Currently viewing the tag: "Essays"

We tinkered with our application essays this year.  Our intention was to ensure applicants would provide the information we need in the personal statement (Essay 1).  The unintended result is that we’re hearing a lot of questions about Essay 2.  For those of you who haven’t started the application yet, Essay 2 asks:

Share something about yourself to help the Committee on Admissions
develop a more complete picture of who you are.  (500 words, maximum)

What applicants are asking is what, exactly, we really want them to tell us in answer to Essay 2.  The implication of their question is that we’ve left the question too structureless.

As I’m sure savvy blog readers would expect, I’m going to tell you that there’s no correct or expected answer to the essay question.  And I’d understand if you roll your eyes while muttering blah, blah, blah in your heads.  But it’s true:  there’s no correct or expected answer to the essay question.

Still aiming to be helpful, I’ll suggest, instead, a way of approaching the essay.  Think about the information you have provided in your application through all its parts.  What dimension of you/your background might you still want to share?  That is, don’t view the essay as a throw-away, and use it to fill in some gaps left after the rest of the application is complete.

Elaborate on your international experience.  Share your thoughts on leadership.  Talk about your hobbies (assuming there’s a link to your international affairs interests).  Describe a challenge you have faced.  Tell us how you needed to learn Spanish to speak to your rescue dog.  Describe the importance of community to you.  Tell us how your family upbringing made you the person you are.  Provide more detail on the origins of your interest in international affairs.  Write about your quest to cook the perfect dish from a country you love.  Any of these approaches (and many, many others!) would be a nice addition to an application.

In past years, we’ve used essay prompts that resulted in a few interesting responses and a zillion similar ones.  When we asked applicants to describe an item of particular importance to them, nearly all the responses were:  passport, bookcase full of IR books, hiking boots, or backpack.  We moved away from questions that draw such responses because we really want to know about you — not about what you think we want to know about you.

So, friendly applicants, choose a subject that boosts your application and go for it.  There’s no correct or expected answer to Essay 2, and we’ll enjoy learning about what’s important to you.

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Here’s a little update for readers planning to apply to Fletcher for 2014 enrollment.

First, you’ll want to note that the online application will be unavailable for most of August.  To be honest, this is a good thing.  There’s no benefit to starting now to fill in the blanks — wait until the new application is in place.

On the other hand, eager applicants might want to outline their answers to the essay questions.  As I mentioned earlier in the summer, we have (for the first time in many years) tweaked the questions.  We took one option from essay two and inserted it in essay one, leaving only one option for essay two.  In other words, here are the questions you’ll be asked to answer on this year’s application:

Essay One:  Personal Statement
Please tell us your goals for graduate study at Fletcher and for your career. Describe the elements of your personal, professional, and/or academic background that have prepared you for your chosen career path.  Why is The Fletcher School the right place to pursue your academic objectives and to prepare you to meet your professional goals?  Why have you selected the degree program to which you are applying? (600-800 words)

Essay Two
Share something about yourself to help the Committee on Admissions develop a more complete picture of who you are.  (500 words, maximum)

I’m happy to provide essay-writing tips.  Tell me (in a comment below) what you’d like to know!

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I’m taking a class this fall.  It isn’t a regular offering, but it’s taught by a professor at a nearby university, and I’d describe it as similar in workload to the classes I took in college back in the day.  Why I didn’t think about homework before signing up is a little bit of a mystery.  By the time the class met in September, I was already behind in the reading.  I tried to catch up from the first week and didn’t do any of the reading for the second week.  Then there were two weeks when we didn’t meet.  Good opportunity to catch up, right?  No.  I was utterly undisciplined and was lucky to have finished the reading for the third class, having abandoned the idea of finishing the work for weeks one and two.  I’m prepared for tonight, but I wouldn’t describe my preparation as thorough.  Sigh.  At least this experience allows me to connect with our sometimes-overwhelmed students.

Whenever I manage to do the reading, there’s another way in which the class connects to my work.  As I’ve read, I’ve been contemplating the nature of academic writing.  Must it have big multisyllabic words?  Or can complex thoughts be expressed in clear language?

Regardless of my ability to achieve my own ideal when I write, I adhere to the concept that clear language is something to which we should aspire, and that use of big words should not be our goal.  Why, then, do so many applicants seem to write a draft of their application essays and then randomly select words to which they’ll give the thesaurus treatment?  It’s as if they ask, “Why use an ordinary word like ‘ordinary’ when we can substitute ‘quotidian’”?

Dear blog readers, I implore you to consider the readers of your application.  We’re all educated people, and we won’t be won over by a thesaurusized essay.  Instead, make your essays clear and straightforward.  Use a ten-dollar word if it’s natural for you and suits your sentence, but don’t strive to do so because you think the Admissions Committee expects it.  Your aim should be to make your experience and objectives clear to the Committee.  As you put the finishing touches on your essays for an Early Notification application, or start the process of writing essays for a January application, keep this in mind:  plain language can go a long way toward winning over your readers.

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Could it be that my entreaty to applicants to submit their applications by January 3 yielded a favorable result?  Well, I won’t overstate my own value in the admissions process, but there are certainly a lot of applications around.  Mail has been flowing into the office.  The application forms pour off the printer and go into a file folder.  Some stop there for a while, but if the application matches the mail, a complete file may emerge.  Some of those complete files have even been heading out to be reviewed by student Admissions Committee members.

On the other hand, there are hundreds of applications still in-progress on applicants’ computers, and I’m not looking to raise anyone’s anxiety.  As much as we want to push the process along, you shouldn’t feel pressured to submit until you’re good and ready.

But what can you reasonably do on January 4 to improve your application?  Can you make yourself smarter or more professionally accomplished?  Probably not.  Instead, you should focus on presenting yourself in the best possible way.  Accurately complete all parts of the application.  Be sure what you have written actually answered the question.  Edit your essays.  Proofread.  Proofread again.  Check in with your recommenders to be sure they have their instructions straight (and maybe you’ll find out they have already submitted their letters).  Check over your résumé to be sure you’ve spelled out acronyms that won’t be familiar to those of us outside your industry or sector.  Proofread.

In short, while we might all agree that applications are restrictive, you should still look at the form and additional documents as your opportunity to tell us who you are.  Make good use of each part of the application.  If you do, since we look carefully at every page in the file, we’ll soon develop a multi-faceted picture of you.

One last thing.  Somewhere deep in the application instructions, we ask you to tell us about the grading system at your university if it doesn’t use a standard ABCDF four-point scale.  Please don’t ignore this request.  A short explanation will go a long way toward helping us interpret your academic record.  If you have already submitted an application but you haven’t included the explanation, you are welcome to email it to us.

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Continuing to explore the commonalities between undergraduate and grad school admissions processes, I’ll point you toward a New York Times education blog post on cutting an application essay down in length.  Though Fletcher doesn’t limit you to 500 words in the first essay, you’d be surprised how many people find it challenging to state their purpose in even 800 words.

In case you’re curious, we do not count the words in each essay.  But read enough writing on the same theme and you, too, would quickly develop a sense of what’s too short and what’s too long.  My recommendation:  Practice pith!  Our tired eyes will appreciate it.  Word count: 107.

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I had a great high school physics and chemistry teacher, Mr. Burdman, and he had a standard line of advice.  When seeking the solution to a problem, Mr. Burdman would tell us to “Draw a picture” to reflect the facts we know.  Using the Mr. Burdman method, I’m going to provide an answer to a question we commonly hear, “What type of work should I do/should I have done to be a competitive applicant to Fletcher?”

So we can start to answer this question by saying that the questioner wants to go from A to B, where A represents the start of her career:

The applicant thinks that B represents admission to Fletcher.  But, dear blog readers, the applicant has it wrong.  The picture, correctly drawn is:

Point A still represents the start of the applicant’s career, but B is the applicant’s career following graduate school.  So what is the arrow?  That’s Fletcher.  In other words, studying at Fletcher is an opportunity to develop knowledge and skills that will take the applicant from one point to another, but admission to Fletcher shouldn’t be seen as an endpoint.

How is this relevant for blog readers who are planning to apply to Fletcher this year?  Well, it should help you to frame your personal statement and second essay.  The best experience leading up to the arrow (admission to Fletcher) will support you when you’re at B (your post-Fletcher career).  Given the incredible array of post-Fletcher work our graduates pursue, is it any wonder that the experience that best supports an application would also be varied?

As an example, let’s consider two applicants, Tim and Jim.  Tim wants a career in international energy consulting, while Jim is interested in international education. Generally speaking, Tim’s best pre-Fletcher experience would involve either the energy field or consulting.  Jim’s would involve education, whether it’s within or outside his home country.

But what if Tim’s and Jim’s career goals were reversed?  Would Jim’s teaching experience be equally relevant to a post-Fletcher career in international energy consulting?  Well, it’s hard for me to say, but I’d advise Jim to use his essays to explain how his experience to date is relevant to his future work as a consultant.  In other words, there’s no single Point B, so there’s also no path to Point B that works equally well for everyone.

When I talk to recent graduates, I advise them to find work that pushes them along the A-B continuum.  For those who will apply this year, regardless of your Point B, be sure the Admissions Committee will understand how your experience, augmented by a Fletcher degree, will get you there.

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If you’re actually reading the Admissions Blog in the middle of summer, it may be because you’re a well-organized applicant.  Or you may be a less-well-organized applicant who’s wondering what a well-organized applicant would be thinking about.  Either way, I should reward your loyalty with a few suggestions for how you can ease your application season workload.

Start with your calendar, and consider if you’ll be able to meet up with Fletcher staffers on the road, or if you may want to visit Fletcher.  Our interview and Information Session schedule for the fall is ready and waiting for applicants to grab the slots.  You can sign up for an Information Session online, or you can email or phone us to arrange an interview.  Note that we accommodate everyone who wants to attend an Information Session, but the interview schedule will fill up midway through the fall.  If you have constraints on your time, I recommend you book your interview as soon as possible.

What else could you do?  Register for the GRE/GMAT, or TOEFL/IELTS, or even take the exam now.  There’s no special reason to leave it to November, and you’ll be relieved to have it out of the way.

Do you have your recommenders lined up?  While summer may not be the best time to connect with your professors, it could be a good time to reach a former supervisor from your professional life.  You’ll want to update anyone who’s writing on your behalf — send a résumé, and even your personal statement, so that your recommendation letters will reflect your current objectives, not your previous plan to go to locksmith school.

How about funding your education?  If you know that you have the funds in the bank to pay for your studies, then you can check this one off your to-do list.  For everyone else, now’s the time to start searching for scholarships.  You should also be sure you understand the financial aid policies of the graduate schools to which you’ll apply.

Why not give yourself extra time to think about your application essays by starting on them now?  Though you shouldn’t start to fill out Fletcher’s application form until the new version is ready next month, I can tell you that our basic essays aren’t going to change this year.  The two essays shared by applicants to all degree programs are:

Essay 1 (Personal Statement): Fletcher’s Committee on Admissions seeks to ensure that there is a good match between each admitted student and the School.  Please tell us your goals for graduate study at Fletcher and for your career. Why is The Fletcher School the right place to pursue your academic objectives and to prepare you to meet your professional goals? Why have you selected the degree program to which you are applying?  If you are planning to pursue a joint degree, please be sure to address this interest in your personal statement.

Essay 2: Choose one of the following essay topics to tell the Admissions Committee something about you that does not fit elsewhere in the application:
• Share something about yourself to help the Admissions Committee develop a more complete picture of who you are.
• Tell us more about how you first became interested in international affairs, or in pursuing an international career.
• Describe the elements of your personal, professional, and/or academic background that have prepared you for your chosen career path.

We like to think that the essays are pretty straightforward.  Use the Personal Statement to discuss your goals, and use the second essay to tell us more about you (which may include things you’ve done in the past).

So those are just a few basic suggestions of what you could get started on.  Naturally, I also want you to enjoy the summer!  But you can smooth the way for a stress-reduced application process if you get an early start on it.

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Maybe you have a few days off this week and you’re going to dedicate some time to completing your grad school applications.  Here’s a little input on what you should keep in mind as you put those final flourishes on your application to Fletcher.

•  The form:  Answer (completely and thoroughly) the questions we ask.  Please don’t refer us to your essay or résumé for information that belongs (in our opinion) in the form.  If you have lived in too many countries, or speak too many languages, to fit all the information in the form, then list the most important information and include the rest in your résumé.  Make sure that your abbreviations are easily understood.  Shortening University to Univ, in the interest of space, will be clear to application readers.  Abbreviating the name of your workplace to XLVPR will not.

•  The essays:  Again, follow the directions.  Make sure you have answered the questions.  Keep to the word limits — we’re not going to count them, but we’ll know if you give us 1200 words instead of 800.  Editing is a life-skill.

•  Your résumé:  No matter how many pages of activities and awards an applicant submits, it’s rare that anyone needs more than three pages to share information that is relevant to the admissions process.  Think it through carefully — if you overload us with information, we may not be able to pick out the truly important stuff.

•  General:  Do provide the materials/information we request, but don’t provide materials/information we don’t request.  No high school transcripts or diplomas.  No videos.  Please.

Most important of all:  Please remember that if you go by more than one name, tell us clearly! Don’t make us try to figure it out, because the result may be that your application appears incomplete, when everything is actually in the Office, distributed among different files.

Those are the big points that come to mind right now.  Take a look through the Admissions Tips category for other ideas that I haven’t included here.

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Not all students have as accurate a view on essays as Marc does, so I’m especially lucky that he volunteered to take on the topic yesterday.  There’s not much more I can add.  I’ve always thought that the question/prompt for the first essay (personal statement) is pretty clear.  To refresh your memory, we ask:

Essay 1: Personal Statement (600-800 words, single-spaced, Times New Roman 12 point font)
Fletcher’s Committee on Admissions seeks to ensure that there is a good match between each admitted student and the School.
Please tell us your goals for graduate study at Fletcher and for your career. Why is The Fletcher School the right place to pursue your academic objectives and to prepare you to meet your professional goals? Why have you selected the degree program to which you are applying?
If you are planning to pursue a joint degree, please be sure to address this interest in your personal statement.

Given the tips built into the question, applicants who follow Marc’s advice and ensure they answer the question should be in good shape.  Note that we also like to know the motivations behind your goals, and your preparation to achieve them — just be careful where you start.  It’s rarely a good idea to go back to when you were six.  On the other hand, it’s often the applicant’s experiences that make a personal statement interesting, so go ahead and include some key points from your back-story.

The other place to present interesting information from your personal history is the second essay.  We want you to view the second essay as a chance to round out the picture of you that we’ve developed from the rest of the materials in your application.  It can be nice when your second essay links in some way (however tangentially) to your interests, but it doesn’t need to.  We have certainly read some poor essay choices over the years, but we don’t have a preferred essay topic.

One last tip is that you should not waste space in either of the essays to explain a problem in another part of the application.  Use the “Additional Information” section to tell us that your study abroad grades are included on your university transcript, that your GRE scores aren’t what you hoped they would be, or that your maiden name is different from the name you’re using now.  You don’t have much “space” in the personal statement (600-800 words) or second essay (500 words maximum) and you don’t want to throw them away on routine business.

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I had an email exchange last week with a 2011 applicant and friend of the blog, whom I’ll call “Friend.”  I asked Friend if he had any suggestions for future blog topics, and he asked us to talk about the application essays.  Friend also mentioned that he had liked the previous post by Marc Frankel.  Lucky for me, Marc volunteered to take on the new topic, too.  Although Marc’s an application writer, rather than an application reader, I think he has hit the nail on the head.  Here’s his take on the essays:

A few weeks ago, on the blog, I provided a few pointers on the interview process and how to prepare for it.  Today, I’d like to do the same with the two essay questions Fletcher requires of all applicants.  (Note: PhDs and MIBs have a third required question, so if you’re applying for one of those two degree programs, please make sure you do the third one, too!)

The first thing I want to stress is that you need to answer the question being asked.  Question One asks about your professional goals and why the Fletcher School is the right place to achieve those goals.  Your #1 priority on this question must be to answer the question you’ve been asked.  A good way to ensure you’ve done this is to take the prompt off the top of the document, hand it to a friend, and see if he can guess what question you’re trying to answer.  If your friend guesses that the question asks about your summer internship, it’s a sign you need to review the topic and what you’ve written.

During their interviews, a few applicants have asked me about Question Two and whether there’s one question or another that Fletcher would “prefer” to see.  The answer is no.  The Admissions Office provides three options to give you flexibility to address what you want to write about, but there’s no wrong or right choice.

Another tip on Question Two is to read the top of the essay prompt and remember that it asks you “…to tell the Admissions Committee something about you that does not fit elsewhere on the application.” (My italics.)  This is your time to shine:  share something new about you with the Committee.  When I applied, I answered this question by writing about a research trip to Siberia during my senior year of college.  Before my trip, I heard many horror stories and cautionary tales of crime and corruption.  When I finally went, I dispelled each of those rumors for myself by actually meeting with local people.  The importance of seeing a remote place firsthand was a valuable lesson for me.  Given the limited space in an application, I could never have done justice to the significance of that trip anywhere but the essay.

The last thing I’d say (and yes, I know I wrote this in the interview blog post, too) is to be yourself.  Just like the interview, the essays are an opportunity to talk about yourself — who you are, who you strive to become through Fletcher, and why.  The only wrong answer is one that doesn’t accurately represent you.  A few hundred words isn’t a lot to express your career goals or the uniqueness of your life experience, but make sure to at least give the Committee a glimpse of who you are, beyond the test scores and GPA.

Good luck!
–Marc

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