Fall is in the air…the leaves are changing. It’s a time of transformation and reflection. This is also the perfect time to reflect on who you are and how to express that to internship directors. One of the most important and most scrutinized materials in your APPIC internship application is the autobiographical essay (Essay #1), yet most students agree it is the hardest to write. While there is no exact method that is “right,” there is some strategy to it, and below I’m sharing some tips for how to make the best impression and maximize the impact of your essay.
- Make it personal. There is very little in your application, apart from this essay, that really gives directors a feel for who you are as a person; this is entirely different than the credentials you submit that are focused exclusively on your training. In addition to a good training fit (that I discussed in my last blog entry), directors want to work with someone they feel they can connect with, and this is your opportunity to reveal your personality to them.
- Do not reiterate your CV. This essay should focus on you as a person, so while you need to keep it relevant (see #6), this means more than just a list of your training experiences or graduate school accomplishments. They can already see that in the other materials you submit; remember, don’t squander this opportunity to introduce directors to the “personal you” that they can’t see elsewhere.
- Be authentic. Be genuine. Be yourself. Don’t try to write an essay about something that you think sounds good but isn’t truly authentic; trying to figure out what kind of intern sites are looking for, and trying to create a narrative to fit that, is not a good strategy. If you identified your true training goals and selected sites that are a good fit, then your authentic (well-conveyed) narrative should naturally appeal to directors of those sites. When deciding on a focus for the autobiographical essay, consider what you really want to convey to directors, what quality or personal characteristic you possess that makes you uniquely you, and how that contributes to making you a more evolved or self-aware, or uniquely empathic, etc. emerging clinician.
- When disclosing, keep it contained, sincere and focused on the positive. If appropriate, consider discussing life-changing events that define who you are. Even negative life events such as loss, illness, adversity, etc. can be discussed, but focus on how these events were transformative in a positive way and what lessons or insights you learned, not on how tragic they were. The emphasis should be on how you coped with it, learned from it, overcame it, and eventually, used it, to become more self-aware and grow from it. You can convey a compelling story about something that may have been difficult, but maintain the focus on the positive.
- Be compelling. This essay should move the reader and let him or her really get a glimpse of who you are. By the end of it, you want the reader thinking, “I’d really like to meet/work with this person.” Try to stay away from clichés and the trap of writing about how you were “always interested in psychology” or “everyone always thought I was a good listener.” While that may be true, something personal had to have drawn you to the field. If you can identify that, and really create a sincere and engaging narrative about it, while tying it in to your evolution as a psychologist, you will have a more compelling (and successful) essay.
- Keep it relevant. Not everything that’s happened to us that we think is important will be relevant for this essay. Ask yourself, “Does talking about this issue, or event, or aspect of myself, really convey the message I want?” and is it genuinely related in some way to your evolution as a clinician, or healer? Again, don’t “force” that connection; it should be a natural one. If it’s not, then reconsider the essay topic.
- Making it personal without disclosing anything private. If your interest in psychology was naturally more academic than related to a personal event or circumstance, or you would simply prefer not to talk about your private personal life, that’s ok. However, it still needs to be a personal essay, so consider some aspect of your work with patients that is genuinely compelling for you, and try to craft an essay around that. You can start by thinking about a particular patient, or a specific moment with a patient(s) that truly moved you, or validated your desire and the meaning of being a healer. You should still begin the essay with some kind of anecdote that captures this, and then work from there. This can also make for a very compelling essay.
- Engage the reader. Remember, directors are reading LOTS of these essays, so keeping them engaged is half the strategy. Having a compelling story with a well written narrative is necessary. Consider starting with a very engaging, or “seductive” first sentence that can really grab the reader, right from the beginning, and make them want to read on. It doesn’t have to be a long sentence, and it can even be a quote, a song lyric—anything that captures the essence of your message. Start with that and build the essay around it. Make sure to somehow make reference to it at the end too; wrapping up your essay by connecting it back to the beginning is also a good strategy.
- Write a cohesive essay. It’s should tell a story about you, with a beginning, middle and end. Make sure it sends a cohesive message about you. Try to utilize transitional sentences when bridging topics, and don’t forget a summary statement at the end that ties it all together and really brings your message home. It should wrap back, at the end, to how this “story” about you ultimately translates into who you are (as a clinician) in the room with the patient. How is the aspect of yourself you decided to write about an asset as a therapist? If it’s something transformative that really had an impact on you, chances are you have learned something profound from it about human nature, and about yourself, which helps your understanding of patients—so make sure to state that in some way.
- Remember the word limit but forget it when writing. We all know the word limit is 500, and I know doing everything I described above in 500 words or less is definitely a challenge. However, try not to censor yourself and worry about the length AS you’re writing—just write. You can edit later. If you find your essay is way too long, consider whether you need a “hatchet” or “scalpel” approach—that is, can you cut entire sections or sentences without compromising the message or the quality of the writing, or do you perhaps need to go in and condense sentences and be more parsimonious in expressing yourself? That being said, if you go up to 550 or even 560-ish, that’s ok; no director is going to think you are a “bad” match or that you can’t follow instructions because you went a little over 500 words; it’s a guideline, so use it as such. Do not make arbitrary cuts simply to reach that number. As long as it fits onto a single page with 1-inch margins, it should be ok. Most directors just gauge the length by “eyeballing” it; no one is really counting words. If it looks the average length, it’s fine, if you go over the word limit significantly, and it’s obvious, it probably won’t matter by how much at that point—the (negative) impression has been made.
- Don’t forget it’s a writing sample! Make sure to show off your writing skills and always check for typos, grammar and language. Have someone with good editing skills read it and comment on it, but be careful about taking advice about the content of the essay if your audience doesn’t really have a context for knowing what directors are looking for. Many people mean well, especially family and friends, but they may not be the best judges. If you do want “lay” people—read: non-psychologists or those unconnected to the internship process—review it, then the best way to make the most out of it, rather than simply asking for open-ended feedback, is to give them a lot of context for it, and explain a little bit about what you aim to convey BEFORE they read the essay. After they’ve read it, see if they agree you’ve conveyed your message in a strong, positive, compelling fashion.
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