5 Tips for Writing Winning Application Essays

Jan 30, 2020

By Olivia Davis

Whether you’re applying for a fellowship program or graduate school, you’re going to be writing essays! They are the most time-consuming and most important part of your application because they give the committee a glimpse into why you are a great fit for their specific program. 

Once you’ve gotten your first draft written, plan to write several more! Editing is a part of the writing process, and it’s an opportunity to make your application stronger. However, you have to know how to approach writing and editing so that you use your time wisely and end up with a final essay that puts you in the best possible light. Here are five tips to make that happen.

1. Talk about yourself the right way

It’s really easy to talk about ourselves in admissions essays, and it’s unavoidable if the essay is going to help the committee get to know you. However, most people talk about themselves in the wrong way. They emphasize their own accomplishments and their vision for their own future. In short, they show how the program will help them.

However, in the end, fellowship and graduate school programs are searching for people to further their missions. For instance, the Fulbright program looks for people who will promote intercultural understanding. If an essay is only about how being a Fulbright Fellow will be a strategic career move for an individual, the applicant will probably not receive the award. 

You want to show how you will be a part of the program’s mission by demonstrating past experiences that align with it. For example, in my Fulbright ETA application, I showed my love for teaching and intercultural dialogue by telling a story about a recital I organized for my piano students that brought many families together. This introduced the Fulbright committee to me as an individual while giving them a vision for how I might foster intercultural dialogue in Greece. 

2. Be clear

Great ideas and compelling arguments for admission do not matter if they are not communicated in a way that other people cannot understand or remember. It’s very easy to feel as though we have to impress the committee by using long sentences and six-syllable words. Resist that feeling!

The first step to achieving clarity is knowing exactly what you are communicating. Sometimes it takes a few drafts to get that figured out – that’s normal. After that, make sure each paragraph in your essay shows how you will further the program’s mission (or are prepared to further the mission).

3. Be specific

Specificity is essential to your application because it shows how you in particular and the program would be a good fit. For example, everyone can say, “I look forward to having access to the university’s special collections.” However, something like, “I look forward to having access to the university’s Blues Archive to do original research on the evolution of musical structures in 20th-century Blues,” will be memorable. Specificity establishes why the program is a fit for you – and how you fit into the program’s mission. Go through your application essay sentence-by-sentence to find opportunities for greater specificity.

If you’re having trouble with this, think about why you are applying to the program in the first place. If the only reasons you can come up with are that it’s prestigious or in a particular location, you might need to rethink your application, which will inevitably be drowned out by those who can demonstrate a greater need for the resources the program offers. The good news is that there are a plethora of highly-regarded fellowships (many of which you can find in the ProFellow database) and graduate school programs. You will almost certainly be able to find a great fit once you know the kind of program you desire. This is the beauty of the application process – it sometimes leads you down new avenues that are better than your initial intentions. 

4. Ask for feedback

It’s true: behind every good writer is a good editor. And, more to the point: every good writer listens to his or her editor! This doesn’t mean you take every suggestion, but that you give each serious consideration. 

Ask several people to read your application. It’s a good idea to diversify the kind of people you ask – include professors, friends, and maybe a family member –  so that you have people who know you in different contexts. This will help you get a thorough perspective on your writing. Be gracious, even if they tell you things you’d rather not hear. A thoughtful critique takes time, and they’re helping you because they believe in you. 

When you get their feedback, look at everything together. If there are similarities among the critiques, be sure to address them. Once you’ve done that, look at the individual suggestions. Try them before nixing them – sometimes you can’t see the wisdom of a critique until you’ve applied it. 

5. Know when to quit

Writing and editing are tricky because often it can feel as though you are never done – even if you’re on your 100th draft, you probably have more ideas! However, this can create an endless cycle that leads to burnout and frustration. 

You know you’ve reached your limit when you begin to question whether or not your edits are improving the piece. If you can’t tell if something is better before or after you’ve made an adjustment, that means that you’ve started to debate over trivialities. Keep it how it was before, and let yourself call it finished. At that point, you can have confidence that your essay is the best you can do, and that’s all you can ask of yourself. 

Olivia Davis is a writer based in Mississippi. She was a 2017-2018 Fulbright ETA in Athens, Greece and has a BA in English from the University of Mississippi. She runs Looking Upward, a Christian writing ministry. When she’s not writing, she is probably playing the piano, drawing, or cooking Greek food.

© Victoria Johnson 2020, all rights reserved