Selection committees want to hear that you have chosen to apply to their program for good reasons.  Avoid telling them that it is because of rankings or that you grew up loving the university.  It is very important for you to tailor your essay for each application that you submit.

Some schools ask for specific information or want specific questions to be answered.  Be sure to focus your essay on the information requests.  A well-written essay that doesn’t address the selection committee’s interests will be ineffective.  Generally, most selection committees are interested in the following:

  • Why do you want to pursue this discipline?
  • What are your specific goals for graduate study?
  • What are your goals beyond graduate study?
  • How have you prepared academically?
  • What experiences have helped you prepare?
  • What attracted you to apply to this program?

The essay is also a sample of your communication skills.  It should be written in essay form with an introduction, body and closing. It should be well organized, easy to read, and interesting.  Organization is flexible but is should flow as you tell your story.  It should be error free and within the word limit, if one is imposed (500 words is common).  Have several people review it for errors and have it critiqued by a professor or career services professional.

  • Start with something that will get the reader’s attention and make them want to read more (a passionate hook).
  • It often works well to use this paragraph to tell the selection committee why you are passionately interested in your chosen field of study, since this is usually the most interesting part of your personal story.

It is remarkable that so much can be learned from microscopic analysis of material surfaces and how this information can be used to improve designs.  Exposure to failure analysis, dislocations, and point defects as an undergraduate fascinated me and produced a strong curiosity in me about the structure of materials.  This has led me to pursue a PhD in Materials Science and Engineering, and I would like to conduct my graduate work at Iowa State University.

  • Segway into your arguments for why you should be admitted to the specific program.   The focus should be on your academic preparation for graduate school and why you have chosen their program.  It shouldn’t matter which topic you begin with.
  • For your academic preparation, you might highlight the following:
    • Important classes that provided you with knowledge that you hope to build on.  (If a well-known and respected professor taught a class, sometimes it helps to mention his or her name.)
    • A project that you completed that provided you with knowledge that other applicants probably don’t have.
    • Contributions you have made to research projects during an REU or work experience.  Indicate the principal investigator(s), the title of the project, what your responsibilities were and the outcome.
    • Publications or presentations that you co-authored or received acknowledgement for your work.
    • Internships and other work experiences that have provided opportunities to develop skills that will be useful for conducting research and completing projects.
    • One or two extracurricular activities that relate to your preparation for graduate school or convey a virtuous personal quality.
    • Significant problem with your qualifications that will be noticed by the selection committee (e.g. a low GPA or entrance level score).  Explain it and why you are a better student because of it.
  • When explaining why you are applying to a specific program, focus on the academic department and the specific programs.  This demonstrates that you have done your research and believe their program is the best option for you. Your reasons might include some of the following:
    • An area of emphasis or research that aligns with your interests and goals.
    • Particular strengths of the program that you noted during your research.
    • Professors whose interest areas match yours that you hope to learn from.  Don’t just mention names, but rather, indicate what aspects of their research interest you.
    • Special facilities that you have read about or seen during a visit.

  • Begin your closing paragraph by restating your desire to be admitted into the specific program.
  • End in a positive and confident manner that indicates a readiness for the challenges of graduate study.