Productivity Guide for Graduate Applications: How to Write a Winning Personal Statement Without Sacrificing Your Family, Career, or Study

Daria Levina

A lot of problems people encounter when writing the application essays are not directly related to the essay work. Rather, they are related to motivation and productivity. Such problems can include:

  • prioritization
  • building a good action plan
  • organizing yourself so that you stick to the plan
  • keeping yourself motivated long enough to finish the task
  • dealing with procrastination
  • knowing what to do next
  • integrating the master of laws (LLM) applications into your daily life so that application work doesn’t take all of your attention away from the people in your life and professional projects

In this post, I’ll talk about how to plan your personal statement (and other parts of the application) in a way that fits your existing schedule, rather than demanding to completely restructure your life.

Treat Applications like a project

Planning an LLM application, especially personal statement and motivation letters, starts with treating it like a project.

What do I mean by that?

In my work, I use the definition of a project proposed by David Allen in Getting Things Done:

A project is any desired result that requires more than one action step.

For a personal statement (or any part of the application, or the application as a whole) to be treated like a project several things need to be in place:

  • desired result, or the outcome. It can be defined as a finished and polished personal statement ready for submission along with other application materials.
  • a list of action steps that will lead you from point A (no essay) to point B (finished essay). These action steps will also act as milestones on your journey.
  • a deadline.

For a project to take life outside of your head and be effectively implemented, it needs to be integrated into your life.

To do it successfully, there are a few things you need to understand.

There is no 'one size fits all'

There is no plan that works equally well for everyone.

There is no ‘one size fits all’.

There just isn’t.

You need to make the project fit your life, not the other way around. If you try to squeeze your life into a completely new schedule that looks good on paper but isn’t adapted to your needs, or if you try to turn your life upside down all at once to accomplish this one thing, it’s likely to increase the level of stress in your life and most probably not yield the results that you want.

Plan for your worst self

Plan for your worst self.

What do I mean by that?

A lot of people, when they approach me for coaching, indicate that they ‘need to become more proactive and driven’, or ‘more hardworking’ to enable themselves to write successful essays, or that they need to change themselves into an ideal version of whoever they are at the moment – and then they’ll be able to execute on their applications.

Don’t do that. Don’t try to change your personality to fit a project.

It's not going to work. You’ll feel so overwhelmed that you won’t even start, and that’s not what you want.

Don’t make grandiose plans like ‘as of tomorrow, I’ll work for 3 hours daily on my essays’. Most probably, it’ll feel too intimidating. Even if you manage to pull it off for a few days, it’s probably not going to be sustainable.

Don’t plan for when you’ll have all the time in the world, or feel hypermotivated, or have nothing to do except for your applications (and can magically push all other commitments out of the way).

Plan for your worst self.

Plan for when you are tired, for when you have more on your plate than you can accomplish and you need to make strategic choices about how, what, and in what sequence to do.

identify the schedule that works for you

How do you do that?

To make applications work with your life and schedule, ask yourself:

  • Under what conditions have I tended to succeed in the past?
  • What environments or situations allow me to excel?

Use that to establish parameters for your project.

Then, identify the times of day when you, given your current – not ideal – workload will work on your essays.

  • When are you the most productive and have the most energy?
  • When can you work uninterrupted? What time can you carve out for yourself? What activities can you dispose of to create that time? It doesn’t have to be hours. Whatever you can. Start with 5 minutes if that’s the only thing you can afford – and go from there.

Once you’ve identified the times of day you can work on your essays, mark them in your calendar or whatever you use to manage your projects – paper notebook, Apple Notes, a Word doc, an Excel spreadsheet etc. – anything that allows you to keep track of your actions and deadlines.

You may find that you can use a morning train work to think through your background and identify stories you could use in your application. Or that ideas come to you more often when you are waiting in line at a supermarket. You can then decide to use these ‘pockets of time’ for ideation.

You may also find that you are the first one at the office in the mornings and can use 30 min before everyone else shows up to work on your applications, or that after lunch you need a break from your high-demanding cognitive work and can make a little window for brainstorming your applications, analyzing your background for stories, etc. Try to find whatever works in the context of your life.

do a pilot week

Once you've done that, do a pilot week on the schedule you chose.

At the end of the week, review the results. Did you feel that the workload was ok? Was it too much? Too little? Did the timing work for or you need to adjust?

The iterative approach is important because a schedule that looks perfect on paper may not be the best one when it comes to execution.

Course-correct and adjust based on your observations.

Think about what you can experiment with to move your project forward towards completion:

  • Try to vary the duration of time you work on your applications. For instance, you can start with 1 pomodoro (25 min) a day and see if it works for you. If 25 min feels too easy, try increasing it to 40. If it feels too much, try 15 or 10 min. Decrease until you feel no resistance and train yourself to show up. It may feel deceptively little, but there is a lot you can accomplish in 10 to 15 min. The IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad is known for dividing his days into 10 min chunks.
  • Experiment with times of day. Maybe you’ll work on your applications in the mornings when you are first at the office and don’t have urgent tasks to do, or maybe the evenings are best for you. It’ll be different for everyone.
  • Identify the ‘pockets’ of time you have in your life. Can you use the time you stand in a queue at the post office to think about ideas for your personal statement? Or maybe you can use the time on the bus to and from work? I did half of my graduate applications waiting for a train on the platform and commuting to and from work. What helped me was knowing that during those times, I had about 50 minutes exclusively for myself. This did magic to my brain – I felt very focused, like I had a container to think about my applications.

The bottom line is, there are no hard rules. The only way to ensure success is to integrate this new project into your life, not radically change your personality to fit the project. At the end of the day, it has to work in the context of your life and your life only.

Examples of how you may go about it:

  • a former colleague of mine worked part-time when writing her applications for the master of arts in Australia (she was successful, getting admission and a full scholarship).
  • a friend of mine, with a high-demanding job, worked on the weekends and closer to the deadline took a week of vacation to finish her applications for a master’s of law and finance (she was admitted and negotiated a discount for the tuition fee).
  • for my applications, I carved out time around billable work that I had to do at the law firm. Plus, as mentioned, I found that thinking through my essays while waiting for a train at the Belorussky Train Station worked well for me, especially for ideation and thinking through the stories I might want to use.

Connect your vision to your daily actions

To ensure progress on your applications, you need to connect your big vision for the final outcome (ie, a polished essay ready for submission) to your daily actions.

You can do this by:

  • including your application work in your running list of projects & tasks. This will help you treat it as valid as your other projects. Plus, if you have it on your projects list, you’ll be less likely to forget about it or deprioritize it.
  • reviewing your project list and action list daily. I usually keep track of projects and actions for each project separately and advise doing that for applications as well.
  • doing a weekly review. During the weekly review, ask yourself what’s going well and what you’d like to improve. Iterate where needed. The time you spend on your applications will probably vary from week to week, and that’s ok.

Troubleshooting & FAQ

What if applications feel so overwhelming I don’t even start?

If you feel overwhelmed, try not starting with big chunks of time dedicated to writing your applications.

Committing huge chunks of time right away to your applications is likely to make you feel like there is too much friction, and this friction will prevent you from starting.

Instead, try starting with a habit.

For instance, commit to spending 1 pomodoro, ie, 25 minutes, on a task related to your essays. It can be research on the web, reading examples of successful applications, ideating on your personal statement, thinking through the structure of your essays, talking to someone else about their experience, revising your CV, filling in the application form, or anything else you need to do to move yourself closer to a finished application.

In the beginning, don’t commit to a result. Don’t promise yourself that you’ll do all of the idea generation today, or that you’ll write your first draft on the weekend. Commit to a habit of spending 25 minutes a day on your applications. Once time is up, consider that you’ve succeeded in completing the habit. Train yourself for the habit of showing up, not for the end-result.

If 25 minutes is too much, reduce the commitment until you feel no friction. If it needs to be 5 or 2 minutes, start with that. You might think that 2 or 5 min is nothing but that’s not true. When you do this even for a symbolic duration of time, you practice something incredibly important: you practice keeping promises to yourself.

By doing that, you tell yourself that your goals, dreams, and ambitions are important. This is no small feat.

Whatever you start with will be better than not starting at all.

Do this until you get used to this type of tasks in your life. Then increase the commitment.

To habituate this behavior faster, reward yourself after you complete the habit.

A note on rewards:

Rewards are important (see, eg, on the importance of rewards in changing behavior BJ Fogg, Tiny Habits). The mainstream culture teaches us to believe that success is earned through pain, struggle, and overcoming, and you probably have years and years of conditioning telling you that ‘no pain-no gain’. It’s often presented as the only way forward.

The thing is, it contradicts the science of motivation. You repeat what you like, and you avoid what you don’t like. That’s how the brain works. You can choose to work against it, but you’ll have to accept the consequences, ie, that it’s going to be an uphill battle to succeed if you force yourself to move through pain.

It is different from the idea of facing challenges and hard work. You do need to work hard to achieve a big life transformation. However, working hard does not equal permanent struggle and pain.

If you want to succeed in your applications’ journey, you need to learn to associate it with joy. Rewards are one way to do it. In the words of one of my favorite creators, Justin Welsh, ‘you can’t scale being miserable’.

There are two types of rewards: intrinsic and extrinsic. [1]

Extrinsic rewards can include:

  • Physiological (have a snack, drink tea, take a short break, go for a walk)
  • Psychological (check into habit app, cross off a day on calendar) 
  • Social (text your accountability partner, talk to a friend, share to social media)
  • Physical (do a fist pump, a victory dance, or smile)
  • Verbal (praise yourself, say a phrase like 'way to go!', sing a song)
  • Audial (playa favorite song or sound that makes you feel good)

Intrinsic rewards can include pausing for one minute immediately after the habit and reflecting on the:

  • Physical feeling in your body (What feels differently from before?)  
  • Mental feeling (Are you calmer, more focused, or more inspired?)
  • Satisfaction of completion (How do you feel about yourself?)
  • Pleasurable aspects of the habit (Can you experience them more fully?)
  • Subjective experience of the habit (What was different this time?)

Choose whatever reward(s) you like. You can try all of them and decide which one works best for you. Keep in mind that intrinsic rewards are usually stronger and more sustainable than extrinsic rewards.

[1] Credit for the part on the types of rewards goes to Chris Sparks, his ‘Experiment Without Limits’.