9 Tips When Writing Your Statement Of Purpose

Many professors, department websites, applications, and current graduate students will tell you that the statement of purpose is the most important part of the application. While the statement of purpose is the best way for the admissions committee to gauge your writing skills, it is quite different from the college admissions essay, or the law school personal statement. Admissions committees will not be looking for the most well-written essay with the catchiest introduction. What they really mean when they talk about the statement of purpose is that the research interest match between you and the program is the most important factor for admission, and your interests are revealed in the statement of purpose. In addition to making sure your interests and experiences are aligned with the program’s offerings, the statement of purpose is a way for the admissions officers to see how you think, either by your evaluation of your prior research experiences and coursework, and/or by your presentations of new ideas that you wish to pursue in graduate school and beyond.

In bullet point form, here are some tips for the personal statement.

1. Leave roughly 1/3 of the essay to talk about the future

In this section you can describe your interests, goals, career plans after graduate school, and why the school you are applying to is a good choice to pursue these interests. If there is a stringent word limit, make sure you include this part, even at the expense of leaving out some of your past. Your history should be reflected elsewhere in the applications, through your recommendations, cv, etc.

2. Don’t list experiences and awards

If awards are listed elsewhere in the application (which they are according to nearly all forms), don’t put them here again! Not only is it a waste of space but it also makes you sound arrogant. If there is something listed on your c.v. that deserves an explanation, you can put it in here, but even then it could be better to have a letter writer mention it, if the award is something s/he is familiar with.

3. Write for each school

Your statement should read as though you wrote it specifically for the school to which you are applying. This may mean that you can leave 5 paragraphs the same for each school and change just the 6th for each application. However, sometimes it means tweaking other parts of the essay as well. I did this for 19 schools, and it was definitely worth it! You should definitely mention specific professors you would like to work with. If you do not do this, your application may be missed altogether (one school said they worked this way, even though they didn’t warn applicants ahead of time!) You may even mention how your interests are specifically aligned to work that some of the professors have done. This step should not be hard if you have already done your research on the schools you’re applying to.

4. Show, don’t tell

Sometimes the best way to demonstrate your passion for or knowledge of your field is to include an anecdote. It takes up space, but it can be engaging to the reader, and is much more convincing than saying, “I love reading about…”. Instead, say, “One night I stayed up until 8am doing a non-required reading on XXX because I was so curious as to why….”

5. Don’t get too personal

Remember, it’s called a “statement of purpose“, NOT a “personal statement.” This is not an essay about your emotional development. If something in your personal life is integral to your studies, then you should include it. However, most of the time, professors do not want to read about your personal life. The statement of purpose should read more like a professional document. However, there are exceptions to this:

6. DO mention/explain rough areas

If there is a specific reason you had a semester where your GPA was a 2.0 or your math GRE section was a 520, then very briefly mention it in the statement. However, if there is a separate optional essay for this sort of thing, include it there and don’t mention it in the statement. If there is a reason you should mention it somewhere because otherwise, professors will not give you the benefit of the doubt. However, be as quick as possible and do not make excuses for yourself.

7. Use professional language

Convey passion, but avoid using “passion,” “love,” and similar words to describe your research. Also avoid superlatives. Don’t say, “this is the best program for me” unless you’re absolutely sure it is. Instead, say, “ideal program,” which may be true of more than one school. Do not use colloquial language in your statement.

8. Avoid cliches

Many students will say, “I’ve always wanted to be a psychologist/scientist/writer/historian,” or, “ever since I went to the ___ museum when I was five, I knew I wanted to ___.” These stories will make the committee members’ eyes roll and they don’t do anything to explain your current knowledge, ideas, and goals. It is ok to start off with a “boring” introduction in order to avoid these openings. If you start with a meaningful anecdote that demonstrates your intellectual development, that is a great idea, but avoid throw-away sentences.

9. Be concise

Many applications will have a page or word limit which is usually about 1 page single-spaced or 2 pages double-spaced. Adhere to these guidelines, unless they sound unreasonable, in which case you should call the department to ask whether the guideline is strict. (One of my applications called for a 500 word limit, which is quite short! When I called about it, they said there was no actual limit.) Even if an application does not have a word limit, you should cut unnecessary information and verbiage wherever possible. A committee member is more likely to read your essay thoroughly if it is no more than 2-3 pages long.