7 Tips to Overcome Writer’s Block When Applying to Graduate School

Apr 16, 2020

By Olivia Davis

We’ve all been there: a blank page and a looming application deadline. We know that we need to write – and want to write! – but the words just aren’t coming. What do you do next?

First, remember that some experience of writer’s block is normal and expected. It means that you are working hard and want your essay to turn out well! At the same time, writer’s block is not indefinite – you will get through it if you keep trying. Here are some tried and true suggestions that will help you get words on the page. 

1. Take a break

Sometimes, we overcomplicate writing by putting too much pressure on ourselves. We can begin to question every word instead of focusing on the big picture.

When you hit a rut, go for a walk. Read a magazine. Watch a TV show. Fold laundry. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you get your mind off your writing. Taking a breather gives your mind a chance to recalibrate, and you’ll return refreshed and with perspective.

2. Give yourself permission to write badly

Having the right expectations for your first draft will prevent you from curtailing your efforts too soon. It’s very rare that a first draft is actually good. When you’re first getting started, the point is not to create a beautiful, winning essay. Instead, it’s to get a rough idea of what you want to say. 

When you’re tempted to throw in the towel early on, remember that great writing almost always has humble beginnings. Embrace your first draft – even if it’s not very good! – because it gives you an invaluable starting point. 

3. Get some inspiration from successful applications

If you’re having a tough time figuring out what to write about or how to frame your essay, look online for sample successful essays or applications. There are a plethora of winning examples out there that can give you good ideas. 

Read through a few and think about the ones that stood out. What resonated with you about them? How might you apply similar techniques in your own application essays?

4. Set up the right environment 

Sometimes writer’s block stems from really simple causes – like being tired, hungry, or distracted. Don’t try to write on an empty stomach or a sleepy brain! Take into account your physical wellbeing, and make sure that when you sit down to write, you’re able to focus.

It’s also important to eliminate other distractions. Consider putting your phone in another room. You can even disconnect your laptop from wi-fi or write in full-screen mode so that you can see only what you’re working on at the moment. 

5. Write on the smallest scale possible 

A prompt like Tell us why you are a great fit for this program can be really daunting. The limitless number of possible answers to this question can end up stifling your progress – there are so many things to consider! To avoid this, think about breaking the question down into manageable bites. For example, to answer this overarching question, you can include a paragraph each on: 

  • Why you are interested in the program
  • Your past experiences/preparation
  • Your future goals
  • What you will contribute to the program

Dividing big questions into smaller ones helps you be specific, which will cut down on the potential writer’s block that comes with being overwhelmed with too many options. 

6. Implement a writing routine 

Writer’s block is more likely to happen when we aren’t in the habit of writing. Because of this, don’t wait for a flow of inspiration! Instead, discipline yourself to write a certain time every day or week as you’re going through the application process. When you get into a routine of writing, you won’t need a flow of inspiration to hit; you’ll be primed and ready when it’s time to write.

7. Remember your why 

It’s true that writing can be really tough. When you feel writer’s block coming on, remember why you are writing an application essay to begin with. Perhaps you want to study with a great scholar, have the opportunity to present original work, or take advantage of the career options that come with an advanced degree. 

Remembering your why gives you motivation to fall back on when writer’s block hits. Memorize your why; make it your phone background; write it on a sticky note. This will help you keep the big picture in mind and give you a motivational thrust when you need it.

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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