, based in my faith, to not encourage abortion.” (this is ethical principle #1). “But on the other hand, I have an ethical obligation to serve my clients’ needs to the best of my abilities and without bias or discrimination.” (this is ethical principle #2, which is in conflict with principle #1).

What you did to grapple with, and ultimately resolve, the conflict: In this part of the story, it’s almost always a good idea to mention some kind of collaborative communication with a supervisor or coworker. For example, “I brought up this conflict with my supervisor, who helped me to realize that, in my role, my highest obligation is to serve the client’s needs, even if the client’s wishes conflict with my personal moral beliefs. I am entrusted with the client’s wellbeing, and it is my job to offer them information on all available options. In addition, the client is an autonomous individual, and I cannot control their behavior even if I want to (which I don’t). Client autonomy is one of the core values of our profession as described in the handbook of…”

What the resolution was (i.e. how things ended): Readers will get very annoyed if you set up a conflict and then don’t clearly and directly explain how the conflict was resolved (i.e., how the story ended). It’s similar to the old playwriting advice attributed to Chekov: “If in Act One you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act.” For example, you could show the resolution of the conflict like this: “After the discussion with my supervisor, along with some further reflection, I met with the client again, and laid out all her options, including safe, affordable abortion clinics in her area. Ultimately, the client chose to go forward with the procedure, and while that’s not what I would have done, I think I did the right thing by honestly providing her with the information she requested.”

Finally, the lesson learned: You must ALWAYS have a lesson learned that connects back to your future career and/or your decision to go to graduate school (see my earlier response to “How do I answer a question that asks me to describe my strengths and weaknesses?”) For example: “This experience taught me the importance of considering client autonomy in choosing the appropriate resources to share… It also reaffirmed the importance of good communication with colleagues and supervisors. In my future career, I will encounter many situations that challenge my moral beliefs. However, as long as I follow the code of ethics of our profession, hold my clients’ needs as my first priority, and consult with my colleagues as needed, I know that I can find the right way forward.”

Why do you need to spell out all these parts in such detail? One answer is because we should follow the advice of the philosopher Jim Pryor, who recommends pretending that your reader is “lazy, stupid, and mean”:

He’s lazy in that he doesn’t want to figure out what your convoluted sentences are supposed to mean, and he doesn’t want to figure out what your argument is, if it’s not already obvious. He’s stupid, so you have to explain everything you say to him in simple, bite-sized pieces. And he’s mean, so he’s not going to read your paper charitably. (For example, if something you say admits of more than one interpretation, he’s going to assume you meant the less plausible thing.) If you understand the material you’re writing about, and if you aim your paper at such a reader, you’ll probably get an A.

This advice was intended for philosophy majors writing philosophical papers. But I think it’s excellent advice for all academic writers, particularly those writing statements of purpose and personal statements.

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