A Foreign Service Officer walks into a bar…stop me if you’ve heard this one

Any line of work has its points of repetition. McDonald’s cashiers take a lot of orders for Big Macs, flight attendants can do the safety procedures shtick in their sleep, and Death Star platform workers quickly learn when to duck if they want to make it in a tough industry. Admissions officers read a lot of application essays. Like, a whole lot. Unsurprisingly, many of them cover similar themes. As fall application deadlines approach, I hope a brief discussion of some of the more common tropes we see will be helpful as you craft your own essays. This is NOT a call to shy away from certain topics, or to avoid using a particular framing device. There are good reasons certain things crop up frequently from a pool of applicants with extensive overseas experience and a passion for international careers, and many applicants write eloquently and convincingly on familiar themes (it’s not like Jimi Hendrix was the first person to pick up a guitar). Still, it’s worth giving thought to how you present things, and to what degree and length you discuss them.

Are you interested in joining the Foreign Service? So is probably a quarter of the typical applicant pool, give or take. This makes sense. A Fletcher degree can provide an excellent pathway to a Foreign Service Career; just ask Ariel, Vanessa, and Elise. A follow-up question, if this describes you: do you know what Foreign Service Officers do? We’ll hope that your discussion of this goal indicates that you have some knowledge of the actual work of FSOs, the structure of the diplomatic corps, a sense of typical career progressions and common early assignments for new FSOs, and/or prior experiences that provide some professional exposure or foundation for a diplomatic career. Find/replace “Foreign Service” in the above with “United Nations” or “World Bank” for equally applicable advice.

Let’s consider your past for a moment. Something we commonly learn from essays is how an applicant’s passion for a particular international affairs subject developed. These “origin stories” can be enlightening, but they have a way of occupying a lot of your word count if you’re not careful. As adorable as it is to picture knee-high you raptly flipping through the atlas your grandparents gave you for your fifth birthday, the case for your admission to Fletcher is never going to rest upon the intensity or duration of your cartophilia. By all means share with us how your interests developed, but there’s no need to begin at the literal beginning. Starting your own origin story at a point relevant to your current goals is a good way to keep your essay focused and within the specified word limit.

Like many competitive Fletcher applicants, you may have spent considerable time in your adult life outside your home country, through a study abroad opportunity, a service program, or a longer-term professional role. Good for you! Whether or not you ultimately attend Fletcher (or–shudder–a different school), your life is surely richer for this experience. It’s also great grist for an application essay, and you absolutely should consider featuring it in the larger case you’re making for your candidacy. Details can really make a difference here. Did you see a particular policy or program at work while overseas that inspired you to want to learn more, or to help catalyze change? Perhaps you worked with a specific population, organization, or professional sector that affected your career goals? While overseas time is nearly always a net positive in an application, an essay discussion effectively amounting to “I lived in _____, and boy is it different than where I’m from!” is a missed opportunity. We’re interested not just in the fact that you lived overseas, but the ways in which it inspired, challenged, and engaged you in the context of your application to Fletcher.

This is of course not a comprehensive accounting of the most common types of application essays we receive, and you can find lots more essay-related blog chatter here. I’ll also re-emphasize that this is not a tacit recommendation to avoid writing about any of these topics. To the contrary, Jessica has previously advised against contorting yourself to seem unique. Seriously, we want to hear about this stuff! By paying attention not just to what you’re writing about, but also how you’re writing about it, you’ll make your essays, and your case for admission to Fletcher, a lot stronger.

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