Gotta Get Into Grad School Part I: All of the Best Personal Essays Start with a Good MEAL

Writing personal essays for OT school doesn't have to be painful!
Writing personal essays for OT school doesn’t have to be painful!

Throughout my life, I’ve been told that I have strong writing skills. I’ve written hundreds of papers, essays, reports, blog posts and projects both in and outside of academia, and I truly enjoy expressing my thoughts on paper (or online, as the situation demands).

Looking back on the graduate school application process, I realize just how fortunate I was to have had such extensive writing experience and written expression skills that I could use to my advantage. One of the most important parts of all OT school application is the personal essay, and this brief, 500-word or 2000-character document plays a major role in the admissions committee’s decision to admit or reject you from their program.

In the following post, which begins my “Gotta Get Into Grad School” series, I’m going to give you a quick and dirty rundown of the four vital components of a personal essay that will help your application rise to the top of the pile!

The “MEAL Plan” is a common writing strategy I have used and that I have helped former students use as well. The acronym MEAL typically stands for Main Idea – Evidence – Analysis – Link. However, I’ve created a revised version of the MEAL Plan specifically for students who are writing personal essays for graduate programs – especially occupational therapy graduate programs. My version is as follows:





MOTIVATION. While all four aforementioned components of the essay are important, stating your motivation for pursuing a particular field of study early on as the thesis for your essay is absolutely crucial. Why do you want to study and practice occupational therapy versus physical therapy, recreation therapy or medicine? What is it about the field that is unique and draws you to it? Noting and briefly explaining the specific reasons you have for wanting to become an OT (or whatever it is you want to be!) lets readers know from the start that you are a serious applicant who has done the research, has a good initial knowledge of the profession and believes that OT is the best field for you out of the many others in the world. Don’t make the mistake of letting your readers infer your reasons for becoming an occupational therapist – be direct and be clear about why OT is what you want to do!

EXPERIENCE. Describing one or two valuable experiences you have had observing OT’s, working with people with special needs or volunteering in another setting will make your essay stand out in a positive way. Explaining what you learned from each experience also makes it clear to readers that you understand the multifaceted nature of the profession and that you have taken the time to learn more about the many areas of practice within the field of occupational therapy. You can also include information about relevant academic coursework you have completed here to further demonstrate that you have both practical and academic experience that you can apply as a graduate student. Be careful, though – this part of your essay should not read as a simple list of the places where you’ve shadowed or the classes you’ve taken. You should take the time to consider what you learned in each place and how you can apply it to your graduate education and beyond. Drawing connections between your previous experiences and your desire to attend OT school shows strong self-reflection, writing and critical thinking skills and will help you stand out.

ASPIRATIONS. While the majority of your essay should focus on your past experiences and your present motivation for pursuing a degree in occupational therapy, it is important that you write a few sentences or a short paragraph with an eye towards the future. As an OT, what do you hope to do? Provide better care for the aging population? Increase public awareness of the profession as a practitioner and advocate? Consider what it is that you want to do with your degree and let your readers know what your goals are and that you plan to make a difference in the future as a graduate of their program.

LINKS. Including references to a program’s unique features, faculty accomplishments and overarching philosophy in your essay is absolutely crucial. When you take the time to reference specific aspects of the program or specific faculty member interest, it means that you did your homework and are very interested in what a particular program has to offer you (and how what you have to offer may fit well with a particular program). For example, mentioning a professor’s current research, SOTA student involvement in community outreach or a program’s “service oriented” teaching philosophy in your essay makes you stand out as an applicant who is ready to become an active member of the academic and professional community.

While it’s absolutely necessary to include references to each individual program’s features in each essay you write, the strongest essay will not just list faculty achievements or quotes from the program’s home page. The best essays will LINK what the school does to what you do or want to do. For example, it’s okay to mention a faculty member’s involvement with a local elementary school’s OT program in your essay. But it is best to tie this fact to your own interest in working with autistic children or your previous experience shadowing a school-based OT. Making links like this between what a program offers and what you offer helps admissions officials and readers gain a clearer understanding of how you might contribute into their program if you were accepted.


I hope this post will help any graduate school essay writers who stumble across my blog, and good luck with all those applications!

Have you had to write a personal essay for a graduate program, scholarship or other situation before? Was it easy or difficult for you? Do you have any more essay writing tips that you’ve found helpful?


6 thoughts on “Gotta Get Into Grad School Part I: All of the Best Personal Essays Start with a Good MEAL

  1. Isabelle September 23, 2016 / 10:46 pm

    I’m so glad I found your blog. It has been extremely helpful navigating the OT application process. Thank you!!

    I have a question about the Links portion of the essay. I am working on the general personal statement for OTCAS that will be sent to all the schools so I can’t include references to any one particular program. Do you have a suggestion what to write here instead or how to include references but more generally so that it will fit several schools at once?

  2. Marielle Mangahas February 27, 2018 / 1:30 pm

    Thank you. Really. I am so grateful this blog exists. This gives me the confidence and reassurance that my dream to be an occupational therapist can become a reality. Thank you!!

    • lej1123 March 3, 2018 / 11:32 am

      Thank you for the kind words! Best of luck on your OT journey, and let me know if I can help!

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