How to Write a Narrative to Enter Graduate School

A positive tone is the key to a successful graduate school essay.
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The graduate school essay is your chance to show an admissions committee who you really are. Unlike your grades, references and work experience, the personal narrative for your graduate school application is all on you. How can you write an essay that stands out? Follow a few simple rules and guidelines as you craft this key component to graduate school success.

1 Focus

Before you begin, take a deep breath and ask yourself a few questions. Why do you want to attend this particular graduate school? What are your goals? Every graduate school narrative should be tailored to a specific program. While essays for undergraduate admissions can be rather general, graduate school admissions committees expect clear and concrete reasons you want to attend their program and why you would be a perfect fit for it. Choose one or two main reasons and make those points the focus of the essay. Too much information will clutter your narrative and cause readers to lose interest.

2 Know Your Audience

Do your research on the programs, professors and academic strengths of the school that you're applying to. Go to the library and look up books and articles by professors with whom you'd like to work. Reference distinctive ideas or ongoing projects in your essay whenever possible. Point out where your future academic interests are aligned with the existing research agenda of the graduate program. Be specific. It's better to say "I'd like to work in this particular area with professor X" than to be vague and say "I like your school (in general)".

3 Be Yourself

The graduate school narrative is both a professional and personal introduction. The tone of your essay should be confident but conversational. Avoid fussy or artificial language. Don't try to impress with a long list of past accomplishments or overwrought descriptions. Speak from the heart about your life, your goals and your future plans. It can be difficult to write about yourself without sounding pretentious or self-conscious. Write a few practice essays about yourself and then read them aloud. Would YOU want to meet you?

4 Show, Don't Tell

It's a cliche of good writing, but true nonetheless: Show, don't tell. This just means that instead of "telling" your readers what happened, or what you're like, give a concrete example. Instead of saying, "I'd make a great lawyer because I believe in justice," say, "Girls weren't allowed on the boys athletic field when I was in high school, and I fought to change that -- it was a question of justice." Don't say, "I'd make a great scientist because I'm curious about nature." Say instead, "I spent every summer as a child in the mountains collecting rare plants and bugs, learning their scientific names and writing an amateur field guide to my area."

5 Know What to Leave Out

Stay focused and leave out any personal details that aren't relevant to your application. Examples would be marital status, unrelated hobbies or political or religious beliefs that are not related to the program to which you are applying. These things may be very important to you, but they will be less so to a graduate school admissions committee.

6 Polish it

Write a few practice essays and then let them sit for awhile. After some time has passed, read them over with a critical eye. Ask yourself: Does the essay flow well? Is there an interesting angle or story here? Proofread your essay as many times as needed to get that extra polish and shine. Ask a friend or mentor to proofread a draft and give constructive feedback. Lastly, make sure that your statement conforms to all of the techincal requirements of the application such as length (word count). Your narrative should be both flawless and fascinating by the time you're done.

Rebecca Sims is a librarian and educator, specializing in law, health sciences and education. She teaches classes in legal research, information technology, patient education, cataloging and digital asset management. Sims holds a Bachelor of Arts from the Academy of Art College and a Masters in library and information science.