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.
Tip #1: 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.
Tip #2: 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.
Tip #3: 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.
Tip #4: Be Careful When Disclosing
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.
Tip #5: 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.
Tip #6: 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.
Tip #7: Make it Personal
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.
Tip #8: 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.
Tip #9: Write a Cohesive Essay
It 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.
Tip #10: Remember the Word Limit…Unless You’re 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.
Tip #11: 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.
Josephine Minardo, PsyD
Josephine S. Minardo, Psy.D. is an expert on psychology internship preparation. She has been running preparation workshops for over a decade and has been successfully coaching psychology internship applicants for several years through Psych Internship Prep, a unique consulting service for psychology graduates students looking for assistance with internship. Dr. Minardo has been involved in, and created, many events that offer advice, strategies and successful tips on applying to internship. From 2000-2008, she organized the annual New York State Psychological Association (NYSPA) Internship Fair, along with presenting her workshop, and Dr. Minardo has also presented internship preparation seminars for several other state psychological associations.
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You can do this.
Oh, come on.
You made it through your graduate coursework. You’re facing down that dissertation like a wild animal trainer, grim-faced, ready for combat. These are just application essays. No need to panic.
I know, I know. Every one of your fellow students has an opinion. All of your professors and supervisors give you different advice. You’ve revised your essays howmany times now? I get it. So, I’m going to give you my opinion, as someone who reads a lot of these every single year, and uses them to help decide which candidates we’re interviewing at WKPIC, and which we’re giving a pass this year.
I can only speak for our tiny corner of the APPIC Match world, but as WKPIC’s Training Director, here’s what I want to see in your essays:
This is my only chance to meet you on paper, other than a bunch of numbers and labels and statistics. Show me who you are as a professional and a person, so I’ll know if we can work with you. Are you smart? Let yourself shine. Are you funny? Use a bit of humor. Do you love to learn? Let me feel the energy. Basically, your essays can leave you in neutral, or push you into I’ve-got-to-meet-this-student.
And now for the details.
Do you really read the essays?
Yes. Every . . . freakin’ . . . one. Even when I’ve got a stack of fifty applications, and get another stack that big the very next week. The other internship faculty members do, too. Making a match with our setting is very, very important to us, and this is a huge tool in initial screening, in our opinion. Plus, I may have gone on internship in the Paleolithic Period, but Match existed, and I remember pouring my heart, soul, and future into every word I wrote. I’m assuming you did, too, and I plan to respect that. Last year, I even built a desk shelf onto my treadmill so I could read while I walked. I read in meetings between speakers. I read on breaks. I read on vacation days. If you write it and apply to us, we will know what you said. We’ll be reading those essays.
Does grammar and spelling matter to you at WKPIC?
To put it simply, YES. Our internship involves a lot of writing–initial assessments, evaluations, therapy notes, emails, and more. If I see I’m going to have to work multiple hours proofreading or revising whatever you do just to bring the basic grammar and spelling to standard, consider me scared, and likely scared enough not to interview you. That being said, if you end up with a couple of typos in your entire gigantic application, don’t panic. You’ll probably find a few typos in my posts on this blog. You may find a few typos in books I’ve published. I even found one in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (no, not lying! Somewhere around page 280-300, Snape is called Snap. Oh, Snap!). Typos happen. Just do your best, and show me that you have a reasonable command of the language.
Should I be super-specific and adamant about my theoretical orientation?
Um, no. Not for us. Even if you are, we won’t totally believe you. I mean, we know you’re not kidding or anything, it’s just that except in rare circumstances, theoretical orientation prior to internship and your first few years of practice can be a bit shaky. Tell us what you’ve done the most, what you feel the most comfortable doing, and where you think you’re headed/want to head with theoretical orientation. That’s enough for us. We’ll be happy to work with you in that direction, and see how it pans out for you as you contend with it across multiple functional levels and disorders.
Is creative good, or should I play it completely safe?
Remember, I am answering only for myself, and in general what we at WKPIC look for–but I like to see at least one creative or a bit less “in the box” essay. Again, what I like to see is YOU. Without at least a dash of intellectual pizzazz, I won’t know you’ve got that spark. You have to show me. I like seeing a couple of straightforward, professionally done pieces, and if they are all that way, that’s okay. If one steps a little away from “safe,” you definitely don’t lose my interest.
The bottom line is–you can do this. You can write those essays, and we’ll read them. They will matter.
Susan R. Vaught, Ph.D.
Training Director, WKPIC
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