Genre series: Graduate school application

Monday, January 15, 2018
by Ariel Alexandra Quehl Fullerton

Photo (from Pixabay) of application papers against a blue backdrop

Welcome to a new term! At the Writing and Communication Centre, we have noticed that many students are working on their personal statements and letters of intent for upcoming graduate school applications. Many graduate programs have deadlines coming up quite quickly. ‘Tis now the season of self-promotion and congratulation!


The selection committee is looking for students who demonstrate motivation. It will be much easier to show that you are motivated if you have a strong grasp of your own motivations. It will also help to do some self-reflection, as this will help you to understand who you are and what would make you a good candidate.

Some prompting questions include

  • Why do I want to go to graduate school?
  • What are my skills?
  • What is my relevant experience (work, school, and/or life experiences)? Why have I chosen the program?
  • Why am I a good fit for the program?

The school(s) you're applying to may provide their own questions for you to reflect upon and answer.

Research the graduate application requirements

It is important to start researching what your program requirements are, what questions the admissions committee would like you to answer, and what documents they require! Look into what documents you need well in advance (some possibilities include a résumé, cover letter, university transcript, and references). You may find that you need to include something unexpected. For instance, you may need to include a copy of your high school transcript, which you may not have at your fingertips. Contacting your high school, having your request processed, and getting documents back to you will take time.

A few things to look for:

  • Is there a word count?
  • What documents do I need to submit?
  • Are there specific questions I need to answer in my personal statement or letter of intent? There are differences between the two the personal statement focuses more on who you are and why you want to go to professional school, while the letter of intent focuses on what you hope to accomplish.

Be mindful that universities and their varying graduate school programs have different requirements and questions to answer.

Get references

Your references may also need some time to write you a (hopefully glowing) reference, so be generous with time and get started early for everyone’s sake. Some institutions also require professional references or letters of recommendation from professors; be sure to give your network ample time, so that the time and care you would hope for are put into your references and recommendations.

One tip for references: ask those people on your reference list whether they are able to provide a positive reference, instead of just asking them for a reference. It is best not to assume that it will be positive. This can help ensure that references provided will make a good impression on the graduate program’s selection committee. If your references tell you that they can’t provide a good reference, you may be hurt, but you will have dodged a bullet.

Get Help

You should visit the Centre for Career Action with any questions you may have about the professional school application process and what content to include in applications. Once you have your cover letters, statements of purpose, letters of intent, personal statements, etc. you can come to drop-ins and appointments with us; the Writing and Communication Centre! We will be happy to help you improve your writing skills.

There are also helpful templates on UW’s Centre for Career Action’s “Career Hub.” Their templates and guidelines for personal statements, letters of intent, résumés, and cover letters are helpful guides, but be sure to also refer to the program’s requirements for professional school applications. The school may have a particular template and requirements.

Don’t be Afraid to “Brag”

Think of the graduate school application as an essay, in which your argument is why you should be selected for the program. Essentially, your “evidence” should be examples of why you are super great! You are expected to outline your relevant skills and attributes. Believe in yourself, your abilities, and the value of your experiences! Be sure that these things make it onto the page! Take yourself and your skills seriously. While you do discuss yourself and should use “I” in your personal statement, you should still write in a plain, academic style. Write professionally to show that you take yourself, the application process, and your future studies seriously.

Make Your “Argument”

When applying for graduate school, your goal is to convince admissions to select you and that you are cut out for the work that is required. You will want to answer any questions asked and discuss your skills in a convincing way. As with essays, you should provide specific examples to back up your points. You will also want to reiterate how your skills and experiences are relevant to your graduate program. As with an essay, there should be points (about your abilities), proof (examples of these skills), and explanation (how these relate to the program).

When making your argument about why you should be accepted, try to relate your abilities to the program itself. In order to do this, you will need to research the program. Demonstrate how you are a good fit for the school and the program. Through doing this research, you will also show the recruiters your knowledge of the program, which demonstrates engagement, motivation, and interest! The stuff ideal graduate students are made of!

Ask Questions and Reach Out

Don’t be afraid to contact your program’s graduate officer with any questions that you may have about the program. Asking thoughtful questions will also demonstrate your motivation and interest. Asking questions will help you to clarify expectations. This will improve the overall quality of your personal statement because you will better understand what the admissions committee is looking for.