Convincing Harvard You’re “The One”: 3 Tips

Reprinted from

If you’re considering applying to graduate school, you will soon be writing the dreaded “personal statement.” Sometimes called the “statement of purpose”, your grad school essay is one of the few things you can change about your application materials at this point.

While your grades, test scores and internships are set in stone, you have the opportunity to use your personal statement to weave together an otherwise disjoint set of college experiences (or a slightly blemished academic record) into a compelling story that garner an admission to your dream school.

Read on for three tips on writing a compelling personal statement, and examine before and after samples from real essays showcasing What To Do and What Not To Do (all three students whose essays are shown below were admitted to their program of choice).

P.S. Cover letters are quite similar to personal statements, so these tips apply to cover letters, too!

Tip #1: Ask, “Why Do I Care?” after every sentence or section of your essay that you write.

Everything you write in your essay should showcase a skill or experience that will make you successful in your graduate program of choice. You should also illustrate why you will later be an illustrious alumnus who is an honorable ambassador of the program. Remember, most graduate programs are hoping for you to a) become an illustrious alumnus who represents the program well and b) eventually give back to the program in some way.

(The essay referenced below was written as part of a “background statement” for admission to a top 10 M.S. in computer science program; the student was admitted.)

What Not To Do:  

“I have written automated tests to ensure that every edge case has been handled and corrected. When developing a new feature, I have researched protocols like IMAP, SMTP, and FTP, to ensure my code complies with the various relevant RFCs.”

Why Not: Why do we care that this person has researched (which, since they didn’t specify well assume means googl-ed) a specific set of jargon?  We don’t know why doing this research is impressive. Similarly, we don’t have any context to understand why handling edge cases is impressive. This is a classic case of “so what.” It should be instantly apparent to the reader why something you did was impressive or represents a useful graduate school skill. Additionally, this essay section is loaded with acronyms. While this may be appropriate for a Ph.D. research statement, the acronyms make for challenging reading in a background essay for a more broad masters program.

What To Do:

“I spend my days researching network protocols in order to design and develop novel algorithms that analyze security flaws and improve the speed and efficiency of the existing code base. Simultaneously, I peer review co-worker’s patches and open source contributions, strengthen my soft skills by undertaking training and documentation tasks, and regularly present my features to coworkers and supervisors.”

Why: This essay is written for a broad audience and an admissions committee member who did not have a computer science background would be able to read the essay. Further, we now understand why the author’s research is important: they are developing new algorithms (that sounds pretty cool). Additionally we learn that the author is not only contributing to their field of interest (computer science) they are engaging in team work (important for graduate school), and working on their “soft skills” of writing and teaching, which are important for elements of graduate school (such as teaching assistantships and writing papers to be published in journals).

Tip #2: Reference specific aspects of the program to which you are applying and/or reference faculty members by name.

This should be reasonably self evident, but be sure to thoroughly read the website of the program to which you are applying! If you can, try to use similar language to what they have on their website when expressing yourself in your essay. If you are applying to a Masters or terminal degree program (law, medicine, PT, nursing, etc.), talk about two to three courses you are interested in taking or mention a cool program that the school offers (e.g. a specific clinical rotation program or a special internship). If you are applying to a Ph.D. program, be sure to mention specific faculty members and their research in depth and show how your interests align with theirs (you can certainly do this for masters or terminal programs as well).

(The essay referenced below was written as part of a “personal statement” for admission to a top 15 Masters in Public Policy program; the student was admitted. Full essay sample available here.)

What Not To Do:

“I am very interested in working on issues of defense policy. I believe that the courses I will take while at XX University and the Masters in Public Policy that I will obtain will provide me with a good foundation in order to pursue a career in defense policy.”

Why Not: What we learned from this section of the essay is that the student wants to work in “defense policy.” This is a vague statement: we don’t even know in what area of defense policy the student is interested. Further, the applicant hasn’t taken the time to mention specific defense policy courses. Why does the applicant believe that the courses in the M.P.P. program help the student pursue a career in defense policy? What if the school doesn’t even have defense policy courses or what if the school has a very cool program in defense policy? It isn’t apparent to the admissions committee that the applicant has researched this school and program at all. The applicant should be calling out specific courses and programs in defense policy if they are available at this school, or the applicant should state how the courses offered at the school would help them reach their goal, if courses in defense policy are not available.

What To Do:

“In order to be successful, defense policies must provide the governmental agencies involved in protecting United States citizens as much flexibility as possible while still being able to hold them accountable for their actions.  Courses such as Intelligence Policy and U.S. Defense Policy and Planning would provide me a better grasp of what goes into the decision making process when policies are being created that affect the safety and security of the nation.”

Another Option:

“Coursework such as Quantitative Aspects of Public Policy, Public Management & Leadership, and Finance would provide me with skills and information needed to understand the connections between terrorist organizations. Specifically, coursework in Quantitative Aspects of Public Policy is essential to understanding how to analyze large sets of data about terrorist organizations and their activities. Statistical methodology is vital in both evaluating policy options and decision-making in an uncertain environment. Defense policy decisions are sometimes made when not all the facts are available, requiring the statistical methodology used to make a decision to be accurate.”

Why: In both of these cases, the applicant not only calls out specific courses, but also provides the reader with context about why these courses are important to the applicant and how the applicant is going to utilize this coursework in their future career.

Tip #3: Be clear about your future and how this program will help you get there (or convincingly describe where you’re headed, if you haven’t quite narrowed it down yet).

If you are applying for graduate school, you are usually doing so in order to achieve a specific career path or goal such as becoming a principal, a professor, or physical therapist. Similarly, graduate schools are looking for driven candidates who know what they want and know how this program will help them get there. Be sure to clearly state in your essay what you want to become in the future, and illustrate how this program will lead you to your goal (see Tip #2).

What if you’re future is a bit murkier? Succinctly explain what combination of skills you hope to develop in the program, and what skills you already have, in the context of your broader goals.

(The essay referenced below was written as part of a “personal statement” for admission to a Harvard Masters in Education program; the student was admitted.)

Example (What To Do):

“Throughout my own education, my passion for helping others learn has been the common thread. My goal is to work in education using the software engineering skills I gained as a computer science major and the research skills I developed as a research assistant for multiple projects. I seek to design innovative curriculum and educational technology solutions that make learning more accessible for students. An Ed.M. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education focusing on Technology, Innovation, and Education will help me reach this goal.”

(As an exercise, can you see why the version of the essay above is better than the one below?)

“Through this myriad of experiences, an interest in education has been the common thread. In my future career, I hope to engage students in learning by designing, introducing and assessing technological tools and engaging curriculum that make learning more comfortable and more accessible for students. Thus, I seek to further my education in education with a Masters in Education focusing on Technology, Innovation, and Education.”


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