Cornell University

Writing Essays

Any essay or personal statement for an application must, of course, be your own work. If you are applying for a research degree, you will probably be asked to write a "statement of purpose." Admissions committees will be interested in how focused your research interests and ultimate career goals are, and how your undergraduate studies, work experience, and other background relate to the proposed graduate field of concentration.

If you are asked to write a "personal statement," in applying to law school for example, you have almost unlimited possibilities open to you. You might choose to write about some work you have done or someone you have known and relate that to what you plan to do over the next few years. Whether or not you write something autobiographical, remember that there is no set form and if you do write an autobiographical piece, it does not have to be arranged chronologically. Before writing anything, stop and consider what your readers might be looking for; the application or general directions may convey this.

Your essay will serve as an indicator of your writing abilities, but keep in mind that in most cases clarity and development of your ideas are the main considerations. If highly imaginative or eloquent writing does not come easily for you—and there are few people for whom it does—don't worry. Try to stick to a style you are comfortable with and don't try to sound like someone else. Your main aim will be to write a clear, succinct statement showing your self-determination and enthusiasm for the field of study.

How to Organize your Essay

There are two main approaches to organizing an essay. One is to make an outline of the points you want to cover and then to expand upon them. If you are comfortable with this method, it will probably yield a well-organized essay. The other approach is to put your ideas down on paper as they come to you and then to go over them, possibly eliminating a great many sentences and pushing others around ruthlessly until you have achieved a clear, logical sequence. This approach is difficult, but may produce a more inspired piece of writing than the outline method.

After you have gotten your first draft down on paper, go over it for style. One of the most common pitfalls applicants encounter is the habit of making "I" the subject and first word of nearly every sentence. Many people also use the simple declarative sentence almost exclusively, which tends to result in monotonous reading and often to obscure the development of ideas. For instance, cause and effect relationships are often lost in a series of simple sentences. Look carefully through what you have written for ideas or statements that have a cause and effect relationship.

Another weak point of many essays is the tendency to oversell through the use of adjectives and adverbs. If, when reading over your essay, you find yourself saying that certain experiences or ideas are "interesting," "educational," or "rewarding," or if you find the words "very" and "extremely" appearing frequently, you need to do some editing. Ask yourself not how interesting your summer job was, but what was interesting about it and what you learned from it. Rather than using vague adjectives, either be specific or simply let your experience and qualifications stand on their own merit.

You may want to have someone critique your essay before you have it typed. The Writing Workshop located in 178 Rockefeller Hall will be quite helpful in this regard since it employs highly skilled graduate students to help students with writing concerns. Also, you may want one of your recommenders, especially if he/she is in the discipline you are planning to pursue, to critique the content of your essay. Don't be surprised, though, if you get differing opinions; in the end, only you can decide on the best way to present yourself.