Currently viewing the tag: "Essays"

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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I don’t work at Fletcher on Wednesdays, and this fall I’ve been spending part of my day off at our local high school, offering college essay tutoring to frantic seniors.  As challenging as grad school essays are, you have to sympathize with these kids who are instructed to “be unique” in 500 words.  Telling a 17-year-old to write something no other 17-year-old will write — that’s a recipe for stress.

The high school is very diverse with a large population of immigrants and first-generation Americans, and they have trouble seeing themselves as special, though they certainly are in general applicant pools.  (My favorite story was of the girl living with a pack of siblings and cousins from Mexico — they had been born in the U.S., and their parents sent them back for high school or college.  Somehow, her unusual living situation — ten kids in a house where the oldest was a 25-year-old — didn’t strike her as essay-worthy.)

My approach is to try to lower the pressure on the high schoolers by telling them that, though there are zillions of high school seniors applying for admission, “There’s only one you,” and that the key is to write something true to themselves.  This week, I had a follow-up session with a kid who answered the “who’s your role model” question by writing about his mother.  Of course, the mother in me can’t help but be touched.  The admissions person in me suspects there will be a lot of applicants writing about parents.  So we tied the content to his aspirations for college, and I think it worked pretty well.  Also important:  his mom liked the essay.  That was satisfying.

Applicants for undergraduate admission are essentially answering the question, “who are you?” At 17, many of them don’t really know the answer.

Applicants for Fletcher, at least in the personal statement, are telling us what they want to accomplish at Fletcher and beyond.  As you prepare for graduate school, it’s important that you know the answer.

There’s a big difference between undergraduate and professional school essays, but applicants of both types share the challenge of facing a blank computer screen and trying to lay it all out.  We know it’s difficult!  But without the essays, we would be making decisions only on the basis of dry facts, with no opportunity to shape a class of interesting people.  So, as you pour your goals and souls onto the page, I want to make sure you know how much we value the personal statements, the supplemental essays, and all we learn from them.  They’re the key to evaluating the match between you and Fletcher, and they’re the most interesting part of each application file.

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Nerdy kids come in many forms.  When I was in junior high school (age somewhere between 12 and 15), my friends and I used to trade cool polysyllabic words.  Despite my love of these little gems, I encourage you to ignore the temptation to employ thesaurus-supplied vocabulary in your personal statement or supplemental essay.  I’m not talking about dancing around the word nonproliferation (six syllables) in favor of a multi-word alternative. Nor am I saying that you shouldn’t use the thesaurus when you’ve written “goals” over and over, and you need a different word (such as “objectives”) to express the same concept.  But the Committee generally isn’t impressed by the sprinkling of big words throughout the essay, particularly when the writing isn’t that sophisticated overall.

If you’re interested in getting maximum value from your application essays, edit and re-edit.  Pare down your paragraphs.  Take out unnecessary modifiers.  The best writing for these purposes will be clear and straightforward.  You can save your sesquipedalian best for future policy papers.

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Early Notification applications for September, as well as applications for January enrollment,  serve as a warm-up for us.  Although there’s very rapid turnaround for both groups, the volume of applications is manageable, and the staff has a chance to get back in the swing of things.

We always tweak the application between cycles — not just the questions we ask, but also how they appear on paper once the application is printed.  (Yes, we still work with paper.)  Once I’m reading under more time pressure, I count on quickly being able to find all the information I need on the form.

This year, we also reworked the application essays.  We expanded the word limits and created supplemental essay topics out of some of the material that applicants frequently included in the personal statement.  So, in theory, the personal statement now gives us a clear picture of what the applicant wants to do in the future, while the applicant can also tell us (in the supplemental essay) about the roots of his or her interest in international affairs, or preparation for a post-Fletcher career.  I feel like I’m reading some nice supplemental essays.  Peter commented to me that the personal statements, stripped to the basics, are a little drier than in past years.  I haven’t felt that yet, but I may agree after a few hundred more applications.  Either way, we’ll carry on reading this year and reevaluate in the spring.

I assume that everyone who checks the blog periodically is pretty well plugged in to the admissions process.  And that means that providing application tips is, as they say, preaching to the choir.  Nonetheless, the majority of our applicants for September enrollment are still working on their applications.  If you are one of those people, please check and re-check your application to ensure you are answering our questions.  Even the limited collection of applications I have read this fall included several that were so poorly filled out that the application itself (rather than academic preparation or professional experience) became a liability for the applicant.  Don’t let that happen to you, dear blog reader!

I have a small batch to read today, which might be all I’ll get to during the Early Notification process.  The warm-up has me ready to go on, looking forward to January applications!

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In the summer, our attention is pulled in many different directions.  Each of us is working on some special projects — the type that require a little more time and a little more focus than we have at other points in the year — but we are also starting up the day-to-day nitty-gritty admissions work for the next cycle, even as we conclude our work with September’s incoming students.  That workplace schizophrenia will show through in the blog, too.

Today’s post is the first of the 2009-2010 admissions cycle.  While Roxana finalizes changes to our application for 2010 admission, I thought future applicants might want to take a peek at the application essays.  Before you peek, note that now is NOT a good time to start your application.  What you’ll find on the Admissions web site today is the past year’s application.  We’ll switch over to the new application in August.

The changes to the Personal Statement aren’t major, though we’ve increased the word limit a bit.  But we made significant changes to the Supplemental Essays.  Every few years, we need to shake things up — there are only so many hundred essays on the same topic we can enjoy reading.  So here you go:

Personal Statement (600 to 800 words. 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’re applying?  If you are planning to pursue a joint degree, please be sure to address this interest in your personal statement.

Supplemental Essay — Choose one of the following essay topics to tell the Admissions Committee something about you that does not fit elsewhere in the application. (500 words (maximum) Times New Roman, 12 point font)

-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.

As you think about the questions, here are some tips to keep in mind.

1.  Make sure you answer the question.  Might seem obvious, but every year there are applicants who miss the mark.

2.  Keep to the word limit, and use the type size/font we request.  Really, this is a very small techno-task for you, but it is a huge help in saving our eyes and paper.

3.  Don’t waste space in the Personal Statement with information that would fit nicely into one of the Supplemental Essays.

4.  Remember that these essays are about YOU.  Don’t waste space with details about your university professors, famous world leaders, or anyone else.  Everything you write should point straight at you.  When we ask why Fletcher is “the right place,” we want to know what makes it best for you — there’s not much value in quoting our own marketing language back at us.

We’ll have more tips for you during the year, but these should help you get started.  Go ahead and write a draft of the essays.  I’ll try to post a note when the new application is up and ready for you to upload what you have written.

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