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Dos and Don’ts in Graduate-School Essays

Every year during the fall semester, I receive hundreds of e-mails from eager students inquiring about graduate school at Penn’s Graduate School of Education. As I am a firm believer in responding to every student who contacts me, I answer each one (I remember what it was like to e-mail faculty and not get a response).

I usually give the same advice to all students—some get more than others, depending on their questions. Most of the questions are about the graduate student essay, including what to write and what not to write. I thought I’d make a list of my do’s and don’ts for graduate essays. Feel free to disagree or add to my list.

MB’s Dos and Don’ts:

• Don’t quote Dr. Seuss in your essay or any other children’s characters. I love Dr. Seuss but I’ve read at least a hundred essays with Dr. Seuss quotes—they’re not new.

• Don’t write a general essay. You need to write for the program and school. They all have a different flavor and a bland, generic essay is very obvious to faculty.

• Make a connection with a couple faculty members in the program of interest. Show the ways that you connect to their work and what you hope to learn from them.

• Have an idea in mind in terms of what you are interested in conducting research on but don’t be too rigid. Remember you are going to graduate school to learn and open your mind.

• Don’t say you are interested in everything that every faculty member in the program does. That’s impossible and will make you look like you’re all over the place.

• Don’t send in an essay with another school’s name in it. Proof read. Please proof read.

• Don’t talk about how your test scores don’t represent the extent of your abilities. Instead, if your test scores aren’t as high as you wish they were, make the rest of your application as stellar as possible. Don’t apologize—shine!

• Do discuss your interests and your reasons for having those interests.  Be concrete and avoid countless abstract thoughts.

• Don’t gush about faculty members with whom you want to work. State your reasons and be professional. Try to avoid the use of “love.” I’m serious.

• Don’t use jargon and big words, especially when you don’t know how to properly use them. Keep your essay simple and straightforward and make your point.

• Remember that a lot of people are applying to graduate school so look for positive ways to make you stand above the crowd.

Good luck!

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