Five Tips for Writing Your Nursing School Application Essay

Writing Your Application Essay Takes Time!

Writing Your Application Essay Takes Time!

This month my post theme has focused on issues surrounding advancing your nursing career. Getting an advanced nursing degree has its challenges and writing the nursing school application essay is probably one of those areas with which people struggle. As someone who has read many application essays, in this post, I’ll give you five tips to creating an application essay or personal statement that will help your chances of getting admitted to the nursing program of your choice. 

What Your Essay Says About You

Your application essay or personal statement is important – so think you can just whip out something fast. You have to do a lot of original writing in nursing school, especially in a master’s or doctoral program! Through your application essay or statement, the faculty reviewer is trying to get a feel for your ability to be successful in the nursing program and to manage the rigors of nursing school. So you want to take your time writing it and do your best to communicate why you should are a good fit for this particular nursing program. 

From how well you write and think, to what kind of person you are, to what drives you, and maybe what challenges you’ve overcome, your essay or statement can be very telling. Depending on how well you communicate, I might be able to see your passion for nursing and your future, as well. 

I look for the qualities that will help you to be successful in nursing school. How well you write is vital to your success. Can you form logical sentences with correct spelling and grammar? – That’s basic but hugely important. Can you formulate a thesis sentence and support the thoughts logically throughout your essay? Can you develop your thoughts to a logical conclusion?  Do you have original thoughts or are you just quoting someone else?

Nurses have to be critical thinkers and that means being able to reason and problem-solve. Logical flow is critically important to making and supporting an argument in a way that makes sense to the reader.

Here are some tips to help you write a successful application essay. 

Tip #1: Follow the Directions!

Sound obvious? Well, it’s not for many people. 

All schools have different requirements for the application essay. Make sure you review the materials first. Some schools may want you to answer a specific question for your essay like, “Discuss your position on a healthcare or social issue.” Other schools have you answer questions that may be more informal and broad, “Why do you want to be a nurse?” or “Why do you want to get your Ph.D.?”

How many pages or words are required? Does the school want a two-page, double-spaced essay or an essay of X amount of words?  If you are asked to use the NursingCAS system for your application, they specifically require a 500-word essay that answers the following questions:

  • Describe your perceptions and attitude about nursing today. In your answer, identify current information about the field of nursing including the demands, expectations and career options.
  • What do you believe are the demands of a nursing education and how have you prepared to make this significant change to your current situation?
  • Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the university learning community in terms of diversity, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.

Something this prescriptive is helpful because you can follow the structure and outline the school has laid out for you to logically develop your essay. If the application essay topic is broad, then you will be the one to structure the essay so that it answers the questions and makes logical sense. 

Realize that a 500-word essay is roughly about two double-spaced pages – so that’s not a lot of room. That means that you need to answer these questions as completely, but as concisely as possible. If you go over the page or word limit by a little (half a page, say), I wouldn’t worry too much (unless the directions specifically speak against going over the limit!). But, again, don’t write a book! If you are under the word count, you are doing yourself a disservice because you’ll wind up leaving out important information about yourself. 

If you have citations (see Tip #3), put those on the third page and don’t count those words in your total word count. Oh, and I wouldn’t use headings — they take up space and if you have a good transition sentence to lead into the next paragraph, you don’t need them. 

Does the school want references or citations? Do they want a cover page? What font size or type do they require? (If none is specified, go with Times New Roman, 12pt or something similar.) 

Tip #2: Know Your Topic Area

Admission essay questions might be broad or specific. One of my pet peeves is when a candidate writes about wanting to be a specific type of nurse but then when I read the essay the candidate, clearly, doesn’t understand what that type of nurse really does. So if you have your heart set on becoming a nurse practitioner, clinical nurse specialist, certified nurse midwife, certified registered nurse anesthetist, nurse administrator, nurse informaticist, hospice nurse, wound care nurse, or whatever… do yourself a favor and look up what those nurses do! Learn about the expectations both in school and once graduated. You may find out that what you think you want as a nursing career, is not really what you want!  

Trust me. First, you will apply to the right program for you, and second, your admission essay will be more on target and you’ll be more likely to get admitted. 

Every advanced practice nurse role has a professional nursing organization where you can find out more information: 

Other nursing specialties also have their own professional organizations, such as:

You can get a full list of professional nursing organizations at Nurse.org. 

Personal Statements

If you are applying for a BSN program your written statement might be called a personal statement instead of an essay.

In the personal statement, the admissions committee is looking to learn about you — what made you decide to become a nurse? “I’ve always wanted to be a nurse” is not a good answer. Instead, this question could be answered with a personal story or incident that sparked nursing as a career choice for you. Also, the phrase, “I just want to help people,” is a cliché. It is an expression that is overused and doesn’t really mean anything. Don’t use it. Tell your story, instead. 

You might be asked why you’d be a good candidate for admission. Talk about your qualities that are congruent with those of a professional nurse. Not sure what those are? Go to the American Nurses Association website for information or Google the qualities of a professional nurse. Aligning your qualities with those the school is looking for will give you a better shot at getting accepted. 

I mentioned in the last post to ask your references to sprinkle in characteristics that fit you that are highlighted on the school’s webpage about their students or graduates. That’s what you should do in your essay too. Examples of qualities we are looking for include hardworking, professional, friendly, future-oriented, service-oriented, a good steward, innovative, leader, compassionate, caring, evidence-based, dedicated, committed, collaborative, quality, excellence, team player … you get the picture.

Application Essays

Of course, the advice above holds for essay topics too. Application essays are usually more pointed in that you may be asked to discuss a specific health care topic or issue, instead of something more personal. In that case, you will have to do some preparatory work so that you have the correct facts and information you need to answer the questions intelligently. 

I suggest you outline what you want to say — an outline will help you see if your thoughts flow logically from one item to the next or whether you may need to rearrange your points. Draft out your response and then re-read and refine. 

Answer the questions as best as you can – be concise, but thorough (as thorough as possible in this short statement). If you are using reference materials, do credit the authors appropriately for their ideas. And don’t forget to add your point of view! 

As you are answering the admission essay questions, make a point to state how you are looking forward to how your degree will impact the health care topic or issue in question — through providing excellent direct patient care, leading quality improvement initiatives, making health care policy decisions, advocating for the patient, etc.

More Advice

Remember you want to stand out from all of the other potential nursing students applying to this program. What is unique or interesting about you? Why are you a better candidate for the nursing program than someone else? Why will you succeed? Focus more on long-term professional goals than the short-term goal of getting accepted (Wolff, 2017). 

Back up your statements with examples of your professional accomplishments (Wolff, 2017). If you have health care experience (candy striper, nursing assistant, extern/internship, etc.) or health care volunteer experience, share that with the committee (and on your résumé, too!). If you’ve already taken courses to get a feel for the program or workload, mention that – that shows desire and initiative. 

Be smart and tell the committee why you selected their nursing program to apply to, in particular. So yes, do your research and look up information about the nursing school/college and see what they are famous for and what they highlight on their school pages. (I expect you did that before you decided to apply.) How do the values they espouse align with your values? Identify these to show a good fit with the school. 

Overall, be professional. Don’t tell us your life story. Don’t get too personal — too much information is not appropriate for an application essay or personal statement. Don’t go into the weeds as far as details about the health experience that led you on the nursing path (Appleby & Appleby, 2006). Remember, you don’t have a lot of room. Condense your story into the salient points and lessons learned. If you get invited to be interviewed, you can go into detail when asked.

Appleby and Appleby (2006) surveyed graduate school psychology department chairs about “characteristics of graduate school candidates that decrease their chances of acceptance… [or] kisses of death) (emphasis added, p. 19). The results of this survey indicated that despite a strong application otherwise, the following can cause the admissions committee to reject the student’s application: 

  • Damaging personal statements about personal mental health problems, excessive altruism or self-disclosure, professionally inappropriate stories, inappropriate humor or “cutesy/clever stuff,” or excessive religious references. 
  • Harmful reference letters denoting undesirable applicant characteristics and or from inappropriate sources (relatives, employees, girl/boyfriends, etc.).
  • Lack of knowledge about the program to which they are applying or poor fit with program faculty or emphases.
  • Poor writing skills (lack of organization, spelling and grammatical errors, lack of attention to detail).
  • Misfired attempts to impress (name dropping, critical of or blaming previous faculty/school).

Keep these in mind when writing your essay or statement. These kisses of death will tank undergraduate applications, also. 

Tip #3: Cite Your Sources

In a two-page essay citing your sources is not really expected, especially if you are writing about your personal experiences or expectations. But if you are writing about a health care topic or issue, I won’t believe you have stats or information specific to that issue in your head – so I would expect at least one source to be cited.

Use APA format, as this is the formatting style many nursing schools use. You can see how I’ve cited authors in the blog text and in the references, as an example. 

When I see someone citing their source(s) it makes me think the following: that they know how to do some basic research, that they understand the importance of crediting authors for their ideas, and that they took this, seemingly, small task seriously. That says a lot to a faculty member looking for qualified individuals who are serious about advancing their nursing career. 

Having some basic research skills is a plus — it’ll help you in nursing school from day one. Of course, you’ll learn more about how to search the literature in school, but you’ll have a leg up if you have some idea of how to do this before you start school. 

Learning how to paraphrase and then credit the original author for the idea is an essential skill and expectation in nursing school. You will write many papers where you will be expected to integrate what you found in the literature with your own thoughts about an issue, so it is vital that you understand how to paraphrase and then cite correctly. Plagiarism is not tolerated and ignorance is no excuse. (Once you get into school, download my free APA and Plagiarism eGuides to help you paraphrase and cite correctly!)

If I can tell you were thoughtful and professional in how you wrote your short application essay, that speaks well of how thoughtfully and professionally you’ll conduct classroom and clinical work. And I’ll rate you higher than someone who does not take the application essay seriously. 

Tip #4: Tips for a Graduate Student Application Essay 

If you are a potential graduate student, you might want to think about these issues when writing your personal statement or application essay. 

  • First, make sure you understand the advanced practice, advanced nursing, or doctoral role you are applying for. So do your research. Do you want an MSN or a DNP or a Ph.D.? What patient population are you interested in? Do you want to directly care for patients? Do you want to lead nursing teams? Do you want to translate evidence into practice? Do you want to have your own practice? Do you want to improve hospital processes? Do you want to design systems and technology? Do you want to conduct research? Do you want to teach in an academic setting or in a clinical setting?

Knowing what to expect after you graduate will help you decide which program to apply for and enable you to target your statement or essay in a way that will show your commitment. 

  • Highlight your nursing experiences and how they impacted your desire to advance your career by getting an advanced degree. Also, how will these experiences influence your path and ability to transition to your next role?
  • Focus on your long-term professional goals (Wolff, 2017). Remember that your nursing career, thus far, has afforded you many skills and experiences upon which to build your future career.

Graduate-prepared nurses are evidence-based, theory-guided leaders. Highlight clinical and professional leadership roles you’ve held in your hospital/institution (e.g., council chair, member of the research team, QI projects, preceptor) or in professional nursing organizations (e.g., officer, committee member, national board). Volunteer or service-based activities show altruistic, caring, and empathetic qualities. Highlight examples of your evidence-based or theory-guided nursing practice. 

  • Tell your story. Use examples, not clichés. Demonstrate the qualities that will spell success for your advanced degree. Talk about how you will juggle family, work, and life to be successful in school. 
  • If applying for a Ph.D. program, be sure you review the school webpages!

Find out what areas of nursing they concentrate on and what their faculty are researching. These are like “majors” in college programs and may be called doctoral concentrations or Ph.D. concentrations or cognates. You will have to declare an area of concentration on the application – so know what the school offers and what the concentrations entail.

Ph.D. programs also match you with a faculty research mentor — so you want to choose a research area that matches what the current doctoral faculty are studying or you won’t be considered a “good fit.” Pull up the doctoral faculty info pages and see what their research concentrations are and what they’ve published. If nothing the faculty are studying is close to what you want to study — you should probably pick another doctoral program. By the way, it’s not expected that you have a research topic solidly chosen, but you should have an idea of what you want to study. The faculty mentor will help you refine your question and plan your dissertation. 

Tip #5: Proofread Your Application Essay!

I can’t emphasize this tip enough!

Handing in an application essay that has many spelling, grammar, or syntax errors is not professional. It tells me (the faculty reviewer) that you couldn’t be bothered to check your work — not a good quality for a professional or advanced practice nurse. It also makes me uneasy — thinking of the quality of any written work you will hand in should you get admitted, especially for a research or term paper. 

Poor writing skills can spell doom for your academic career. Overall, when I read a poorly written application essay, I think about how hard it may be for you to be successful in the nursing program because, as I said earlier, many assignments have a writing component! If faculty can’t understand what you are trying to say, you won’t do well on the assignments. 

When we are discussing potential candidates at the admission caucus, the quality of the essay is discussed. Will a bad essay torpedo your chances to get into the program – if everything else looks great? Maybe, maybe not. But when it is so competitive to get into nursing programs, why submit substandard work? On the other hand, a great essay or personal statement will help you to stand out and increase your chances of getting admitted, even if other parts of your application are not stellar. 

So — Re-read your essay multiple times. Read it aloud so you can hear the words and hear if they make sense. Then have a trusted friend or colleague read your essay too. Sometimes you may miss mistakes because you’ve re-read the content so often, your eyes don’t see or don’t “register” the spelling or grammar mistakes. (I proofread my blog posts several times before I hit publish — and sometimes I still see mistakes on the published page!)

So put your best foot forward and write a great application essay or personal statement.

Good Luck!

Next week’s post will be on tips for preparing for your nursing school interview! Don’t miss it!

For those of you considering returning to school, I want to highly recommend Dr. Debra Wolff’s new book, Advancing Your Nursing Degree: The Experienced Nurse’s Guide to Returning to School. This book is a goldmine because it covers everything you have to think about when deciding to return to school. Every chapter offers practical suggestions and strategies for making the transition back to “school mode” and being successful in your scholarly pursuits.  I highly recommend this text!

References

Appleby, D. C., & Appleby, K. M. (2006). Kisses of death in the graduate school application process. Teaching of Psychology, 33(1), 19-24. 

Wolff, D. A. (2017). Advancing your nursing degree: The experienced nurse’s guide to returning to schoolNew York, NY: Springer Publishing.