Gotta Get Into Grad School Part III: Planning, Composing and Finalizing Your OT Graduate School Essays

This is the third installment in my Gotta Get Into Grad School series. Read Part I and Part II here!
I love Calvin (and Hobbes!), but his essay-writing approach leaves a lot to be desired. My advice in this post will help you write your best occupational therapy graduate school essay!

Hello again! It’s been a whirlwind of a month since my last “Gotta Get Into Grad School” series post, but I’m back at it again and my topic for this post is the actual essay writing process.

Now, if you’ve been following for a little bit, you might know that I began this series with a post about writing occupational therapy graduate school personal and admissions essays. And so you might be wondering why I would write another post about it, or what will make this one different. To that I say, You’ll see!

…actually, I’ll just tell you. My first post was a very basic overview of the parts I feel that any quality personal essay should have. As a reminder, these parts are the four components of the writing MEAL plan, and they include your Motivation, Experience, Aspirations and Links. And while (in my humble opinion!) this post does a good job of outlining what your final essay should include, it doesn’t give much information about the timeline for writing, the process, the kinds of prompts you might see, and the nitty-gritty information about applying to graduate occupational therapy programs that you come to this blog to find. =D

With this in mind, I set out to write a second post about admissions essays, and this post is different from the first in that it includes much more specific advice about:

  • Planning to write your essays
  • Deciding what to include
  • Editing essays and finalizing your submissions

Additionally, this post includes many more personal anecdotes and thoughtful reflections on my experience that I hope will help you understand more about the challenges of the essay-writing process and help you as you begin, continue or finish up your occupational therapy graduate school essays!

In the Beginning: Planning Your Writing

After going through the 2013-2014 occupational therapy school application cycle, I truly feel that applicants should dedicate the majority of the time they spend working on graduate applications to their admissions essays. The essays are likely the most difficult parts of the application to craft, write, edit and polish and you will need a lot of help with them in order to represent yourself well.

With that in mind, here are my best recommendations and pieces of advice for the initial planning and brainstorming stages of the essay writing process:

  • Give yourself at least four months before the program’s deadline to devise, write, edit and finalize your essays – but no more than 5 or 6 months. I spent the better part of four months writing 5 separate graduate program essays, not including the “general” OTCAS essay that I spent even LONGER on because it was going to be viewed by multiple schools and I had to showcase my skills perfectly for them all. Giving yourself about 4-6 months to write is a general guideline, and I chose to cap my recommendation at 6 months because any time spent beyond that is time you’ll probably just spend worrying about what you wrote, needlessly changing it, or wishing you had changed it.

    With that said, I realize that many people begin applying to programs a year or more in advance. OTCAS opens during the summer every year, and if a program’s applications are available year-round, then you could potentially be working on your essays for a year. While this may seem like a great idea, just imagine having a one-year deadline for a college term paper…it seems great at first, but then it just keeps nagging at you from the back of your mind until you get it done! So instead of burdening yourself with the thought of writing an essay for a whole year, decide when you’d like to submit it by and have it done by then.

    And with THAT said, as a writer you should always do what works for you! If you think you’ll need a lot of time, give yourself that time to work. But don’t let writing essays (or dreading writing essays) take over your life. Allot yourself a firm time limit to work on and complete your essays, and you’ll be much happier for it!

  • Know yourself and how you work. I, for one, am a pretty experienced writer and composition is something that generally comes easily to me. Therefore, much of the problem that I had with writing essays was with making them too long and having to cut out a lot of what I had written. I had no real trouble coming up with topics to write about or writing about myself, but the difficulty arose for me in the editing process.

    However, for another friend of mine the problem was with coming up with ideas and expressing them coherently. The bottom line here is to know yourself and your writing style and know what to expect. Are you a slow writer who has a difficult time composing? You will probably need a longer time to write really strong essays. Are you the editor of your local literary magazine and a candidate for the Pulitzer Prize? Well, you’ll probably need a little less time.

    Again, I suggest allotting at least 4 months to the process – which may SOUND like a long time, but in reality when you’re faced with real life (school, work, friends, family, commitments, a relationship, homework…) you’ll find that finding time to write is very difficult and sometimes nearly impossible.

  • Page, word and character limits are given for a reason. And that reason is for you to follow them. As I mentioned earlier, one of my issues with writing essays was sticking to the word limits given. I would get on a roll, and before I knew it I had banged out three pages and 2000 words – awesome, right? Well…kind of. On one hand, I did have a lot of great ideas and material to work with. But on the other, I was over the word limit by about 1500 words. Sigh.

    Be as concise as you can with the points you are making to start, and make good use of the space you have. It is much easier to expand upon points you’ve made to fill out an essay than to edit out several pages you’ve already written. When writing to meet page or word limits, make sure to have an appropriate ratio of anecdotes to the “meat” of your essay, with the heavier focus (and therefore, more words) on your discussion of what you learned, what you want to do in the field, and why a particular program is a great fit for you.

    While it’s totally OK to get on a roll and write down stream of consciousness thoughts as they come to you, just know that 500 words is a lot shorter than you think. As is 2000 characters. You will probably have no trouble writing an essay that approaches these limits, but it can be difficult to pare down your work once you’ve written a ten-page masterpiece! Be careful of this as you begin to write and get more into the flow of the writing process.

Deciding What to Write About

  • Start by reading the essay topics thoroughly, brainstorming and jotting down a bulleted list of potential topics and work from there. I know that everybody has a different writing style, but I feel that this pre-writing strategy can be highly effective because bullet points are meant to represent chunks of information that are expressed concisely and clearly – and this is the goal of your essays.

    For 8-10 minutes, just write down whatever experiences, stories, or prompt responses come to mind and a sentence or two about why you would include each in your essay. After time is up, go through the list and see if anything jumps out at you as an interesting topic you can develop in response to the prompt. If it helps, go through this process with a friend and solicit their opinions. If your selected story or response honestly piques their interest, it’s likely to interest your essay’s readers as well! If you don’t come up with anything you like on the first try, repeat this exercise a few times over a week or two and see what you come up with. And don’t forget to keep the essay prompts in mind as you brainstorm and begin writing!

  • Keep your resume handy and use it as a source of material. As I was coming up with potential essay topics, I found myself repeatedly consulting my resume and looking at the various positions I held. For each position, I could think of an occasion on which I had grown, been challenged, or learned something, and so my resume kind of became the spring from which inspiration flowed. If you don’t have a resume, make a short list of the volunteer or other experiences you have had – and they don’t necessarily have to involve occupational therapy – to work from and begin making connections between your experience and the essay requirements.
  • Find a theme and follow it throughout. Uniting your essay and points with a common theme adds a nice flow to your writing and allows the reader to come away with a strong sense of the goals you have as a potential student in their program. Identify the main point you want to make with the anecdote or clinical example you provide in your essay’s introduction and carefully consider how and whether you can make this the thesis of your essay. Whether you believe occupational therapy (or whatever field you may be reading this and applying it to!) is ultimately about empowerment, helping others, or something else, weaving one unifying thread about your stance throughout your essay will make your goals clearer and make you seem like a more purposeful writer and applicant.
  • Be yourself! Don’t write your essay a certain way or include specific information because you think it’s “what this school would want.” Write about what moves you, what matters to you, what you think and what makes you want to attend a particular program.

    True Story: A program I applied to asked me to write an essay about what one object I would bring to a desert island and why. After consulting with my friends about what they would bring – a knife, flint, some type of water filter – I decided that I would bring my iPod. Useless? Yes. But this is the answer that immediately struck me and was the truest for me. Despite the groans and protests I got from naysayers who thought this essay would be my downfall, I remained firm in my choice to take an iPod to the island, for reasons I outlined in that essay. And apparently it worked, because I got in! (If you ever want to know why I chose my iPod, just let me know and I’ll explain!) Ultimately, only you know what is truly important to you! If your advisor tells you to write about a summer job you had that shows your “discipline,” but you hated the job and want to write about your work at an animal shelter, I have four words for you: DO YOU, BOO BOO!

    Of course, there is something to be said for a good editor and voice of reason. Perhaps writing about how you learned about ethics after being charged with shoplifting isn’t the best choice for your admissions essay, but the point is to find something that’s meaningful for you and make the most of it, in spite of the naysayers!

  • Make yourself stand out. I know, I know – you’ve heard this advice perhaps A MILLION TIMES. However, I believe it can be very helpful to begin an essay with an engaging anecdote or meaningful story that relates to your professional goals. After reading 100 essays all about the general awesomeness of occupational therapy, I imagine that an essay reader’s mind starts to go numb after a while. But it may perk up when she reads about a student’s international service trip to a foreign country or how learning how to swim at the age of 25 taught him something valuable he hopes to bring to the field as an occupational therapist. If you do decide to include a fun story, make sure it’s relevant, keep it brief and ALWAYS relate it back to your unifying theme, motivation or future goals.
  • Use a meaningful name drop. And by this I mean to specifically refer to a professor whose research or accomplishments you admire or want to learn more about in your essay – and then link their goals and accomplishments to yours.

    Instead of THIS: “Professor P’s work with the Interactive Metronome is innovative.”
    Write THIS: “Professor P’s work with the Interactive Metronome (IM) is innovative and impactful. Her use of the IM to help children with autism living in the community shows her dedication not only to the program’s students but to her greater community as well. This type of community involvement is a feature of your program that meshes well with my goals because…”

    By going further with your analysis and relating it to yourself, I think it helps essay readers envision you as a part of their program, rather than just another list of accomplishments on a piece of paper.

Editing and Finalizing

  • Find an editor who you trust and who can see your ideas and writing evolve. It’s important that you establish a relationship with somebody who is a strong writer and who can help you structure and compose your essay in a way that best showcases your talents. If your essay is full of expressive stories and examples but has no structure or theme, it’s not great. If your essay is well-structured and logical, but lacks depth or personal feeling, it’s not great. Try to find somebody who can help you get your ideas down on paper in the way that is most effective for you!

    And editing can take a long time, so don’t try to write, edit and complete an essay in a week or two! I found that my best writing happened when I wrote in short bursts as inspiration struck and then returned hours or days later to edit the “inspiration” into a clearer, more streamlined essay. This process took several months of close work and multiple meetings with my editors, but it made my essays stronger and more coherent in the end!

  • Don’t agonize over an essay that isn’t going to get any better. In my own experience, I am typically a perfectionist type of writer. I want to be sure that I used all of the perfect words in the perfect way to make my perfect point. And while I may have gotten close to that goal with the essays I eventually submitted, I don’t think that I was ever going to be 100% satisfied with what I wrote – it’s just part of the process! Once you think your work is the best it can be, have a skilled editor (like a trusted advisor or a worker at a college writing center) review it for any glaring errors and then…set it free! Click submit, pour yourself a drink (or grab a bowl of ice cream, whatever!) and just wait for those acceptances to start rolling in! 😀

I hope this detailed guide to the essay writing process can be of use to any readers out there, and please comment with any questions you have about my experience, your essays, or applying to occupational therapy graduate programs!

3 thoughts on “Gotta Get Into Grad School Part III: Planning, Composing and Finalizing Your OT Graduate School Essays

  1. Briana Lewis May 21, 2020 / 12:20 am

    Hi! I was wondering if I could contact you with questions about applying this fall! Thank you for this resource!!

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