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Contributors:Fernando Sanchez.
Summary:

The statement of purpose is perhaps the most important, and most challenging, element of your application packet. This letter needs to reflect who you are and why you would be an asset to the program you are applying to. It needs to make you stand out from the hundreds of other applicants and yet stay within the genre-based expectations for a statement of purpose. This resource provides information on writing statements of purpose specifically for graduate school applications.

Statements of Purpose: Overview and Before You Draft

Your graduate statement of purpose is one of the most important documents in your application packet. A good statement of purpose may not necessarily get you in to a program, but a poorly written one could cause the committee to overlook your application. In addition, submitting a strongly written statement works in your favor in such situations as:

Remember that your statement of purpose is the only opportunity you will have to let the admission committee directly get to know you. They will have some sense of who you are based on your recommenders’ notes and on the writing sample you include, but this is the chance for you to personally make a good, strong impression.

Please note, that these resources focus on applying to graduate studies programs in the United States. The information contained in these resources may or may not be appropriate to other contexts. 

Before you begin

Unlike with most job applications, you can have months to review the statements of purpose that graduate programs ask you to write. Most graduate programs include questions or writing prompts that they would like you to answer within the application materials themselves. As soon as the materials have been updated for this year’s applications, write down, or copy and paste the questions into a document, so that you can have as much time as possible to think through each one. Start making connections (mentally or visually) between your classes, work experience, or volunteer opportunities. Based on what you would like to do in graduate school (and beyond) what kinds of themes begin to emerge?

Look up information about the programs you are applying to. Check out their websites and if there is any material that you are curious about but they don’t list, such as the graduate curriculum or research opportunities, check in with the program administrator. Then, once you have gathered all of that information, start looking for the connections between the program’s and your own work and interests. Which of the programs that you have in mind would be the best based on their required coursework, professors in the fields, teaching opportunities, and so on?

You can use several exercises to write down some preliminary thoughts in a non-linear fashion before you start drafting: for example, prewriting to get your ideas flowing; sketching out a preliminary outline; or, you can also use a number of other invention strategies such as: brainstorming, freewriting, clustering, or asking questions to help you get your thoughts on paper. 

There is a lot at stake in the statement of purpose, so it can be daunting to begin writing. You might feel hesitant to start drafting your document until you are absolutely sure that you know your theme, structure, and have all the pertinent information about each program ready at hand. The fear might be that you’ll have to just change everything later if you start writing now, so why waste the time? There is, most definitely, an element of truth to that logic, but remember that the longer you procrastinate, the less time you will have to make any changes whatsoever. Don’t be afraid of these so called “false starts.” Getting started early on your writing will help you generate more ideas, which will strengthen your statement down the line.

Works Consulted

Getting In: A Step-By-Step Plan for Gaining Admission to Graduate School in Psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. 1997. Print.

Kaplan, Inc. Get into Graduate School: A Strategic Approach. New York: Simon & Schuster. 2003. Print.

Stelzer, Richard J. How to Write a Winning Personal Statement for Graduate and Professional School. 3rd. ed. Lawrenceville, NJ: Peterson’s Publishing, 2002. Print.

Stewart, Mark Allen. Peterson's How to Write the Perfect Personal Statement. Lawrenceville, NJ: Peterson’s Publishing, 2009. Print.

Contributors:Fernando Sanchez.
Summary:

The statement of purpose is perhaps the most important, and most challenging, element of your application packet. This letter needs to reflect who you are and why you would be an asset to the program you are applying to. It needs to make you stand out from the hundreds of other applicants and yet stay within the genre-based expectations for a statement of purpose. This resource provides information on writing statements of purpose specifically for graduate school applications.

Statements of Purpose: Drafting Your Statement

Write one essay for each program. Although they may sound similar, each program’s statement prompts asks for slightly different pieces of information about who you are. You may be fortunate to have two or three similar prompts for a few programs, but even then, remember that you must meld your own interests with the opportunities available at each particular program--so, no two statements should read exactly alike. In essence, be prepared to draft (and continuously revise) dedicated statements for each program application. Don’t send out a boilerplate essay.

Attempt to create one unifying theme in your narrative. Some applications ask you to include the answers to  broad prompts in your statement. For instance, the only instructions you get may be: describe your goals and preparation to pursue graduate study in no more than 1500 words. Conversely, others may ask you to answer a series of very specific questions such as your reasons for applying to their program in particular, how your background fits into your professional goals, how your past achievements would aid you during your time in graduate school, and what you have learned from your prior professional experience. Regardless of the particular kind of writing situation, attempt to fit your narrative into one unifying theme. For example, if your essay focuses on how family has played an important role in your decision to go to graduate school, do not throw in an experience from your trip to a foreign country as another factor in your decision making process unless it is strongly tied with the overall theme of family. Also, be sure to stick to the word limits.

Strong statements of purpose answer four important questions that inform admissions committees of who you are professionally and personally.

 

Professionally, statements of purpose answer two questions for the committee.
First: what kind of work are you interested in doing in graduate school?

Be specific, don’t make the mistake of thinking that being vague in your focus will reach a wider audience. For instance, if you mainly want to study business ethics with two prominent faculty members who focus on that topic, write that in your statement. Do not worry that you are pigeonholing yourself by being specific and instead list several other areas that you could be interested in. There will not be enough time to go into all of these areas and it will make your statement sound aimless and disconnected.  

Second: why is the program you are applying to a good fit for you?

This is where your online research on each program comes into play. Be specific about what makes the program that you are applying to your ideal choice. Avoid general statements such as “your program is one of the best in the country.” Focus more on the specific things that you think make it great—for you and your research in particular. If it has a good instructor to student ratio, how will that benefit you? If what separates the program from the rest is that it provides excellent field training before you graduate, how will you take advantage of this? Be specific. You may also talk about your goals after grad school. Where do you see yourself? Does the program have a good history in helping other students get there? You don’t have to be one hundred percent certain about your future plans; no one will pull your application essay before you graduate and express shock and disappointment if your interests happen to change. But generally, going to graduate school is a huge commitment. Admission committees want to know that you understand this and that you envision some type of gain for your dedication.

A word of caution: Avoid changing your statement just to get into a program if it is a bad fit for you. You’ll save yourself time and money down the line.

Be aware that while it is generally a good idea to be as honest about your intentions as possible, avoid being too candid about your reasons for applying to a certain school if they are less than scholarly. For instance, admission committees do not want to hear that you are applying to their program primarily because of the school’s proximity to significant others, family, friends; because it is located in a place with a great college town feeling; or, because it offers a variety of funding opportunities (however, you could probably mention this last one in passing if their funding is outstanding among other programs, signaling a dedication to its students’ goals). 

Personally, statements of purpose also answer two questions for the committee.
First: What matters to you—and why?

The committee will receive a lot of data about you. The statement of purpose allows you to give that data meaning. It is important that you not just rephrase whatever is on your CV or resume because this won’t get at the meaning behind your experiences. A job or a class may have lasted only a few months, but it may have been the impetus for you to go to graduate school because of a unique experience that occurred there. The statement of purpose should give the committee a sense of who you are and how you have personally interpreted events in your life.

Second: How are you unique from the other candidates?

Above all, avoid playing it safe with bland language. It can be tempting to resist making yourself stand out in your statement because you don’t want to ruin your chances by “sounding weird.” Ironically, this type of information may be what makes you the most compelling candidate. Graduate program committees receive dozens—sometimes hundreds—of applications each year. Make your voice stand out among the rest by showing that you are not only professional but that there’s a person behind the important decisions you have made. What was the human element that motivated you to get you to where you are?

Many people wonder whether they should mention their minority status. Generally, you should mention your minority status only if it pertains to your studies. For instance, did working with a minority group (that you belong to) motivate you to go to graduate school? How so? Are you interested in undertaking minority issues once you have earned your degree—and, if so, in what capacity? For example, once you earn your Masters in Social Work, are you hoping to help Hispanic individuals who suffer from serious and persistent mental illness? Tie this with your background to give this goal some context.

Remember to switch over between other graduate application tasks such as asking for letters of recommendation, ordering your transcripts, filling out the questionnaire for each school, and so forth. This will break up the writing task and help to re-energize you.

Works Consulted

Getting In: A Step-By-Step Plan for Gaining Admission to Graduate School in Psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. 1997. Print.

Kaplan, Inc. Get into Graduate School: A Strategic Approach. New York: Simon & Schuster. 2003. Print.

Stelzer, Richard J. How to Write a Winning Personal Statement for Graduate and Professional School. 3rd. ed. Lawrenceville, NJ: Peterson’s Publishing, 2002. Print.

Stewart, Mark Allen. Peterson's How to Write the Perfect Personal Statement. Lawrenceville, NJ: Peterson’s Publishing, 2009. Print.

Contributors:Fernando Sanchez.
Summary:

The statement of purpose is perhaps the most important, and most challenging, element of your application packet. This letter needs to reflect who you are and why you would be an asset to the program you are applying to. It needs to make you stand out from the hundreds of other applicants and yet stay within the genre-based expectations for a statement of purpose. This resource provides information on writing statements of purpose specifically for graduate school applications.

Statements of Purpose: After You Finish a Draft

Have someone else read through your draft along with the prompts that the particular school is asking you to address.

Do not be afraid of breaking up your “finished” draft as you revise. Your readers may say that a section in your statement should come earlier or that an entire paragraph isn’t “working;” they may ask you to move sentences to various other paragraphs before making a judgment call on whether to excise those sentences completely. These changes take a lot of time and patience, and can be frustrating if you have come to think of your rough draft as “mostly finished.” 

Be sure that you have tailored each statement to each school’s specific questions. At the very least, this means making sure that each of the statements has the correct school’s name on them. 

In How to Write the Perfect Personal Statement, Mark Allen Stewart suggests a simple yet highly important task in order to ensure that what you have written in your statement of purpose sounds original and personal. He recommends going through each line and highlight sentences that sounds like it could have been written by anyone (7-8). Leave all sentences that could only have been written by you untouched. Too much highlighting in your statement implies that you have not taken enough risks with your statement and that it will most likely sound like any of the dozens—if not hundreds—of statements that the committee will receive. If this is the case, you may not be able to simply “convert” each general sentence into a personal one. You may need to restructure your entire statement to create a consistent personal narrative.  

Your first paragraph sets the tone for what is to come. Leave yourself enough flexibility to write this part last, once you have ironed out what exactly the overarching theme of your statement is. Try to capture the attention of your reader with a memorable introduction. This could include a brief anecdote or an elaboration of a gripping recent finding in your field that plays into your theme.

Once you feel that you have written the best statement that you possibly can (or if time has simply run out), be sure to edit your work. One of the most common complaints of admission committee members is reading essays that have not been completely polished. Remember that as a piece of writing that you are submitting, your statement conveys what kind of professional you are not only in terms of the content you write, but how you have presented the content itself as well. Admission committees accept applicants who demonstrate care for their work.

Works Cited

Stewart, Mark Allen. Peterson's How to Write the Perfect Personal Statement. Lawrenceville, NJ: Peterson’s Publishing, 2009. Print.

Works Consulted

Getting In: A Step-By-Step Plan for Gaining Admission to Graduate School in Psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. 1997. Print.

Kaplan, Inc. Get into Graduate School: A Strategic Approach. New York: Simon & Schuster. 2003. Print.

Stelzer, Richard J. How to Write a Winning Personal Statement for Graduate and Professional School. 3rd. ed. Lawrenceville, NJ: Peterson’s Publishing, 2002. Print.