Starting Your Application Essay: Three Tips

By - Feb 22, 09:44 AM Comments [0]

If you haven’t yet read the other blog posts in this series, go ahead and check them out:

  1. Identifying the Ingredients of a Winning Essay
  2. Finding a Theme for Your Statement of Purpose
  3. Writing Your Career Goals Essay
  4. How to Start Your First Draft of an Application Essay
  5. Revise and Polish Your Application Essays

Once you have reflected on the questions that helped you identify and develop your essay theme, you should have a clear path to writing an effective essay. Here are three essential steps to help you achieve that goal. 


1. Make an outline.

An outline can be formal or informal, but start with one as a foundation. A formal outline will have clearly delineated categories and subcategories, while an informal outline can simply be a list of the main points you want to cover. After answering the questions in the second blog post in this series, you should have a robust list of experiences, anecdotes, and ideas for possible inclusion in your essay. Do you have more examples and ideas than you can use in a single essay? If so, that’s a good problem to have! You can “spread the wealth” of these anecdotes among different essay questions and schools. Having a variety of experiences and stories in your inventory will also make your writing fresher and easier to do for each school.  

2. Structure your essay with an introduction, main content, and conclusion.

Now let’s break the job down further to keep the task of writing manageable. First, how long can or should your essay be? Grad school application essays can range from as short as 250 words to more than 1,500. Ironically, writing a very good short essay is much harder than writing a very good long one. Writing a super-short essay is like being six feet tall and stuck in a coach airline seat – you’re going to feel cramped, despite writing as succinctly as possible. You have very little room to add colorful context or details. At the same time, you must pare your story down to its essence, and there is strength in that.

Assuming you have more legroom, so to speak, and can write up to 700 words, you still have to divide that real estate among your essay’s introduction, main body, and conclusion. Breaking your essay down like this will help you gauge how much you can afford to write in each section, with the main content comprising most of the space. However, while keeping that in mind, don’t worry too much about overwriting at first. In your initial drafts, you need to be able to write everything you want and need to say. In the editing process, you’ll find ways to trim and pare your essay down to just the most crucial material, including the most salient, compelling experiences and insights.  

It is difficult to edit yourself, however. Even professional writers need editors on important projects. Having an expert editor to help you trim down your essays can be a huge asset, saving you time while helping you make content decisions that will work to your advantage. 

3. If you feel stuck, start from the middle, or even the end, of your essay.

In post #1 and post #3 of this series, we looked at some strong introductions and analyzed what made them work. But don’t get hung up on crafting the perfect introduction before moving on to the rest of your essay. If you freeze up because you’re not sure how to begin your essay, days might go by with no progress. So here’s a writing secret: you don’t have to start at the beginning. Start with any section of the essay about which you feel confident. It could be in the middle, with a story you want to tell. It could even be the conclusion you have in mind. Often, the perfect introduction will come to you when you are well into writing the rest of the essay. 

Primarily, don’t lose sight of the image you want to create of yourself for the admissions committee. One way to think about this is to ask yourself what three adjectives you want them to associate with you after reading your application. Determined, focused, and empathetic? Ambitious, team-oriented, and creative? Visionary, responsible, and community-minded? As you read your draft, try to see whether your three intended adjectives are standing out to you. Keep your eye on the prize. Stay focused on presenting the most meaningful, lively examples that will best showcase the talented, purpose-driven individual you want the adcom to see you as.  

And even though we’ve written this before and you’ve heard it before, it bears repeating: never simply claim to be something without backing it up with evidence.

Summary Tips

  • Make an outline, even if it’s informal.
  • Feel free to overwrite your first drafts – within reason. Capture on paper all the important experiences, ideas, and insights you want to share. As you edit, you will trim the excess and get to the core of your message. Engaging a skilled editor to support you can be a wise investment.
  • Don’t worry if you are stuck on the opening of your essay. Skip it for now, and start wherever you feel confident about what you want to write. As you build your essay from the middle or even the conclusion, the introduction will come to you. We promise!
  • Keep in mind the impression you want the adcom to have of you when they have finished reading your essay. Does your narrative suggest that image to you?

In the next and final post in this series, you’ll learn how to revise and polish your exemplary essays.

Our incredible experts at Accepted will walk you through the process of creating a slam-dunk application. They have read literally thousands of essays and know the exact ingredients of an outstanding essay. Need help figuring out which service is best for you? Click here for more guidance.

Judy Gruen

By Judy Gruen, former Accepted admissions consultant. Judy holds a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University. She is also 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!

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