Student Essay Tips
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Start gathering material on yourself and build a file or resume.
1. Things to include:
a. Grade point average, class standing, courses selected (know area of study)
b. School and community activities (high school and college)
c. Honors or awards (high school or college)
d. Hobbies or interests
e. Work or volunteer experience-Special or unusual learning experiences
f. Talk with someone about what you've done. Many times what you think is insignificant could be valuable to put on an application.
g. Read a GOOD newspaper; broaden your global knowledge.
2. Continue to examine and refine your personal goals. You may be asked to write essays on these topics:
a. What are your educational and career goals?
b. Where do you see yourself five years from now?
3. Contact three individuals (generally faculty) to act as references. The best references generally come from instructors who have taught you recently, and better yet, have had you for more than one class. Check to see if they would be willing to write a letter of recommendation for you. Be sure to allow them at least two weeks (more is better) to prepare the recommendation and be sure to let them know what the deadlines are.
4. References: This part of your application carries a lot of weight; don't take it lightly!
a. Pick references who will give you a good recommendation. Ask them if they have any problems writing a letter for you.
b. If you have to choose, pick references who know you rather than those with prestige.
c. Pick references who will get their letters in on time.
d. Give them adequate information to write a good letter of recommendation. A copy of the scholarship application, your resume, etc.
1. Start early. Most scholarship applications require one or more of the following: an application form, a personal essay (150-1,000 words), a copy of your academic transcript, and letters of recommendation. Allow at least one month to complete the process. For some, it may take as long as a semester.
2. Complete the application form. Generally it is wise to answer all the questions on a separate piece of paper. Then you can transfer or type your answers on to the application form.
3. Draft your essay. Don't expect your first essay to be perfect. Allow enough time to evaluate and rewrite it. You may edit it ten or more times in order to make it convincing.
4. Be aware of deadlines. A late or incomplete application may automatically disqualify you. This applies to both the scholarships for which the university nominates and those you send directly yourself.
There are two main types of essays you would be asked to write. One is a personal statement; the other is a proposal or statement of intent.
1. A personal statement should be a narrative giving a picture of you as an individual. It should deal with your personal history, family background, influences on intellectual development, the educational and cultural opportunities (or lack of them) to which you have been exposed, and the ways in which these experiences have affected you. Include your special interests and abilities, career plans, and life goals, etc. It should not be a recording of facts already listed on the application or an elaboration of your statement of proposed study.
- Personal statements are short; identify a few points (3-4) that you want to develop; let the other aspects of your application present other important information. Use your personal statement to say what others could not say.
-Personal statements are read quickly and often in bulk; yours should be a pleasure to read: it should start fast, quickly taking the reader into the heart of your discussion.
- Maintain focus; establish a consistent story line. Consider one or two anecdotes that can help you focus and give a human face to your discussion.
-Use this discussion to present a compelling snapshot, of who you are and what contributions you want to make, and to indicate what your priorities are and the kinds of intelligence and passion you bring to your work.
-In this regard, you may also want to weave in some mention of any skills or resources that may particularly recommend you. (But again, beware of merely telling when you might be better able to use a moment from your experience to show a number of the qualities you want to convey.)
2. A proposal or statement of intent (or study) can be a number of things. It could be an explanation of why you should receive a bunch of money to study or it could be a detailed account of what you plan to do with all of that money. Academic/Project Proposal-Common Elements:
- A description of your course of study or project; topic(s), research focus, degree goals, methodology, itinerary, (budget).
-Why you have chosen this course of study (at this particular institution, in this particular country).
-Or why you want to undertake this project in this particular setting.
-Evidence that your plans are consistent with your preparation, academic qualifications, and long-range goals.
-Evidence of project feasibility: knowledge of programs, courses, and facilities; cooperation of host institutions and individuals (professors with whom you wish to study; have they sent or are they willing to send a confirmation of their support?).
- Perhaps why you are choosing a new area of study, or what makes your project particularly timely.
Combined Statements (Rhodes, Luce, Mitchell):
- This statement combines elements of the academic proposal within the framework of a personal reflection.
- It should not force an unrealistic unity; you are not a totally unified person.
- It should balance both components together effectively.
- The balance of these two aspects will vary according to what best represents you and your goals. (Rhodes recommends no more than 1-2 paragraphs to present the academic proposal.)
1. You are writing for a purpose. Be persuasive in showing the reader you deserve the award. Remember your audience.
2. Make certain you understand the question or the topic. Your essay should answer the question or speak directly to the given topic.
3. List all ideas-any possibilities. Be creative, brainstorm without censoring.
4. Sort though ideas and prioritize. You can't tell them everything. Be selective.
5. Choose information and ideas that are not reflected in other parts of your application. This is your chance to supplement your application with other information you want readers to know.
6. Think of your application essay(s) as a part of a larger whole (including the letters from your recommenders, and any other supporting documents such as a list of activities and awards, resume, or transcripts).
7. Consider your audience; write for an intelligent non-specialist. Make sure the terminology will be understandable to someone outside your field. The tone should be neither too academic nor too personal. Aim for economy, enthusiasm, and directness; eloquence is welcome, but not at the expense of substance or honesty.
8. Make sure all information is accurate and that you will be prepared to discuss in some detail anything you mention.
9. Do not pad, but do not be falsely modest either.
10. Do not try to guess what the selection committee might be seeking; they want to know you, not a fabrication.
11. An application is a writing sample; all the rules of good writing (clarity, conviction, and correctness) apply. They are read as indications of clear an organized thinking and effective communication.
12. Plan to experiment and try completely different versions.
13. Show your work to a number of readers whose comments you respect. Consult especially your department advisor and ask your readers to tell you what questions your essays raise that you might not have considered.
14. Revise until you are personally satisfied. Then show the draft to Dr. Bainbridge.
15. Keep to word limits and all other guidelines.
16. Proofread. Use spell and grammar check, even if you made an A in English 11.
1. Develop paragraphs one idea at a time. Include a topic sentence and follow it with example of your point or convincing reasons.
2. Make transitions between paragraphs.
3. Select action verbs and avoid the passive voice.
4. Use concrete examples. Often, examples of behavior demonstrate an idea better than an adjective. (Show how or why, don't just tell.)
5. Develop exact, concrete language. Avoid vague references, wordy usage or cliché
6. Be sure to have at least 2 other people read your essays. It's best to have one specialist and one lay reader. Be ready to prepare multiple drafts of your writing.
-Does your introduction capture the reader's attention?
-Are you consistent in your verb tense?
-Are you clear and coherent?
-Are you concise enough to adhere to the limits in length?
-Have you checked for grammatical and spelling errors?
-Does the essay present you as you wish to be seen?
-Did another person review your essay for possible mistakes?
-Would you remember your essay if you read two hundred others?
-Does your closing paragraph present you as you with to be remembered?
1. Retain a copy for your records.
2. Deliver all forms on time.
1. Thank those who assisted in the application or wrote letters of recommendation. A thank you note would be especially nice.
1. Acknowledge the scholarship donors. It is especially crucial to maintain contact if the scholarship is renewable. The individuals who wrote letters in support of your application will also appreciate a note from you.
2. Clarify terms for scholarship renewal. Find out if you must meet specific conditions to have your award renewed.
1. Your application will be evaluated on the basis of GRE/LSAT/Medcat scores; transcript; application including essay or statement of purpose; recommendations. The numbers - grades and scores - you can't do much about it now, although you should prepare thoroughly for the achievement tests, but you can make the writing of your application strong.
2. Take applications seriously - this is your future.
a. Even if you do not win a fellowship the fact of having to define your goals is useful.
b. Graduate schools take themselves seriously and think well of their own programs: do not ever condescend. You do not "pick up" a masters. When you indicated that you know a school's strengths, its special collections, its faculty, you indicate your own intelligence.
c. Graduate school applications are increasing. Graduate school size is not. There is no such thing as automatic admission - even if you are applying to your home state university.
d. Remember that highly qualified students from throughout the nation apply to the best graduate programs: you need to be competitive by writing the best application that you can.
3. The application process:
a. Read the application carefully. Find out the due date - and if they use rolling admissions, complete early. (Early means by Thanksgiving.) Otherwise - do it over Thanksgiving or Christmas vacation. Aim for no later than a January 15 mailing date (January 1 is better). See if the department you are applying to wants GRE achievement tests. (Many schools do not require.) How many recommendations are required?
b. Consider applying to at least 5-7 graduate schools. Determine your choice by speaking with department faculty, checking rankings, and taking with currently enrolled alumni. It helps if they are Furman graduates; otherwise, call departmental secretary and ask for names and phone numbers. The only way to know what's really going on in a graduate department is to ask questions. The most honest answers come from students.
c. Determine the kind of place you wish to attend. If geography is important, limit your search to schools in the area (applications cost money.) Remember that southerners can survive Iowa, Michigan, or Massachusetts winters. Warm is not always best. In humanities and social science, there is less money available. You don't have to attend a private university; there are many public schools that are just as good, and the difference in cost is astonishing. Most financial aid comes from the universities; if they want you, they will support you, and there are always loans, particularly for medical and law school.
d. Fill out forms carefully. Type when lines are narrow and there is little space; word processors are useful for longer questions. (Cut and Paste) Never use ink. There is a type-writer available in the Office of Educational Services.
e. Sign and fill out the recommendation release forms before you give them to faculty. It usually helps to waive your right of access.
f. Use space provided or pay attention to word limitations. If the application indicates a paragraph length space, give them one - not one sentence and not a page. You can fudge a little if they ask for a 250 word essay as long as it fits in the space provided.
g. If activities are asked for, make a working list first, then use only those which are important to you or relevant to the application (broadly interpreted). Being an officer in AED or ACMS or Beta Chi is useful for science applications; being a member of the marching band probably isn't. Being president of a language club is always good. Do not assume that anyone else recognizes Furman Acronyms - CESC should be translated into community volunteer, or spelled out. Also AFS. Also course numbers mean nothing - give names of courses currently taken if they inquire.
h. When you list activities, do so in order of importance - it doesn't hurt to throw in an unrelated activity at the end of a three line space to fill up the space and show how well-rounded you are. Keep your master list handy. Include years. Certain activities are generally considered "good things." They include clubs associated with your major (includes AFS for poli sci/law), newspaper, debate.
i. List high school activities only if (1) you are asked for them or (2) they are really major. Major means National Merit Finalist, major scholarship winner, national award in anything (NEH, Younger Scholars grant or president of Boy's Nation, etc.) Basically they don't matter anymore.
j. Essays are either general (writing a 1000 word intellectual autobiography is the worst) or slightly non-specific "What is your purpose in pursuing graduate study?" The shorter the answer is, the more direct, specific and to the point your answer must be. There is no pre-determined right answer: make sure your essay is coherent, brief, and well organized.
4. General Rules:
(1) Be sure your grammar, spelling, and punctuation are correct. Have a faculty member read it before you send it in. Do not give a faculty member a hand-written first draft to review. A mistake here is deadly.
(2) Your "posture" or point of view should be modest but not fawning. Do not say "I would be an excellent graduate student because . . ." Rather: "I believe that I have been well prepared to do graduate work because . . ." Never praise yourself directly; let your details and evidence illustrate/demonstrate how good you are. Avoid "very." On the other hand, you are not a worm. You have been well educated and you can excel. Don't fawn.
(3) Your statement of purpose should be as specific as possible. I know this is difficult, but you have to make your decision - even if you change when you are in graduate school. "History" is not narrowed enough; American history is very broad; Colonial America is fine. On the other hand, don't indicate that you want to spend the next five years working on the Mexican-American War. Show a sense of confidence - avoid "may" or "might" - use declarative verbs.
(4) Tailor your essay to the school you are applying to as much as possible. It is easier to use boilerplate essays (and you will use some), but the more you can refer directly to the university, the better. They are impressed if you refer to their strengths, faculty members with whom you would like to study, library resources in your area of interest, internship possibilities.
(5) Avoid philosophizing, discussion of your political, religious, or moral principles, or discussions of the role of your discipline in LIFE. Most committees see far too much of this sort of thing - it is cliched.
(6) If you are asked about your long-range career plans, include them. Generally a simple statement saying that you hope (or plan) to teach English at the university level or to become a clinical psychologist is sufficient. Do not spend time relating all of your changes in majors since your freshman year. It is, however, perfectly acceptable - especially in page-length statements of purpose - to show how internships, Advantage research fellowships, or a paper for a course shaped your ideas and plans.
(7) If you have a transcript "problem" - a 'C' in a major subject, a weak term, obviously missing course work - the statement of purpose may be an appropriate place to explain the problem. Some applications will provide separate space for such a discussion. Do not blame others for a weakness, although circumstances beyond your control are reasonable to explain. "My grades during the winter term of my sophomore year are unusually weak because I had mononucleosis - or my parents divorced," etc. is quite acceptable. "I had an irrational teacher in English 11 who hated me" is not a good thing to say. (The admissions committee may wonder if you are hateful.) If you have no modern foreign language, please indicate how you plan to become proficient if one is required. In the humanities especially, committees look for people who have at least one. Two is nicer.
(8) The quality of your essay is probably more important than its content. Is it organized? Clear? Purposeful? Specific? A well crafted, coherent essay can really help with the admissions decision.
(9) Sometimes marriage determines graduate school plans. If you are planning to marry someone also planning to attend and you are looking for a school which will admit you both and be good for you both, you need to consider whether to reveal the problem. If you are good students, I would recommend doing so if there is a reasonable place on the application. This point is especially valid if one of you is in science. If a graduate department wants you sometimes they will put pressure on colleagues in another department to accept a spouse. (Sometimes they don't care.)
(10) If you get a "strengths and weaknesses" question, think very carefully before you respond. Procrastination is not an acceptable weakness. Becoming too involved in a single research project is okay.
5. a. Choose your references with care. You will usually be asked for two or three. Use faculty members who know you well, not the department chairman (for example) if you only had one course as a freshman.
b. Talk with faculty members when you ask for a reference. Tell them what you want to do; ask for their advice.
c. If a faculty member in your department has an advanced degree from a university you are applying to, be sure to have that professor write for you.
d. If you have an A paper from the professor you ask for a reference, bring it along with you (together, if possible, with a resume) so that the faculty member can be specific in his or her comments.
e. Get recommendation forms out early. Avoid the January rush. Most graduate and professional schools ask you to collect sealed letters of recommendation from faculty and include them with your application.