One of the most frequent questions I get when I advise undergraduate students considering graduate school is: how much time should I spend on my graduate school application, especially my personal essay?
The short answer is: two months.
You should plan to spend at least two months working on your personal essay/statement of purpose for your graduate school application.
Because the best essays get you into the best programs with the best funding package.
Let’s break it down.
Consider that even the most minimal funding package includes a tuition waiver and a stipend.
For the sake of argument, let’s value the tuition waiver at $12,000 annually, the cost of graduate tuition at a moderately priced state university. Let’s assume a 40% TA appointment, which carries a stipend, again at mid-level state university rates, of approximately $15,000. Together, these equal $27,000 a year. Keep in mind that the vast majority of graduate programs end up funding multiple years (even when they don’t guarantee it up front). Rarely does a student enjoy funding one year only to have it withdrawn the next. So, multiply $27,000 by five years (a very abbreviated Ph.D program indeed!), and you come to $135,000.
Now consider the amount of work that went into your application. Say, for the sake of argument again, that you spend 2 hours a day, 7 days a week, for two months. At 10 hours a week for 8 weeks, you have dedicated 112 hours of work.
That comes to about $1200 per hour of work.
Is $1200 an hour an outcome you can get behind?
Now let’s dream bigger. Suppose your stellar essay gets you into a private university with an abundant endowment. Their graduate students enjoy multiple year funding with NO teaching requirement! Your 5 years of funding could now encompass tuition waivers worth $40,000 annually and $30,000 in stipend. $70,000 a year for 5 years? $350,000 in funding. For 112 hours of work.
Is almost $3200 an hour an outcome you can get behind?
Get to work on that essay.
Expect to put it through 20 or more drafts.
Expect to show it to 10+ readers. Make sure these readers are professors and advisors at your university. Pull every string you can to obtain help.
Make sure to have it read by faculty and advisors in different academic fields and subfields, to ensure it speaks across a broad audience.
Expect to labor over EVERY SINGLE SENTENCE.
In fact, expect to labor over every single word.
Include not one wasted word, not one line or phrase that does not communicate something specific about your and your plans, that does not advance your core theme and argument, and that does not SHOW (rather than TELL) your exceptional and concrete plans, preparation, and aspirations.
Expect to see your wonderful, compelling, original draft, that you slaved over for hours, torn apart, criticized, and rejected by your academic readers. Expect to tear your hair out and maybe shed tears.
Expect to pound your breast and claim that it is “impossible” to say all you “need” to in “only two pages.”
Then, get it down to two pages.
There is no single endeavor that you will engage in, possibly in your entire working life, that will yield such generous, abundant, and life-changing results as your graduate school essay. Write a stellar one and a path to success opens, bringing with it the time and leisure to truly relish graduate school and think the great thoughts and attend the local and national events that lead to brilliant dissertations and jobs.
Write a mediocre one and the path may still lead to graduate school, but a graduate school that carries with it the stress of indebtedness and the strain of overwork as a inadequately funded Teaching Assistant.
Naturally, a bad one will not lead to graduate school at all.
Now, get to work on that essay.