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Why do graduate school admissions committees ask for essays?
Contrary to popular belief, their intention is not to add to the torturesome, uncertain graduate application process. Most members of these committees can still vividly recall the anxiety associated with the application process. They remember what it was like to be uncertain about the future. They may recall the anxiety inherent in the prospect of choosing between career and loved ones. Some may even remember having felt, "my self-worth can be measured by the outcome of this process." So anxious were they that, in an effort to avoid the final judgment, many, if not most, "put off" writing their applications until the last possible moment.
If they recall the anxiety and the pain, why then do graduate committees insist, year after year, that another cohort of anxious undergraduates endure this process? At most institutions, the committee is providing the applicant with a chance to become more than "just a number". Although many schools do have "cut-offs," they may still have a mechanism for identifying the extremely promising exception. Those who do have rigid "cut-offs" use the essay to help identify which applicants they will invite for interviews.
How can you use the graduate essay to your advantage?
It may sound trite, but the essay is a place where you can help the committee to understand, "who you are". What are your special, unique qualities? And, what struggles have you overcome? If your application has some apparent deficiencies, such as a bad year--a puzzling hiatus in your education--or low GRE's, the committee will be trying to justify overlooking these weaknesses. In your essay, you provide a realistic, mature rationale for your "difficulties."
What are graduate committees seeking?
So, for what exactly are graduate committees looking?
While the answer to this question varies from school to school and faculty member to faculty member, some general statements can be made. The committee is using the application to understand how you comport yourself. Just what does the application look like? Is it neat? Is it proofread? Is it clean? Despite the all too common anxiety endemic to the application process, committees tend to assume that applicants are "putting their best foot forward" when they write their applications. After all, committees know that you know that they use the application to get an "impression" of you.
Is it well written? People who write well tend to think well. Moreover, graduate students are required to do a considerable amount of writing in a short period of time. So, the committee will want to know, can you complete the writing requirements in a timely fashion? Obviously, this is more problematic for people who have difficulty writing.
Is your decision to enter graduate school an informed one? The process you used for making the decision to go to graduate school is relevant for two reasons: First, it is indicative of the kinds of processes that you will use in making other important decisions. Second, a carefully informed decision is more likely to be a correct decision. Regarding the former, clinical psychology graduate students are required to make many important, even at times critical, decisions regarding the welfare of others. Therefore, it is important to admit graduate students with good judgment. Regarding the latter, graduate education is extremely costly. The general attitude at graduate schools tends to be to support students in completing their degrees. Nevertheless, some students do not complete their training. Often these are students who naively entered their training with very little understanding of the field. Students without experience have no basis for an informed decision. The committee will want to know that you have had more than a cursory experience with research and clinical work and that you derived a great deal of value from your experiences.
Is this student an enjoyable person with whom to work? A graduate student and his/her advisor often have a close, in some sense intimate, relationship. The committee will want to know, is this person stimulating, challenging and enjoyable to have around? Is this person someone who I would like as a colleague?
Will this student help me get me research done? Graduate faculty are devoted to carrying out programmatic research. Many graduate students are funded as research associates. Faculty will want to know, does this student have the requisite technical and creative research skills to be a meaningful collaborator? Can s/he help me get my papers out in a timely fashion? Can s/he make a meaningful contribution to my research program? Is s/he entering graduate school with any well developed research skills?
Can I trust this student to develop into a thoughtful, responsible, respectful clinician? Is she knowledgeable about ethics and thoughtful in his/her approach to clinical situations? Does s/he have any clinical skills? Does s/he know what she is getting into? Does s/he appreciate the limits of her skills? Is s/he able to operate independently when appropriate, and to seek out supervision when necessary?