How to Write an Application Essay or Personal Statement

Marriage and family therapy therapist psychotherapist graduate student masters degree doctorate phd MFT licensed prelicensed clinical social worker trainee intern associate

I have been doing a ton of essay editing and coaching lately, which I have really enjoyed. I love working with you guys as you reframe your life experiences into a narrative about how you’ve ended up at the decision to become a mental health professional!

While the process is VERY unique to every individual, I’ve noticed some themes that keep coming up. I thought it might be helpful to lay those out for those of you tackling the task of trying to answer these HUGE life-and-career questions in 2-4 double-spaced pages. 😂

Your Essay Is Only Part of the Picture

Whether you’re writing an essay as part of a school application, a job application, or a scholarship application, the essay is ONE piece of the application. All the parts should work together to create an entire picture of you as an applicant. That means a few things:

  • You don’t need to waste precious real estate in your essay listing out ALL your work and volunteer experience. Some things are definitely critical to expand upon! But let your resume/CV speak for itself.

  • Your essay is the place to explain some of the “problematic” parts of the rest of your application. Does the job description say you need to have three years of experience, and you only have two? The essay or statement is the place to explain why you think your two years of experience is the equivalent of someone else’s three. Are there some troubling grades on your transcript? In your essay, you can explain what happened there.

  • Remember that your letters of recommendation can be their own essays. If you get to read your letters of recommendation before submitting them, AWESOME. You know what other people have said about you! You don’t need to waste any essay time making the same exact points! But more likely, you WON’T get to read those letters—they’re usually sent directly to the school, or sealed in an envelope so you can’t read what’s been written about you. That’s ok though! The truth is, you’ve got SOME idea of what a recommender would say about you, otherwise you wouldn’t have asked them for a letter. Try to keep what you think they’ll say in mind as you write your essay, and make sure your own narrative reflects what they’re likely to say. You just want to make sure you don’t CONTRADICT what your recommenders have said!

Frame Yourself for the Specific Application

Everything you’re applying for is looking for something slightly different—even though they may all be looking for YOU! For example, say you’re applying to three different graduate programs. Each program has slightly different requirements of their applicants, and each program has a different personality. One program might emphasize research, while another emphasizes social justice, while still another emphasizes preparing you for private practice. If you’re applying to all three, there are aspects of each program that appeal to you! Your job as a an applicant is to highlight the parts of your story that fit the personality of each program. The same is true when you’re applying to jobs. If a job is customer-facing, you’ll want to highlight how much you love working with people. If a job is teamwork-oriented, you’ll want to emphasize your experience working successfully with others. The trick, of course, is trying to gauge what each program, organization, or scholarship committee is looking for!

Sound Like You, But Professional

Please, please, please—don’t try to sound erudite in your essays and personal statements! If you’ve got an expansive vocabulary, by all means use it, just make sure you don’t veer into the realm of the pretentious. It must sound natural. Especially when you’re being asked for a personal statement, they are looking for WHO YOU ARE. This goes double if you’re applying to MFT programs!! The whole point of being a therapist is bringing your authentic self to the work. You don’t need to impress admissions committees with an essay that sounds like Austen or Dickens. They are evaluating your essay to make sure you can write well, but more importantly that you can communicate well.

Be Mentally Healthy

There is a fine, fine line between being authentic and TMI (too much information). Especially if you’re applying for something in the field of psychotherapy, you need to share personal stuff without coming across like you’re the one who needs therapy!! It’s tough, and this is one of the areas that I work on the most in coaching, because it’s so different for every person.

  • Be honest about why you want to go into this field, but make sure you communicate that you’re not still in crisis. So many essays ask about formative experiences that have made you want to be a therapist. For many applicants, this may mean relaying experiences of trauma where a therapist really helped (or where a therapist could have helped…). Remember that you’re not trying to communicate the depths of your trauma—save that for your own therapist! You’re trying to communicate how your experiences have inspired you to want to help others.

  • When in doubt, use neutral everyday language. Try to stay away from diagnostic language unless your experience with mental health services specifically involved diagnoses. You’ll learn in graduate school not to talk about people as their diagnoses (“my sister has schizophrenia” instead of “my sister is a schizophrenic”) and you’ll also learn that diagnostic language can be kind of controversial. So instead of saying “I had a codependent relationship with my husband and seeing a couples counselor really helped,” you may want to say “our couples counselor helped my husband and I develop healthy boundaries that saved our marriage.”

  • Think about how you’re coming across from a total stranger’s point of view. This is where having an objective editor (like me!) really comes in handy. As you read your essay back, remember that this is your first introduction to someone who doesn’t know you at all—and the reason they are reading your essay is to determine your suitability to help others. There’s a middle ground between revealing all your personal struggles diary-style and revealing absolutely nothing, and sometimes that can be hard for you to gauge. If you grew up in a family where it was absolutely normal to talk about very personal things, a reader might find your essay over-share-y and lacking professionalism. If you grew up in a family where it was NOT ok to talk about personal things, however, a reader might find your essay cold and detached—not desirable qualities for a future therapist! So it’s really important to find that balance between honesty and…too much honesty.

How I Can Help You

I hope this has helped give you a better idea of what exactly you should be trying to accomplish with your essay or personal statement. If you need some more help, I’m available for editing and coaching. I enjoy helping applicants from the very beginning of the process all the way to the final polished product. I offer an Essay Coaching package (where I interview you and review application materials to help you decide what to write about), a Coaching + Editing package (where we work together through three revisions to craft your essay or statement), an Editing package (if you just need some feedback/proofreading on your essay but don’t need my advice on WHAT you should write about), and phone consultations on any part of the process. If you need something more specialized, I’m happy to work with you to put together a custom package!

I hope this post has taken some of the mystery out of the essay-writing process. I know when I wrote my application essay for my master’s program, it took me a solid two months of revising before I felt confident! I really hope the process is smoother for you!

Good luck!!


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