As you gear up to write your application essays, you may 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 for, draft, and edit outstanding essays. By the end of this series, you will approach your writing with confidence, as you apply what you have learned to your 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 see 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 and at the same time tells us 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.
Let’s look at this great first paragraph: notice how every sentence builds on the sentence that precedes it, adding context for the applicant’s decision to apply to a public health program. By the second sentence, she begins to present her background in the healthcare field, and by the third sentence, she explains why she now doubts that her initial, chosen field of physical therapy will be satisfying in the long-term. She demonstrates self-knowledge in this realization, self-knowledge that has come from her experiences thus far in the healthcare field. 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 as a PT. Her decision reflects a logical progression in her career and in her thinking.
As the essay continues, she continues to build 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, followed immediately by a succinct discussion of her field work experience. She doesn’t simply 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 has returned 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 prose is clear and active. Every sentence offers something new or additional information; there is no fluff. She demonstrates mature self-knowledge, a logical career progression, and offers relevant, specific facts that add strength to her candidacy. This clarity and momentum keeps 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 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 look 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 that 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 colorful and wonderful, really setting the tone for the essay and the writer’s frustrations at the limitations of his role.
This four-paragraph essay really packs a punch. While only half of the length of the MPH essay, it still delivers the same winning elements, including specific highlights of career achievements (the writer was Rookie of the Year at his company) and clear 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.”
As “one of the industry’s top representatives,” we can understand his quest for a higher-level intellectual challenge, and cites his work experience and science background that will transfer to a new career in medical law. He makes a convincing case that he is capable of achieving this goal. In the last sentence, he effectively refers back to the “grumpy physicians” we had already met, though with some softness, which keeps him from appearing arrogant. Both writers so far have brought their essays full circle.
Having read and analyzed these essays, you will now have a better grasp of the types of experiences that can build a case for your grad school candidacy. Start making a list of the experiences you have had that will create a compelling scene that will grab your readers’ attention from the first sentence and not let it go until they have reached the final, satisfying conclusion.
- Open with a colorful anecdote or a question to engage the reader’s interest from the first sentence.
- Hold the reader’s interest by building on your narrative sentence by sentence, adding new information, building your case for admission, and showing self-reflection and insights.
- When you first begin to write, think of it as telling your story to a friend in person over coffee. This will help you get it down in your natural voice without worrying about having a “writer’s” style. Once it’s on paper, you can then begin to edit it into a substantive draft, editing 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.
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By Judy Gruen, former Accepted admissions consultant. Judy holds a Master’s in Journalism from Northwestern University. She 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!