The Chronicle of Higher Education published a great article last week titled Why I Tossed Your Résumé. It's valuable and you should read it if you are circulating resumes. I want to offer similar advice for those applying to graduate programs in geography. I applied to a handful back in the day (1986) and have read hundreds of applicants in recent years. The similarities to applying for a job can not be overemphasized.
The documents you share as you apply typically include a number of forms and/or a resume and/or some kind of personal essay stating why you are pursing an advanced degree or a similar topic. For me, that essay holds far more weight than the forms you fill out, the awards you list or the jobs you've held. Why? Because it gives me a snapshot of how you communicate in writing when "on your best behavior." Ideally, you've taken the time to outline, write, and re-write this important document. What do I expect to find?
Building a Great Essay
A great application essay:
- answers the question and includes supporting details from your life/work/education
- communicates clearly, in your own words, the technical work you've done or the military positions you've held, to a reader who many not be an expert in that area
- shows pride in accomplishments and/or indicates what you learned from a mis-steps
- highlight any oddities in the forms/resumes
- details work you undertook due to passion/interest/sense of contribution/opportunity to learn - and not necessarily for a paycheck
- has impeccable capitalization and grammar
Answer the Question
I have read essays that simply did not answer the question posed! I can't speak for every reviewer. but I'm looking for a thesis statement in that first paragraph. "I am applying to the University of Northern South Dakota at Hoople's Graduate Geography Program in order to...." The rest of the essay should support that point.
Write in Plain English
While those reading your essay are indeed in the same broad field you are discussing, we don't necessarily have your exact experience. If you are describing your work in hyperspectral analysis, it's good practice to include a sentence or two in plain language to insure you and reviewer are on the same page. It's also a great indicator of your ability to communicate without jargon or acronyms! If you are coming from a military deployment, be aware that not everyone speaks "military." My sense is if you are passionate about an area, you've had plenty of experience explaining it to Mom and Dad and the fellow you sat next to on the plane. Use that language in your essay. I stress this in part because one application I read copied a description of his military position directly from a .mil website - without quotes or a citation. I could not pass along that application for further review.
Be Appropriately Proud of Achievements
Everyone has had to work hard to achieve in academia or the workforce. Pick out one of those situations that relates back to your thesis statement and tell that story. It might be about how you taught yourself just enough Java to automate a complex process. It might be about how to rallied your team to get all those maps done by the 5 pm Fedex pickup. It might be how you found a workflow that enabled your customer/client to get the right map product faster and cheaper. You can also illustrate a misstep and what you learned from it and applied that learning later in your career.
The essay may be the only place you have to explain what readers might find as oddities in your other documents. In a job interview, you might be called upon to explain a gap in your employment, during which you did not work or go to school. In a graduate application it might be the fact that you already have multiple degrees. When an applicant already has two Masters degrees or two PhDs I wonder if they simply like being in school! Such an applicant needs to work extra hard to convince me they are worthy of of a seat in our program.
Show Passion via Action
I'm on the look out for action. What type? The type that fills in this blank: "I am so passionate about geography/GIS/Web mapping/statistical analysis that I _____________." I'm not necessarily looking for a longterm low/no-pay commitment like "I joined the Peace Corps to teach geography in a developing country." I'm looking for a situation where the applicant used existing skills or learned new ones to solve a problem of interest. The example I always use (so don't go out and do this!) is: "I made a map of all the baseball field in town for the Little League website so the parents could find them." I recently spoke with some folks who indicated that a longterm commitment to a project like OpenStreetMap or an open source project would be similarly impressive. In short, walk the walk, don't just talk the talk!
Proofread and Grammar Check
Finally, yes, you need to write the essay in full grammatically correct sentences. Use "its" and "it's" correctly. Get the names and capitalizations of companies and product name correct in your resume and essay. I had a student mis-spell "post-baccalaureate certificate" in his essay. He was in fact documenting that he possessed such a certificate!
Many geography and GIS graduate programs use only an electronically delivered application to select the next cohort of graduate students. There may be no face to face or phone interview. You need to convey all the key qualities you have in those digital forms and essay. I hope these suggestions help you do so!