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Interpreting the Prompt

Before beginning to outline your personal statement, you must figure out what your program-specific prompt is really asking. There are two components to a prompt: the surface question (i.e. the explicit question), and the underlying question (i.e. the “so what?”). The surface question may or may not be relatable to your development as a student; it may seem irrelevant to your qualifications, asking about your family or a life-changing experience. However, all application prompts are asking the same questions in their subtext: “How are you an excellent fit for our program?”

Always remember that the purpose of your application is to demonstrate your capabilities as a student and to highlight your reasoning and analytical skills. The latter can only be deduced by looking at the introspection in your paper. This is why we strongly suggest spending more time (at least 60% of your writing) on evidence and supporting points, and less time (40%) on telling stories or anecdotes (chapter 14).

The Surface Question: Staying on Topic

While undergraduate applications prompts can be zany (“What do Wednesdays mean to you?”) or more focused, graduate prompts are typically open-ended but geared towards 1) what brought you to your chosen field, and 2) what excites you about your future prospects in that field. Therefore, while your general topic will be the benefits of a specific program and your enthusiasm for your field, your focus in your personal statement will be much more specific.
Once you have made some notes about your field and researched the program, you should focus on what qualities and research interests you will be bringing to the incoming class.
Take a look at the following prompt, from an MFA program in creative writing:

Prompt 1: In 1-2 pages, chronicle your journey as a writer

While this prompt looks like it might be asking for an autobiography, readers will be looking for candidates who read into the prompt and respond with focus and clarity. Let’s take the example from chapter 5 about the MFA candidate who has served in the military. Here’s how this candidate outlines her personal statement:

  1. Opens with a brief, exciting and emotional hook about her first tour of duty.
  2. Transitions to how throughout her service, she kept meticulous notes about her experiences, and realized that writing gave her a creative outlet.
  3. From that creative outlet, the candidate realized that writing could be more than therapy; it could be politically and emotionally urgent for her to share her work.
  4. Then, the candidate discusses how formally studying the craft of writing will help her refine her writing and produce engaging, important work. She references the program’s unique course offerings, and discusses how she was inspired by an alumnus who is featured on the program’s website and who wrote a best-selling memoir about his military service. By doing this, the candidate not only shows interest in and knowledge about the program, but she also poises herself as the program’s next potential success.

This candidate could have written about how she was an avid reader as a child, or about how she used to love inventing stories to tell her friends. However, the candidate knows that most aspiring writers will share these qualities. Instead, she focuses on what she learned from her unique experience and shows readers that she is an introspective, thoughtful candidate who is passionate about finding her voice, and ultimately finding an audience.

Now, consider this prompt from a graduate program application:

Prompt 2:  How have you grown in the past? How do you intend to grow in this program?

This prompt is a perfect example of the questions that most graduate programs will ask, either explicitly or implicitly. By posing these two questions, this prompt asks you to relate your past challenges to your future success; it is imperative that the candidate draw from experiences that are related to his or her field, and that demonstrate his or her potential. Consider this candidate’s outline:

  1. Opens with a brief hook about a start-up the candidate was involved in directly after college. He realized early on that the business did not have sufficient funding to get off the ground, and that its weak marketing would never attract enough clients. However, since he was a novice, he did not know how to communicate his concerns to his employer.
  2. The candidate then talks about his growth within the business, and his personal struggle with confronting his boss. He demonstrates his savvy, passion for entrepreneurship, and personal growth when he writes about how he grew to be an involved team member who was not afraid to suggest radical changes.
  3. Next, the candidate explains that after confronting this hurdle, he learned how to trust his instincts and realized that he wants to be his own boss someday by starting his own company.
  4. The candidate then discusses how the education he would receive through this program would be fundamental to his growth as an entrepreneur. Readers see that this candidate is not only passionate about business, but also that he is a competitive, innovative applicant who will make the most out of his education and degree.

The Subtext: How to Answer the Question behind the Question

If you answer the obvious question that the prompt is asking without getting sidetracked, then you have the basis for a solid essay. However, what separates good responses from great responses is the author’s ability to present him or herself in the best possible light and answer the subtext question: How are you an excellent fit for our program?

First, we must take a look at what universities seek in applicants.

  1. Successful alumni: Universities love successful alumni because they enhance the school’s reputation and prestige, which attracts high caliber applicants and brings them future donations. To become a successful alumnus, you must be success-driven and goal-oriented. Your personal statement should therefore express your professional and academic goals, and that you have the character to realize them.
  2. Active students: Part of a university’s reputations lies in the culture and learning opportunities offered outside of the classroom. The quality and quantity of a university’s sports teams, clubs, and organizations are paramount to its success. They want students that are going to take advantage of the many opportunities they offer. The best application essays relating to involvement highlight specific organizations at the university in which the applicant is interested. Research each program and which activities they offer related to your field; if any of them interest you, you should highlight your enthusiasm for these specific opportunities.
  3. Team players: When you enroll in a graduate program, you become a part of a team environment. You will be contributing your voice and perspective to group projects and discussions, so you should give programs a clear idea of how you will be a positive impact in academic environments.
  4. Leaders: Universities want people who can contribute as team members, but who are also not afraid of leading and taking initiative when a group needs guidance. It is important to know that leadership does not always occur in formal roles. Many of the best examples of good leadership occur when someone without a defined role takes on more responsibility to generate greater impact.
  5. Good people: Schools want people who are hardworking, success-driven, and dedicated, while none of them want to be affiliated with people who are unprincipled. Virtuous and selfless people are more likely to help their peers and better their environment. Universities prefer students that will help maintain and better the campus community. You can demonstrate goodness by selecting supporting evidence that demonstrates your empathetic and introspective qualities.
  6. Good fits: In both your personal statement and supplemental essays, you should demonstrate your knowledge about each program. Most programs will list their current students on their website, along with those students’ fields of study. Take time to read through these lists and get an idea of how the admissions boards have curated prior classes, and how you and your research interests will fit with current students. Also, look at unique resources offered by each program and university. Mention the resources which excite you, and that you hope to become involved in as a student.

Make sure to demonstrate many of these qualities while answering the prompt. Allow your stories and introspection to illuminate the positive traits that will make you an excellent student at your dream school.

Take a look at Matthew’s introductory paragraph in response to the following prompt, for a personal statement given by a Masters of Education program:

Prompt: Reflecting on your work, life, and educational experience, describe how you arrived at the decision to pursue a career in education.

I was twenty years old, and I was being bullied by an eight-year-old girl. As a youth coordinator for Somerset Elementary School’s after-school program, I confronted the challenges that any new teacher faces. However, my relationship with Samantha was both the most difficult to navigate, and also the turning point at which I realized I wanted to pursue a career in education. I spoke to Samantha’s teachers and parents, and I tried implementing reward systems to control her behavior. It seemed that nothing was working, but then I had a light bulb moment. I sat down with Samantha and asked her to describe how it made her feel when she teased me in front of the other students. “I feel powerful,” Samantha said. I began to understand that a student’s need for agency and control over her environment could radically change the way she behaved in class. I began giving Samantha her own responsibilities, and we worked together to find ways she could express her positive qualities in a more constructive manner. By the time the school year was over, Samantha had transformed from an aggressive student to someone who was proud of her responsibilities and accomplishments. If given the opportunity to pursue a Masters of Education, I hope to study pedagogical theories related to behavioral issues.

As you can see in his introduction, Matthew not only identifies a problem and explains how he solved it, but he also demonstrates a passion for teaching and for a specific field that interests him based on his experience.


In order to have a strong application essay, you must decode the prompt. You must be sure to answer every component of the question, as well as take advantage of every opportunity to display your best qualities as an applicant.

  • Answer every part of the question.
  • Portray yourself in the best possible light. Determine the underlying question, and make it clear that you will be an active member of the student body and a successful alumnus.
  • Research the program. Go to each program’s website and read about current students, faculty, course offerings, and any unique features of the program. When you find something that excites you, make a note of it to include it in your application when you tailor your statement to each program.
  • Go off topic. Keep your essay focused on the questions the prompt poses.
  • Say or reveal anything negative about yourself.
  • Focus on coming up with a flashy or dramatic story. While a brief hook can grab a reader’s attention, your introspection about your experience is most important.

Prompt’s Essay Specialists reviewed 13,000 admissions essays in 2018, helping thousands of students submit their applications with confidence.

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