Check out all of the blog posts in this series:
- Identifying the Ingredients of a Winning Essay
- Finding a Theme for Your Statement of Purpose (This blog is coming soon: February 10, 2023)
- Writing Your Career Goals Essay (This blog is coming soon: February 11, 2023)
- How to Start Your First Draft of an Application Essay (This blog is coming soon: February 12, 2023)
- Revise and Polish Your Application Essays (This blog is coming soon: February 13, 2023)
As you gear up to write your application essays, you might have looked at sample “winning” essays published in books or on websites, only to ask yourself afterward, “Sure, these are great, but what do these essays have to do with me?” This blog series will show you how to plan, draft, and edit outstanding essays of your own. By the end of this series, I promise that you will approach your writing with confidence as you apply what you have learned to this task.
Ready to get started? Great! Let’s learn how to go from example to exemplary right now.
Let’s jump right in and get started by looking at two sample essays to learn what makes them so effective.
The first essay, The Public Health Student, opens with a question:
“What if people lived healthier lives, practiced preventive medicine, and took precautions against illness and disease?”
The “what if?” opening immediately engages the reader. At the same time, we understand that the writer aspires to a career in the healthcare sector. We do not have to wait to discover the theme of the essay; it’s right there in the first sentence.
[Click Here to Read the Full Essay]
Let’s look at this great first paragraph:
“What if people lived healthier lives, practiced preventive medicine, and took precautions against illness and disease? My days in the physical therapy department often made me think about the prevention of injuries as well as the injuries themselves. I was already doubting my future career choice as a physical therapist. Although I loved the science of it and helping people, the lack of variety within the field and its limited options for growth bothered me. I needed a career that helped a large number of people, emphasized prevention and primary care rather than tertiary care, and would continually challenge and motivate me to improve. Knowing that I really did not want to pursue physical therapy as I had originally planned, my thoughts wandered to the area of public health, particularly health management.”
Notice how every sentence builds on the one that precedes it, adding context for the applicant’s decision to pursue a master’s in public health (MPH). By the second sentence, she begins to present her background in the healthcare field. By the third sentence, she explains why she now doubts that the field of physical therapy (PT) that she initially chose will be satisfying in the long term. Given her experiences thus far in the healthcare field, she demonstrates self-knowledge in this realization. By the end of the paragraph, we clearly appreciate the applicant’s motivations for wanting a career on the bigger, broader stage of public health, rather than PT. Her decision reflects a logical progression in her career and in her thinking.
As the essay continues, she builds her case for admission by linking her prior work and education to their relevance to the public health field. She writes about relevant coursework she has taken and follows that immediately with a succinct discussion of her fieldwork experience. Notice that she doesn’t merely list what she did; she goes deeper, discussing what she learned and how these experiences and insights have solidified her commitment to earning the MPH degree.
Her conclusion is also very effective because she returns to her opening “what if?” theme. Here she asks a new question: “What if an aspirin a day could prevent heart attacks?,” emphasizing that everything she has learned and done so far keeps her riveted by the challenge of finding answers to significant questions in public health.
This essay works because the writer’s prose is clear and active. Every sentence offers something new; there is no fluff. She demonstrates mature self-knowledge and a logical career progression, and offers relevant, specific facts that strengthen her candidacy. This clarity and momentum keep the pace moving, effectively building the writer’s profile as a promising and serious MPH applicant.
Now let’s take a look at the Returning to School essay from Accepted’s law school section. This essay opens with a colorful, compelling scene that immediately places the reader in the midst of the writer’s story:
“Fourteen grumpy doctors stare across an enormous oak conference table at me. It is seven o’clock in the morning, and most of the group is still wearing wrinkled green scrubs indicating they worked through the night. None of the doctors looks ready to digest the extremely technical information contained in the eight studies stacked neatly in front of them. My job is to present each study, review all relevant economic data, and answer any questions in such a way that the audience will conclude the new drug I am selling is better than the one they have been prescribing. One of the physicians gruffly informs me, through a mouthful of Danish, that he is leaving in ten minutes so I had better start my pitch.”
Don’t you already feel for this writer and his formidable challenge? I don’t know about you, but he had me hooked right away, and I was rooting for him to win over this very tough audience. That last sentence is also vibrant—you can almost see the physician chewing that Danish. It really sets the tone for the essay and the writer’s frustrations at the limitations of his role.
[Click Here to Read the Full Essay]
This four-paragraph essay really packs a punch. While only half of the length of the MPH essay, it delivers the same winning elements, including specific highlights of career achievements (the writer was Rookie of the Year at his company) and convincing reasons for a career change. He clearly explains his disappointment and fatigue: “My job became less challenging as I had to repeatedly remind the doctors of what I had already discussed with them.”
Given that the applicant was “one of the industry’s top representatives,” we can understand his quest for a higher-level intellectual challenge. Citing his work experience and science background that would transfer to a new career in medical law, he makes a convincing case that he can and will achieve this goal. His last sentence refers back to the “grumpy physicians” we met at the beginning of the essay, though with some softness, an effective touch that keeps him from appearing arrogant. Both writers successfully bring their essays full circle.
Now that you have read and analyzed these essays yourself, do you feel you have a better grasp of the types of experiences that can establish a convincing case for your grad school candidacy? Build on your confidence by making a list of the experiences you have had that will create a compelling scene to grab your reader’s attention from the first sentence. You don’t want to let them go until they have reached the final, satisfying conclusion.
- Open with a colorful, vivid anecdote or a thought-provoking question to engage the reader’s interest right from the start.
- Hold the reader’s interest by building on your narrative, sentence by sentence, adding new information, reinforcing your case for admission, and revealing your self-reflection and insights.
- When you first begin to write, imagine that you are telling your story in person to a friend over coffee. This will help you get it down in your natural voice without worrying about having a “writer’s” style. Once your story is “on paper,” you can begin to edit it into a substantive draft, finessing it for clarity, length, and impact.
- Refer back to your opening when you conclude your essay, bringing your story full circle.
In the next post in this series, we’ll show you how to choose a theme for your exemplary statement of purpose.
Work one-on-one with an expert who will walk you through the process of creating a slam-dunk application: . Our admissions consultants have read thousands of essays and know the exact ingredients of an outstanding essay.
By Judy Gruen, former Accepted admissions consultant. Judy holds a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University and is the co-author of Accepted’s first full-length book, MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools. Want an admissions expert help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch!