Our likes and dislikes for the first application essay

I didn’t start the week thinking I would dedicate every post to Early Notification applications, but I was inspired by the ideas generated by my survey, so why not?  Today I’m answering a question about the first essay, though not exactly the way the survey respondent suggested (sorry…).

To refresh our memories, the prompt for the first essay reads:

Essay 1 (600-800 words, single-spaced, Arial 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. 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?

You might remember from last summer that I wrote about how we ditched the term “personal statement,” because we felt we were inviting applicants to glue their personal statements from other schools into our application and, in the process, they failed to answer our questions.  I’m sure there will still be people who do that, but at least we’re not the ones leading them in that wayward direction.

To capture the Admissions Office’s thoughts on this essay, I decided to crowdsource my post.  Not quite a crowd, actually.  Just a cluster of Admissions pals — Dan, Liz, and Kristen.  I created two lists and noted my own thoughts and then they added theirs.  With these lists in hand, your objective will be to respond thoroughly to the question above, while keeping in mind the likes and dislikes of the Admissions Office application readers.

List 1: Things we like to see in Essay #1

  • The applicant has read the essay instructions (included suggested essay length) and responded to the questions.
  • The applicant’s career goals and objectives for study at Fletcher are clear and easy to find in the essay, not buried in paragraph 11.
  • The applicant has put some thought into why graduate school, why now, and why Fletcher is the best fit.
  • The applicant provides details on why Fletcher is a good match, so that the essay is Fletcher-specific, and doesn’t read like one written for another application.
  • The essay is not just a narrative version of the résumé, but a contextualization of information in the résumé and elsewhere in the application.
  • The essay is well written, with an authentic voice that hasn’t been edited so much that it no longer tells us about the applicant.

List 2: Things we don’t like to see in Essay #1

  • The name of other schools that the applicant has neglected to swap out.
  • Proofreading errors.
  • Essays that start their narrative with the applicant at age six and build slowly from there.
  • Whining about grades or GRE scores.  Save explanations – no whining – for the Additional Information section.
  • Footnotes.  This is not a scholarly paper.  Find another way to incorporate the information you might have put in a footnote.
  • Fancy-shmancy highfalutin vocabulary words that the applicant has just discovered in the thesaurus (and may or may not use correctly).
  • Unnecessary name dropping (which is different from naming one or two Fletcher professors with whom you’d like to work).
  • Getting Fletcher’s name wrong or spelling it incorrectly.  It’s The Fletcher School or The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.  Not The Fletcher School of International Affairs.  And not Flechter.
  • Long quotations from inspiring historical figures.  We know they’re inspiring.  No need to reinforce.
  • Essays that ignore the word count limits.
  • Essays that could be for any school, lacking specifics.
  • Essays that tell us all sorts of stuff we already know about Fletcher, but don’t tell us much at all about you, the applicant.
  • Essays that are, by any standards, inappropriate.  (Sorry, I can’t provide any further details on this one.  You’ll need to trust me, and stick to the topic.)
  • Information that doesn’t jibe with other parts of the application, such as mentioning employers that aren’t listed on the résumé or application.

And that’s it.  The essay likes and dislikes of Liz, Kristen, Dan, and me.  While I hasten to add that most of the essays we read are anywhere from serviceable to terrific, I hope the list will help you avoid any pitfalls.

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