Human Centered Design & Engineering

June 16, 2015

Tips for Writing a Personal Essay

The following article was re-posted from Advance Course, originally published on May 3, 2015, in the Seattle Times.

Make a statement
11 insider tips from university staff on writing an
enviable personal essay

By Lora Shinn

Most graduate programs require a personal statement or essay for admission. While narrowing your goals and aspirations down to 500 words or fewer may not be a task you relish, it’s a critical component of the application process.

Think of it as an equivalent to a five-credit course, says Jenny Halpin, director of the University of Washington’s Odegaard Writing and Research Center, which helps more than 1,500 students prepare statements for graduate, professional and scholarship programs every year.

Give yourself roughly two months from essay draft to application deadline, Halpin suggests, which allows time to reflect on the program’s questions, brainstorm answers, incorporate your research, review experiences and revise early drafts.

It’s not easy to write these statements, she says. “It’s an awkward genre, not one we have a lot of experience with as writers or people, and it runs counter to what our culture says about basic modestly and humility,” she says. But this is your chance to communicate to the committee that you’re an extraordinary applicant, and they want you in their program.

Here’s a quick run-down of tips from Halpin and Marie Boisvert, director of graduate admission at Pacific Lutheran University.

  1. Read the question. Many writers don’t read the question, or they give it only a cursory look. “We see a lot of draft statements that are off-topic, even if [it is] a reasonably well-crafted statement that tells a good story,” Halpin says. When you lose sight of the initial question, “it looks to the committee that you didn’t care enough about what was actually asked.”
  2. Don’t use templates. Worst-case scenario: you accidentally mention another school (it’s happened, Boisvert says). Everything in your essay must custom-fit the program to which you’re applying.
  3. Craft for the program and program faculty, not the university. The committee reading your letter wants to know why you fit their program, Boisvert notes. If your interests or experiences dovetail with the research focus of a faculty member or department, mention it. Drop faculty members’ names and name published pieces—it shows you’ve done your homework.
  4. Show off. Committee members want to see that you are a good writer, a great fit for the program, intrinsically motivated and can be successful in both the program and in the field as a whole, Boisvert says. They also want to see that you have a realistic understanding of the field and an ability to perform low-supervision research, if you are applying for a research-based program.
  5. Skip the TTYLs and other informal language. “This is your opportunity to show you can write in formal academic style, and there’s so much writing in grad school,” Boisvert says.
  6. Avoid pat phrases. An example: “I always wanted to be a (profession) since I was (age).” The phrase doesn’t contribute much. “Being the doctor isn’t the end game, it’s helping people,” Boisvert says. Skip anything that seems overly nostalgic or sentimental, as well.
  7. Pass on the term “passion.” “We’re glad you’re passionate, but everyone else is saying the same thing,” Halpin says. “Don’t tell me, show me what you mean.” An example: Instead of saying you’re passionate about medicine, detail an interaction with a patient, and how it changed your approach to medicine. “Then we see the passion isn’t just a façade, but really all wrapped up in identity: who you are, how you think and how you imagine your life,” she says.
  8. Address deficiencies. “If you don’t explain it, the reason is left up to the imagination of people on the committee,” Boisvert says. If you didn’t pass a class in freshman year, mention both what went wrong and your remedy. If your scores were low, let the committee know that they don’t reflect your potential. But keep it positive. It’s fine to talk about struggles, but don’t dwell on the negative. “Show your positive and tenacious side,” Boisvert says, two skills critical to grad-school success.
  9. Mind word counts. Many statements require 300-500 words. Bad news: Online application systems’ text boxes will cut you off, Halpin says. So cut in advance, but beware losing unique aspects that make you a compelling candidate, she says. More bad news: Increasingly, graduate programs in medicine and law require a second round of questions to refine the applicant pools, and often those word counts are even more brief.
  10. Revise. Revision should be done last, after the structural work is done. “Read the sentences back to front so you can see what you actually wrote and not what you meant to write,” Halpin says. Read work aloud to catch typos or sentences that don’t sound quite right.
  11. Get help. If you’re already out of school, your alma mater may have a career center that can assist past graduates planning to attend graduate school. Still attending classes? Head to your university’s writing center to ask for help.


Shinn, Laura (2015, May 03). Make a statement: 11 insider tips from university staff on writing an enviable personal essay. The Seattle Times. Retrieved from