A traditional autobiography may be hundreds of pages and can cover dozens of mundane interactions in minute detail. A graduate school autobiographical essay, however, should be much shorter and to the point, highlighting achievements and life events that are relevant to your studies or display an important aspect of your character. Before you begin writing, make an outline of the most important points you want to cover. This can make it much easier to tell a clear, logical story that gets you into the school of your dreams.
Grabbing Their Attention
You need to grab the attention of your readers in the first sentence or two, so steer clear of platitudes, truisms or statements any student could make such as, "XYZ school is the school of my dreams." Instead, try telling a compelling story, introducing an interesting quote or presenting the ideas of a philosopher, writer or politician. The theme in this hook should tie into your essay in some way. If, for example, you're applying to grad school in political science, you might introduce a quote from Thomas Jefferson or present a scene rife with political conflict.
The Thesis Statement
Because you're not writing an argumentative paper, it's easy to forget the importance of a thesis statement. But a thesis still helps define the scope of your autobiographical essay and makes it easier for you to remain focused on your primary point. Try a thesis such as, "My life experiences have prepared me for graduate school by...." or "I know that I can contribute to the XYZ school community because..." Sometimes the thesis in these essays actually fits better at the end, as a conclusion, but it's typically easiest to put the thesis at the end of the first paragraph.
Elements to Include
Outline relevant information that's not already in your application packet. You might mention charitable work, any hardships you've overcome, lessons you've learned in your job or ways your life has caused you to choose a particular career path. Don't be afraid to let your personality shine through by, for example, mentioning your passion for good food or animal welfare, but don't stray away from your central topic, and avoid using colloquial language or slang. It's also important not to add unnecessary detail that clouds the focus of your essay or needlessly takes up space.
Elements to Avoid
Avoid controversial topics, even if they're an important part of your identity. A struggle with addiction or an abortion aren't generally appropriate topics, and an essay outlining the struggles you've faced in life is rarely appropriate unless you can tie it directly to your academic achievements or goals. For example, a domestic violence victim might explain that she wants to get a degree in psychology so she can help other trauma survivors. Never avoid blame or responsibility; for example, don't blame a low grade on a professor or on your classmates.
Completing the Essay
Meticulous proofreading can save you the embarrassment of a typo or misspelling, so read through your essay several times and have another person do the same. Conclude your essay by thanking your readers for their attention, emphasizing the ways in which the ideas you've outlined make you an ideal fit for the school you've chosen and -- if appropriate and if space permits -- including a brief sentence or two about why you're excited to attend the school you've chosen.
Van Thompson is an attorney and writer. A former martial arts instructor, he holds bachelor's degrees in music and computer science from Westchester University, and a juris doctor from Georgia State University. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards, including a 2009 CALI Legal Writing Award.