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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My Favorite Therapy Podcasts - UPDATED!

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

I spend an unreasonable amount of time in my car, so podcasts have been my saving grace. There are several great therapy podcasts I have stumbled across that have really broadened my understanding of the mental health field and introduced me to the huge variety of different paths you can take as a practitioner. Most podcasts release new episodes regularly, so I feel like they help me stay current even though my studying for school has been more focused on theoretical foundations, but I also recommend diving into the archives!

The Modern Therapist's Survival Guide, Curt Widhalm and Katie Vernoy
Medium format (25-35 minutes). One of my very favorite podcasts, especially because there are frequently new episodes. Curt and Katie are very involved in the accompanying Facebook group, which is awesome for when you've got questions about episodes or anything in general! Recommended to add to your playlist!

Psychotherapy Notes Podcast, Ben Caldwell, PhD, LMFT
Very short format (under 10 minutes). Part of how I decided to become an MFT was by reading every single thing posted by Dr. Caldwell on his excellent blog, Psychotherapy Notes. Dr. Caldwell is a passionate advocate for the profession with a clear and engaging style that's both easy and invigorating to read--he really wants the reader to understand what he's saying. He just launched his podcast, and I'm really excited to see where it goes from here.

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

Psychology in Seattle (Premium)Dr. Kirk Honda
Long to extremely-long format (30 minutes - 2+ hours). I only recently became a patron at Patreon so I could access some of the full episodes that were interesting to me. Try the free podcast first and if you enjoy the format, I recommend upgrading. I have gotten my money's worth listening to the therapist development episodes--I would say this podcast has been the most relevant to my experience as a student/trainee.

Talking Therapy, RJ Thomas, MFT & John Webber, MFT
Long-format (each episode is around an hour). This is one of my favorite ones but it doesn't get updated frequently.The hosts' media/entertainment industry experience shows--it's not overly-scripted but the interviews always flow. They also aren't selling anything, so you just get a lot of great information. They cover a wide variety of topics and always have quality guests. I appreciate how the hosts are mindful of explaining terms that "future therapists of America" might not understand yet. My only complaint is that I wish there were more episodes!

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

Starting a Counseling Practice, Kelly Higdon LMFT & Miranda Palmer LMFT
Medium format (25-40 minutes). These ladies are a wellspring of great information about becoming a therapist and developing a private practice. They've got episodes going back to 2015 available on iTunes, and if you've got a question, chances are they've covered it!


The Private Practice StartupDr. Kate Campbell & Katie Lemieux
Medium format (30-45 minutes). I really like the style and energy of these hosts. The pace of each episode really keeps up, so they cover a ton of information in a short amount of time. Covers a lot of great business building information.

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

The Abundant Practice Podcast, Allison Puryear
Medium format (20-30 minutes). Very focused on practice-building if you're looking for the nitty-gritty. Occasionally Allison does episodes where she coaches a clinician about their specific issues and the we get to listen in--I really enjoy these episodes! Episode #67, "All About GDPR" was especially helpful.

YouTube LecturesDr. Diane Gehart, LMFT
OK this is not actually a podcast, but still I think the sooner you check these out, the better off you'll be. Dr. Gehart has several lectures posted on YouTube that cover various orientations and also more nuts-and-bolts things like APA style and BBS hour logging (for California trainees/associates). They're very popular with people studying for the licensing exam, but I found them to be an invaluable adjunct to my introductory counseling theories course in my first semester of grad school.

Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam
Medium format (25-50 minutes). Not strictly about psychotherapy, but it is so fascinating! And really, really well done (it comes from NPR). I can't explain it any better than they do on their website: "Hidden Brain links research from psychology and neurobiology with findings from economics, anthropology, and sociology, among other fields. The goal of Hidden Brain isn't merely to entertain, but to give you insights to apply at work, at home and throughout your life."

Invisibilia, Alix Spiegel, Hanna Rosin, & Lulu Miller
Long format (1 hour). Another NPR/not-strictly-psychotherapy podcast, but a must-listen: "We weave incredible human stories with fascinating new psychological and brain science, in the hopes that after listening, you will come to see new possibilities for how to think, behave and live."

The Radical Therapist, Chris Hoff, PhD(c), LMFT
Long format (40-60+ minutes). Admittedly, I believe I personally am leaning towards a postmodern orientation, and this podcast has a heavy dose of that. As a new graduate student, I find the "Therapist Roundtable" episodes particularly helpful (I think I've listened to episodes 28 and 38 three times each). He's also had big-time guests like Scott Miller, Ph.D. and Harlene Anderson, Ph.D.

The Psychology Podcast, Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman
Medium format (30-50 minutes). Dr. Kaufman is an acquired taste, I think--though his enthusiasm is delightful, he can sometimes seem a little pushy. That being said, I always get so much out of his podcast. He gets great guests and engages them in deep, thoughtful, yet briskly-paced dialogue.

Where Should We Begin?, Esther Perel
Medium format (35-40 minutes). As someone who's nowhere near actually being in a room with a client yet, this podcast feels a little like field observation meets television drama. I'm absolutely obsessed with it, but at this point I find it more entertaining than instructional. The focus is definitely on the couples rather than on Perel's techniques.

Selling the Couch, Melvin Varghese, Ph.D.
Medium format (30-40 minutes). One of the biggest complaints I heard when I was researching graduate programs was that no school prepares you for the business aspects of running a private practice. There are several podcasts that seek to fill this void, and honestly they do a great job. If you listen to all of them, you will start to hear the same themes surface over and over, but for me I hope that's just helping me learn it better. Melvin seems like a genuinely nice person and I enjoy his honesty/vulnerability in discussing his own struggles.

Practice of the Practice, Joe Sanok
Usually medium format (30-40 minutes) but sometimes he does a short format series (15 minutes). Joe Sank is the private practice guru. He does consulting on starting and growing a private practice, so a lot of the guests are clients of his and he does frequently pitch his services. However, it's a TON of free useful information, and he's very encouraging of private pay services.

The Therapist Experience, Perry Rosenbloom
Medium format (20-40 minutes). This podcast is produced by Brighter Vision, a therapist website company, and the guests are generally clients who have had success with their website. A lot of great nuts and bolts info on running a private practice--another one that advocates private pay. Perry, the host, is kind of hilarious because he sticks to a very structured script every episode, but it's clear that sometimes his guests aren't familiar with the format, so they get blindsided by the questions even though regular listeners are waiting for them. Makes me giggle.

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

The John ClarkcastJohn Clarke
Short to medium format (5-40 minutes). Another one on building and marketing a private practice. Lot of different approaches--interviews, series focused on particular aspects of marketing, more general business systems stuff, etc. A great one to add to the playlist!

Therapist Club House, Annie Schuessler, MFT
Medium format (30-40 minutes). The host is a business coach, so as with the two previous podcasts, many guests are clients. I like how in-depth she gets with her clients' experiences--I particularly enjoyed the 12/25/17 episode with Jennie Steinberg.

Businesses in Bloom, Juliet Austin
Medium format (40-45 minutes). A former therapist, the host is now a marketing consultant for private practitioners. There's a wide variety of guests so you can become acquainted with the different options in the field, and there is a focus on marketing.

Therapist Uncensored, Dr. Ann Kelley and Sue Marriott
Long format (40-60 minutes).  More content-oriented than focused on business aspects.

Therapy Chat, Laura Reagan, LCSW-C
Long format (40-60 minutes). Another more content-oriented podcast, but she does really get into what it's like to practice from different orientations and some early episodes focus on more practical issues (#39, Designing a Website with Empathy).

Shrink Rap Radio, David Van Nuys, Ph.D.
Long format (60-75 minutes). Content-oriented and with a VERY deep archive--episodes go back to 2005, so there's lots to browse through.


Points of Interest:

I got a library card!

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

The truth is, I have several library cards. I have no idea where they are. I don't avail myself of my public library's services often enough. HOWEVER, that has all changed. Apparently, public libraries are way more cutting edge than I have given them credit for, and I recently got an "e-card" at the Los Angeles Public Library. Now, I'm unstoppable.

Turns out, you can borrow both audiobooks and ebooks from the public library WITHOUT GETTING OUT OF BED. I downloaded an app called Overdrive to listen to the audiobooks and the Kindle app to read ebooks, and everything is managed through the library's site.

It seems like everything can only be checked out for about three weeks, so I don't know if it would be feasible to try to check textbooks out for school. But I have been burning through my list of books I have been meaning to read for months--every time I'm in the car, I get through another chapter (or several) of an audiobook, and whenever I'm stuck waiting somewhere, I can take out my phone and read a few pages of an ebook.

Anyway, I just wanted to share this little life hack, because I'm not entirely sure how I've gone so long without knowing about it. If you're in Los Angeles, the links above should be everything you need to get started! If you're not in LA, check with your local library, I bet most libraries have something like the LAPL's e-card. And there's something really satisfying about having a library card--and actually using it.