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Writing A Statement Of Purpose Essay

The Statement of Purpose is probably one of the most misunderstood aspects of graduate applications. Most students pass it off like it is just another essay about themselves, and naturally, write monotonous stuff that doesn’t stand out. That is why, the university admissions committee puts a hefty weight on statement of purposes and their structure – they want to see whether you take the interest in letting them know how much you want to study at their university.

Most Statements Of Purpose Start Off Like This:

“I am applying to the Master of Science program in Something Engineering at the University of Example because I believe my technical skills will blossom at your program as it is a place where I will be challenged and where I can develop my scientific and technical knowledge.”

Or Like This:

“I am honored to apply for the Master of Science program at the University of Example because for as long as I can remember, I have had a love affair with science. Since I was a kid in school, I have known I wanted to be a scientist/engineer.”

Now, almost 99% of the statements are structured similarly, and often times, students copy-paste, and edit statement of purposes from their seniors or friends, making it sound even more generic or irrelevant to their applications. If you want to stand out from the crowd; if you want the admissions committee to remember your essay at the end of the day, even after going through hundreds of applications; if you want to gain that extra advantage by being somewhat special and unique, you will have to draft a great statement of purpose. Great, but original.

Exclusive Bonus:Download the sample Statement of Purpose and use it as a framework to write yours.

How Can Your Statement Of Purpose Stand Out From The Crowd?

How do you write a great statement of purpose that sounds original, but at the same time gives the admissions committee what they are looking for? Simple. Basically, every university expects a student to answer to some basic questions that the admissions committee has. They may not ask you openly, but these are generally what they expect you to answer:

  • What you want to study at graduate school?
  • Why you want to study only this degree?
  • Why do you want to study at this particular college? What do you like in us?
  • Why did you choose to study in this particular country? What do you like about it?
  • How much and what kind of experience you have in your field?
  • Is your experience related to you choice of degree?
  • If you are already experienced, what additional skills are you planning to gain from the degree?
  • What you plan to do with your degree after graduation?
  • Would you choose to end up with a job or take up research?
  • What are your expectations from both the graduate program, and the university?
  • Would you like to study or do research under any particular professor? If yes, why only them?
  • How can you contribute to our university and our program? What specific skills do you bring to the table?
  • Apart from work and education, what are your hobbies, interests, and habits? What are you like, as a person?
  • What do you understand about our student community and culture? Why do you think you will fit in?
  • What is that one unique aspect/characteristic about you that we should know? Why does it matter to us or to the fellow students of your class?

Now, these are the questions you will have to consider before starting off with your statement of purpose. Write down answers separately to each of the questions asked above, and try to build a story that the admissions committee would love to read. Remember, unlike an MBA program, you won’t be having any personal interviews for a graduate program, so the only way to impress the admissions officers is by telling your story through the statement of purpose. You will have to convey your story in the best possible way, such that the committee finds you interesting enough. And if you are interesting enough to them, you will end up with not only an admission, but also a decent scholarship as well.

Strategies to Write a Powerful Statement of Purpose

It is important that you follow a specific strategy when it comes to drafting your statement of purpose. Though most students write whatever comes to their mind, or whatever they see on the internet, you are not most people. You would want your statement of purpose to sound brilliant, and original. And for that, you’ll need some strategies.

1. Write Stories. Not Statements

If given a choice, would you prefer reading a novel or a newspaper? A novel, without a doubt. Do you know why? Because while a newspaper gives you mere news and some eye-catching headlines, a novel tells you a story; a beautifully written piece of literature that you will be emotionally connected to. It brings those humanly feelings out of you, and involves you in its storyline. You imagine yourself in place of the narrator/character, and understand why he/she has done that, or taken such decisions. We remember stories much easier than statements. Because stories connect to us, statements don’t.

For example, most people say this:

“I used to work in a multinational software company in the development team, and I had to do the same job every day: code stuff. There was nothing new for me to learn at work, and there was nothing very exciting about going to the office. One day I decided that I had to get out of there, so I applied to college to study higher courses and get a better job.”

Doesn’t that sound like most stories? Albeit, a very normal story? Instead, how about saying this:

“Late in the night one Monday, I had found myself in the middle of a deserted office, and fifteen thousand lines of code. Full of caffeine in my bloodstream, and an empty life beyond office, I realized that the computers started coding my brain, and controlling my life. No longer wanting to let the machines feed on me, I decided that college would be my salvation.”

Both the stories come to about four lines. But which narrative do you think will keep the admissions committee reading? Which story do you think will be remembered by them even after reading 5000 applications?

Think again. Do you want your statement of purpose to read like a novel or a newspaper? If the former is your answer, then you need to put in a lot of effort to tell your story. Think about ‘why’ you want to study what you want to study. Is there a strong reason behind it? Is the reason emotional, economical, or any other? Think hard, and you will find a connection. The reason might not seem obvious in plain sight, but when you think hard enough, you will understand that there is strong reason why you want to study a particular course/degree.

Now, when you have found this strong reason, tell it as a story. Write a short, but great narrative about what made you make this choice. About why you have chosen to study this course at this university. Impress the committee with your creative storyline, and you will reap the benefits big time.

2. Quantify Your Stories

Even though we asked you to write a story, you will have to remember that your story should not read like a thesis. It should rather serve as the best source of information about you. And when it comes to information, numbers play a key role. Your story should be not only qualitative, but also quantitative. Which means, your story must contain measurable quantities instead of just stories, so the reader can understand the depth of it.

For example, if you have worked for a local NGO teaching math to primary kids, you could say:

“During my engineering days, I helped a local NGO by joining as a math tutor, where I taught basic math concepts to school children.”

Now even though this sounds really good, it doesn’t give the reader the entire picture and they certainly do not know how much of an impact you made on those children. So, you could change that bit to something like this:

“During my second year of engineering, I joined ‘Teach Math’, a local NGO, where I was a part of the Math tutoring team. For a period of 10 months, I taught basic math like algebra, geometry and arithmetic to more than thirty 5th and 6th grade students. And every single student I taught to, secured an A in math that year. I’ve never been prouder in my life.”

Do you see the difference? These numbers suddenly give a whole new perspective to the readers, and their respect for you is suddenly multiplied. That’s the power of numbers; they add authenticity, and authority to your stories. If you can quantify your stories properly, and show the results instead of just actions, the committee will not forget your name. You can use the same strategy for the rest of your story, no matter what it is about. Whether it is a research project you did, or a college fest you organized, or a college sports team you led, whatever it is, add numbers to your stories, and make them sound more realistic, and more beautiful.

3. Be Specific

You have to make sure that whatever you say on your statement of purpose, you need to be very specific with it. Don’t just say something because you think it will impress the admissions committee. Whatever you say, you have to really dig into details. Be introspective. Don’t just say “I chose this degree because I love this field.” Explain clearly why you love this field, what made you decide that you want to work in this field for the rest of your life, what skills you are trying to amass, why it completes you as a person, etc.

Don’t beat around the bush like you normally would, when you talk to your friends. Don’t use ideal sentences like ‘I want to change the world’ or ‘I want to find my inner self’ or any of chose cheesy lines. Just be straightforward and always to the point, but not so much as to come off as arrogant. Find your reasons and then find a nice, memorable way to say it.

Grad school admissions officers require the statement of purpose not just because they want to find about you and your dreams. More importantly, they want you to think for yourself, as to why you are taking such a life-changing step; why you think this is the best thing that can happen to you; and why you think you truly need it to succeed in life. The ‘why’ is always profoundly important, and also an extremely difficult question to answer, which is why, if you can find answers to all the whys, then you are almost in.

4. Customize Your Essay

One of the biggest mistakes students make is to prepare a basic template for their statement of purpose, and if they are applying to more than one university, they simply change the relevant names and details. But the rest of the statement is an exact copy. This is never a good idea, because though they might seem quite similar to each other, every university is vastly different from the others. Each of them has a diverse set of characteristics that define them, and their cultures, methodologies, visions, values, mottos, strengths, weaknesses, etc., vary greatly. These things are much more important than the departments, or university rankings, or number of Ph.D.’s or other materialistic qualities.

So, if you are applying to multiple universities, you need to factor in all these qualities of every university, and customize your statement accordingly. Mere changes in names and details won’t suffice. You need to tailor your essay such that the admissions officers think you will fit in well into their community. Remember, every student community is like a family, and if you give hints that you cannot fit into a family or their culture, you may not be welcomed easily.

Speaking of cultures, different countries obviously have different cultures, but even a big country like the US has different cultures in different parts of the country. So, before you begin writing, try and research the general culture within the region in which your target university is, and learn something about it. It may also help in aiding your decision process; if a culture doesn’t attract you much, then there’s no point in wasting an application.

5. Use a Formal But Conversational Tone

Nearly all statements or essays come under two categories: The super formal, and the super friendly. The first category is when you write a statement of purpose that is so formal, it looks like you are writing to your lieutenant in the military. The second one, of course, looks like a casual email to a friend. Now, when asked which one seems like a better choice, most students say the formal way is the way to go, and super friendliness is a big no. And still, a minor set of applicants think they can outsmart the admissions committee by sounding friendly, welcoming, and funny.

But, on further reflection, you would understand that neither of the approaches is ideal. And you are right, neither of them is right. Like we talked about it already, your statement of purpose should read like a novel: slightly formal language, but still a tinge of fun and uniqueness. That is what you need. A conversational tone is the best and the safest way to go. Write like you are talking to someone, but avoid using casual language. Imagine you are talking to your dean, or the director of your college. What would your language be like? That’s how your statement of purpose should sound.

Now, occasional humor is okay, but you shouldn’t try to sound too funny or too smart. No intentional jokes or funny lines should find their way into your statement. After all, it’s a statement of purpose, and the purpose is to pursue a graduate degree, not to impress people with your sense of humor. So, if what you write brings a smile on the readers face, then it’s perfectly alright. But it shouldn’t make them throw away your application because you didn’t seem serious enough to them.

6. Decide How You Want To Portray Yourself. And Learn How to Portray Indirectly.

You must see that the statement of purpose serves as a medium to convey your attitude, your personality and your character. Alright, those are some heavy words, and it can actually be difficult to them on paper. So, what you can do is, learn what your statement of purpose should portray you as, in terms of a few criteria, which tell the admissions committee that you are:

  1. Very passionate about the field of study you have chosen.
  2. An Intelligent student who can withstand the academic workload of a graduate program.
  3. Well-prepared academically and personally, and eager to study new courses.
  4. Able to take on the challenges of studying at an international graduate school.
  5. Able to build and maintain a good rapport with professors and fellow grad students.
  6. Able to finish the graduate degree within time, and graduate with a good percentage.
  7. A potential remarkable representative of that grad school in your future career.
  8. A successful alumni of the grad school who in the future can help in recruiting graduates.
  9. A responsible alumni who in the future will help raise funds for the grad school, to spend on research, infrastructure, facilities, student scholarships, etc.

These are basically the parameters that grad school admissions officers look at, when they decide who is joining their class. Now, I know that the statement of purpose can only be as long as 1000 words, and that there’s quite a lot to cover in that little space.

This is where your writing skills should come in. You simply can’t just go ahead and write “I am very passionate about the field of study I have chosen.” That is the last think you would want to write. What you should instead write is, a sentence that indirectly means the same. You will have to choose your words wisely so as to indirectly communicate your “passion”. You can use brief examples to show why you are so passionate about it. For example, you can say something like:

“My grandfather was a car mechanic. I remember when I was nine, he took me to his garage for the first time and showed me how he could repair my damaged bicycle so I could ride it again. When he passed away a few years later, he left me the entire garage. It was a turning point in my life. Some of my best days were spent inside the garage, where after coming back from school, I tried fixing various appliances in the house. That was what led me to choose to be a Mechanical Engineer.”

The above paragraph speaks volumes about you as a person and your passion for Mechanical Engineering without you actually saying it. Any admissions officer in the world wouldn’t reject an applicant with such a deep reason, and such a wonderful story behind him/her. Now, remember, you don’t have to lie. Try and remember stories from your life that have shaped your decisions. And connect them beautifully to your goals and dreams.

Now similarly, your “intelligence” can be conveyed by how you write. The quality of the statement of purpose, the organization, expression, etc. of your statement tells how intelligent you are. Demonstrating knowledge of the field, and using related jargon shows that you are “well-prepared”. Showing what you have done already describes your ability “to take on the challenges of grad school”. Your grades and your previous performance prove your ability “to finish the graduate program in time”. Being a “future remarkable alumni” can be implied by your being a commendable representative of your previous institutions, like your high school, or undergraduate school. Similarly, you will have to try and represent all the qualities mentioned above in an indirect, but powerful way.

7. Don’t Create Stories. Be Yourself

Because we asked you to write stories, there would naturally be an inclination to “create” stories out of thin air. Do not do this at all. Write great stories only if you have great stories. Some people might come from normal backgrounds, who had normal lives, and probably didn’t achieve anything spectacular. It’s completely okay. If you don’t have anything great to write, don’t write it. Be normal, and write normal stories. It is better to be normal than to pretend to be someone you are not. The admissions officers are expert psychologists, and they can spot a true applicant from a false applicant with just one reading.

So, you will badly hurt your chances of getting into your dream school if you try to be someone else. Just be yourself, and write only about the things that have happened to you, and the things that you are passionate about. Saying “I love research” just because you think they will like it, isn’t going to help you a lot. Whatever you say just for the sake of it, won’t appeal much to the committee, as they would look for relevant evidences in your stories and in your past. So, don’t even think about fooling the committee with a false storyline. Try and be yourself throughout the essay.

8. Address Your Problems

The Statement of Purpose is a great opportunity for you to address some of your problems. If you have had any problematic academic background, or a gap year in your career, or if you had any work-related problems, you can address them on the statement of purpose in order to reassure the admissions committee. You must try and be as honest as possible, and talk about your problems in a matured manner. Instead of trying to defend yourself, you can point out the actual reasons that led to the problems, but more importantly, you should highlight ‘how’ you overcame the situation, and ‘what’ you have learnt from the experience.

For example, let’s say that you got all C’s or all D’s in one semester. This normally isn’t the kind of academic profile a good grad school would want from you, unless there is a strong reason behind it. So, take some time and dedicate a few lines to explain whatever happened. If you had a health problem during your semester exams, or if you faced any emotional setback during that time, if you experience any personal loss, or if you had to take up additional family responsibilities other than studying, you can mention that in your statement.

But, more importantly, you should not forget to demonstrate how your grades have been steadily improving since then, and that you now have a decent grade-point average in the discipline. If you can spin this story well enough for the committee to empathize with you, then your story will enhance the admissions committee’s image of you as a matured student, with the abilities to “take on additional challenges” and “to finish on time”, even when things are against you.

9. Do Your Homework

This is one very important point you should exercise while you are writing a statement of purpose. You should be thorough with the details of all the universities you are applying to, and list down all the things you like about each university, before you write the essays. Most students simply write generic sentences like “I am impressed by the importance your university gives to research” or “I would like to study here because you have 100 Ph.D.’s and 20 Nobel prize winners.” etc. No, that is not how you do it. The admissions committee knows how great their college is; you don’t have to remind them again and again. But, you should let them know what exactly you like about them, that you so badly want to be there. The specifics are really important. For example, you could say something like this. (Excuse the random jargon, it is only to give you an idea.)

“I would fully utilize the resources that the Wallenberg Hall provides, as I am particularly interested in the field of molecular chemistry. The special 24/7 laboratories provided for student research on molecular processing is exactly the kind of opportunity I am looking for, as I could totally see myself working in the labs day and night.”

And something like:

“I especially want to study under Dr. Mark Adams, Ph.D., as I have been an avid follower and admirer of his work in the field of quantum chemistry, which is not only the field I would choose for my research study, but also is a topic that I am zealous about, personally. I would be more than honoured if I can earn a spot in his research group.”

Do you see how professional it sounds? Such things show how well prepared you are, and how eager you are to study at that university. Now, to write something like this, you obviously need to do lots of research both online and offline, and be very thorough about the college, its facilities, courses, and professors. Yes, it is very difficult, but believe me, it is completely worth all the hard work.

10. Proofread, Edit, and Re-edit. Ask Friends and Family To Grade Your Essay

Another mistake students make is, they try and keep their essays to themselves. Maybe they are shy, or maybe they think their friends and family aren’t necessarily experts on the subject. So they think there’s no point in asking friends and family to critique on their essays. Wrong. Your statement of purpose speaks about you as a student, as an individual. Yes, there is technical slang involved, and yes your family members may not be experts on that. But, they sure are experts on ‘you’.

Which is exactly why you should approach them. They can not only give you additional points to add, but they can give you valuable stories about your childhood or schooling days, which you probably won’t remember. Plus, it’s very easy to say something about others, but at the same time, it’s painfully difficult to describe yourself to someone. Which is why someone very close to you, like friends and family, can describe you accurately. You will get new perspectives on your stories, which sometimes are better than your own versions, and including them in your statement of purpose will do you a lot of good.

Also, remember to proofread your statement time and again, and keep on re-editing content until you, your family and friends think you have the best statement in the world. Remember that your statement of purpose is a literary picture of ‘you’ as a person, and it is representing on your behalf. So, make it a top priority to avoid typos, misplaced commas and semicolons, overused quotes, being too wordy, using too many complex words and sentences, and being too straightforward. Be careful. Be a perfectionist when it comes to writing. It shows how much you care about going to a particular college. And, once you are done with everything, do not forget to ask your friends and family to grade your statement of purpose, and ask them to criticize it accurately, so you can avoid submitting a less than perfect copy of your statement.

11. Take Advice From Professors.

If you know a professor at your undergrad institution, don’t hesitate to approach him/her for advice regarding your statement of purpose. They are of course very experienced prospects, and they might have seen thousands of statement of purposes and students in their careers. So, it wouldn’t hurt to ask for their opinion. Plus, since unlike your family, they are technically sound, they can also provide you valuable insights on how to project your technical expertise and project works in the statement.

After all, a professor knows what another professor looks for in a prospective student, so it would only help if you approach your college professors. And, if they are really close to you, you can also ask them for a really good letter of recommendation. So whichever way you look at it, there are only benefits for you.

Checklist for a Powerful Statement of Purpose

Here’s a basic checklist designed to help you draft a flawless Statement of Purpose. Make sure you write in an organized manner, and cover your points in a proper order. We have given this checklist so that you can write your statement of purpose without confusing yourself and the readers. Following a meticulous order like this will make your statement of purpose a lot better to read and understand about you and your story. Feel free to add anything else to the list if you think it will boost your chances, but remember to not write too much because you would then be exceeding the word limit.

Organization:

  • Introducing yourself in a unique manner.
  • Demonstrating your passion for the field.
  • Story about your background or experience in the field you’ve chosen.
  • Description of your academic background in the field you’ve chosen.
  • Specific classes or special courses you have taken, that are related to your field of interest.
  • Some of the professors you have studied under, especially if they are well-known in that field.
  • Co-curricular and Extracurricular activities in the field of you interest.
  • Publications or other professional accomplishments in the field (perhaps conference presentations or public readings)
  • Any community service or leadership experience while in college.
  • Explanations about problems in background (if needed)
  • Explanation of why you have chosen the specific grad school and other related questions as discussed in the beginning of this article.
  • Mention what you like about the university you are applying for, and why: facilities, infrastructure, etc.
  • Mention names of one or two professors in that school and what you know of and appreciate about their work, and why you want to study or work under their guidance.
  • Specific features of the grad program and the university, which attract you personally. And why.
  • Get advice from several of your professors, family, and close friends. Ask for stories about yourself.
  • Proofread and edit; ask friends and family to proofread for you as well.

Now Its Your Turn

So, those are some strategies and tips for you to write a powerful statement of purpose, impress the committee, and thereby ace the admissions process. Make sure you do every one of these things, and you won’t be far away from the college of your dreams.

Do you have any strategies that worked well for you? Do let us know in the comments section.

We almost forgot! We are giving away a sample Statement of Purpose for download, so you can get an actual glimpse of how the aforementioned tips and strategies have been incorporated in a real Statement Of Purpose. But remember, this should serve only as an inspiration to your own Statement of Purpose, but not a source to copy from. Close to 10000 students check this space regularly, and if every single one of them uses the same phrases in their own statement of purposes, very soon, everyone will be held for plagiarism. So, try and copy only the framework and the organization, but not the actual content. Happy Writing!

Download your free sample SOP now:



How to Write a Great Statement of Purpose

Vince Gotera
English Language and Literature
University of Northern Iowa

January 2006

 

The Statement of Purpose required by grad schools is probably the hardest thing you will ever write. (Incidentally, the statement of purpose may also be called an Application Essay, Objectives for Graduate Study, Personal Background, Cover Letter, or some comparable title.)

I would guess virtually all grad-school applicants, when they write their first draft of the statement of purpose, will get it wrong. Much of what you have learned about writing and also about how to present yourself will lead you astray. For example, here's an opening to a typical first draft:

I am applying to the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at the University of Okoboji because I believe my writing will blossom at your program since it is a place where I will be challenged and I can hone my writing skills.

How's that? It's clear, it's direct, and it "strokes" the MFA program, right? Wrong. All of it is obvious and extraneous.

The admissions committee knows you are applying to their MFA program because everyone in the stacks of applications they are reading is applying for the same thing. The admissions committee will also know that your writing will "blossom" there since they feel they have a strong program. Of course you will be challenged — all undergrads going on to a grad program will be challenged, no matter how well-prepared they think they are. And of course the new grad student will "hone [her] writing skills" — isn't that the main purpose of the MFA program?

Let's assume the required length of this particular program's statement of purpose is 300 words. Well, with this opening you will have used up 15% of your space saying virtually nothing. 15%!

In fact, not only is this opening paragraph obvious, extraneous, and space-stealing, it's boring! Imagine who's reading this and where: five professors "locked" in a room with 500 applications. Do you think this opening paragraph will command their attention? Will they read the rest of this statement of purpose with an open mind that this applicant is the kind of student they want? Will they remember this application later? You be the judge.

Remember what you learned in first-year composition? You need a "hook."

A former student of mine applying to enter a master's program in library science had a great hook. I don't remember Susan's exact words, but the opening paragraph of her statement of purpose went something like this:

When I was eleven, my great-aunt Gretchen passed away and left me something that changed my life: a library of about five thousand books. Some of my best days were spent arranging and reading her books. Since then, I have wanted to be a librarian.

Okay ... it's clear, it's direct, it's 45 words, and, most important, it tells the admissions committee about Susan's almost life-long passion not just for books but for taking care of books. When the committee starts to discuss their "best picks," don't you think they'll remember her as "the young woman who had her own library"? Of course they will, because having had their own library when they were eleven would probably be a cherished fantasy for each of them!

Suppose Susan had written this opening paragraph instead:

I am honored to apply for the Master of Library Science program at the University of Okoboji because as long as I can remember I have had a love affair with books. Since I was eleven I have known I wanted to be a librarian.

That's 45 words too. Do you think the admissions committee will remember this application among the 500 applications they are wading through? Probably more than half of the applications, maybe a lot more than half, will open with something very similar. Many will say they "have had a love affair with books" — that phrase may sound passionate until you've read it a couple of hundred times.

All of us have had some event, some experience, like my student's personal library at eleven, which drives us toward the discipline(s) we inhabit. I was speaking to a group of students recently about this. One student — let's call her Jennifer — said she wanted to get a master's degree in speech therapy. When I asked her why, Jennifer said she had taken a class in it for fun and really loved it. But then I pressed her: was there some personal reason she found that field significant enough to spend her whole life doing it? At first Jennifer said no, but after more questioning she revealed that her brother had speech problems. This was a discovery to her; she had not entered the field with that connection in mind — at least not consciously. But there it was; Jennifer now had her hook.

You have to really dig. Be introspective. Don't settle for "I love this field." Why do you love this field? Why do you want to work in this field for the rest of your life? Why does it complete you? Cut through the bull you tell your parents and relatives and friends. What is your truth? Find it and then find a memorable way to say it. Grad schools require the statement of purpose not only because they want to find about you as an applicant, they want you to really think about why you are taking such a life-changing step — truly and profoundly why.

Okay, back to the scene of the five professors surrounded by stacks of applications, maybe more than 500. Do you know who they are? What they want? What they like to eat? Obviously, no. Conversely, do they know you? Well, no. But ... the statement of purpose is your chance to help them get to know you! Your statement of purpose should portray you as a person, not just an application among hundreds of others. Not just paper and ink.

Here's one way to do it. When I was an undergrad senior first applying for grad schools, I knew a grad student — I'll call him Nigel — who told me he had written a three-sentence statement of purpose to get into Stanford:

I want to teach English at the university level. To do this, I need a PhD. That is why I am applying.

That was the whole thing. That's only half of 45 words. It certainly portrays Nigel as brash, risk-taking, no-nonsense, even arrogant. If this is how you want to portray yourself, then by all means do this. But you should also know that Nigel's statement of purpose is an all-or-nothing proposition. You can bet there will be members of probably any admissions committee who will find Nigel's statement of purpose offensive, even disrespectful. And they might not want such a student at their school. But then I suppose Nigel wouldn't want to be a student at that school, either.

Try to make your paper-and-ink self come alive. Don't just say, "I used to work on an assembly line in a television factory, and one day I decided that I had to get out of there, so I went to college to save my own life." How about this: "One Thursday, I had soldered the 112th green wire on the same place on the 112th TV remote, and I realized the solder fumes were rotting my brain. I decided college would be my salvation." Both 35 words. Which narrative do you think will keep the admissions committee reading?

Tell stories (briefly). Use vivid language. Be specific. Be dynamic. Liven up a moment in the lives of those five professors trapped with those 500 applications. Maybe 600. Maybe more.

At the same time, be careful not to be glib. Don't be slick. Don't write your application in a sequence of haiku. Don't put in photos. Just be yourself, but a more heightened version of yourself in words (since face-to-face nuance and gestures won't be there to help).

Remember your statement of purpose should portray you as (1) passionately interested in the field; (2) intelligent;(3) well-prepared academically and personally; (4) able to take on the challenges of grad school; (5) able to have rapport with professors and fellow grad students — in other words, collegial; (6) able to finish the graduate degree in a timely fashion; and (7) a potentially outstanding representative of that grad school in your future career.

That's a lot to cover in a few hundred words (the length of a statement purpose, as required by different schools, tends to be around 300 to 1000 words). "Passionate interest in the field" will be covered by the kind of hook I have described above. "Intelligence" will be conveyed by the overall writing, organization, expression, etc. of your statement. Being "well-prepared" can be demonstrated by using the lingo of the field (theory, craft, etc.), describing the specific kinds of coursework and other accomplishments you have in the field. Ability "to take on the challenges of grad school" can be shown by describing the rigor of the work you have done. "Collegiality" is not particularly important but is nevertheless a factor — if you can show yourself as a generally nice and cooperative person, that will do — just be true to your own style. Ability "to finish the graduate program" can be conveyed implicitly by your success thus far and more explicitly if you can tell some (brief) story about adverse obstacles you have overcome. Being a "future outstanding representative" can be implied by your being an outstanding representative of your undergraduate school — for example, don't "bad-mouth" your current college or professors.

Often, grad schools will ask you to address other or similar qualities as I've listed above. Just use common sense in focusing on each. Don't address them in the same order as the grad school has listed. Combine them; rearrange them; do whatever you need to do to show yourself as an imaginative person, not a parrot following a line of Brazil nuts to crack.

If you have some problematic academic background, address that as well to reassure the admissions committee. For example, let's say that you got all C's one semester. Take a (brief) paragraph to explain that you had some emotional setback that semester but then demonstrate how your grades have been sterling since then, and that you now have a 3.83 grade-point average in the discipline. If you spin this well, your story will enhance the admissions committee's image of you as someone with the abilities to "take on challenges" and "to finish on time."

Here's an organization I would recommend: (1) passionate hook; (2) segué to your background in the field; (3) specific classes by title and professors you have had (especially if well-known in the field); (4) related extracurricular activities (especially if they hint at some personal quality you want to convey); (5) any publications or other professional accomplishments in the field (perhaps conference presentations or public readings); (6) explanations about problems in your background (if needed); and (7) why you have chosen this grad school (name one or two professors and what you know of their specific areas or some feature of the program which specifically attracts you).

I should probably expand on item 7. This is a practical issue as well. If you are applying to ten grad schools, it's a mismanagement of time to write ten separate, tailored statements of purpose. Items 1 through 6 above can be exactly the same for all the statements. Then when you get to item 7, put in a different paragraph for each school. Remember this means the ten statements will all be as long, in terms of word count, as the shortest required length among the ten schools. If the shortest length is 300 words, probably that length will be okay for the 500-word school (in fact the admissions committee at the 500-word place may see you as savvy for not going on and on). But those 300 words will clearly not work for the 1200-word school, so you'll need to expand that one. Don't pad. Find other engaging material in your background.

About mentioning professors at each grad school: doing this will portray you as someone "who has done her homework," as someone who is genuinely interested in the field, enough to have done some prefatory work in that area. Don't just mention their names (anyone who can browse a web site can do that). Say something of substance about each professor by name, something that reveals you know and appreciate that person's work. Don't necessarily pick the most famous professor at the grad school; chances are many other applicants will do the same, and the admissions committee members will soon be unconsciously filtering those mentions out. (Besides, the most famous professor doesn't always work with all graduate students or may be out of town half the year, and you may come off as naive if you say you're looking forward to working with her.) Find a lesser-known professor whose work truly intrigues you (and truly is the operational word here). Then say something about what you know of that professor's work — remember that person may be on the admissions committee. Don't suck up — don't be a sycophant. Be fair and honest.

Be sure to show your statement of purpose to several professors. Remember they will have different ideas about what constitutes an appropriate and effective statement of purpose. If one of your professors has a connection with a specific grad school, she may have some inside knowledge about what kind of statement of purpose will work best at that school. Make your final editing decisions based on what will convey you most accurately as you see it. Again, be specific, be dynamic, come alive on paper. Continue to get advice from your professors on later drafts.

Proofread your statement of purpose. Copyedit for consistency, accuracy, and style. Ask your friends to copyedit and proofread your statement; perhaps you can do the same for them if they are also applying for grad school.

Remember that style in writing can be parallel to style in dress: the second affects your image in person while the first affects your image when you may not be present. Leaving in typos and misplaced commas is like dressing in your grubbies for a coat-and-tie / cocktail dress event. Being too wordy is comparable to dressing in an evening gown or a tuxedo for a casual get-together. Being too glib, too mannered, may be like wearing a furry rabbit costume to a party which turns out not to be a Halloween bash. Be careful. Be a perfectionist.

Keep working on your statement of purpose even after you have sent it to the school(s) with the earlier deadline(s). You might have a later epiphany about your personal and academic background, your motives for applying for grad school, your long-term plans, and this epiphany may be just the thing that gets you into the school(s) with the later deadline(s).

To close, the statement of purpose, in the eyes of Department Heads, Program Chairs, and Admissions Committee members, can be the most important document in the application. Other parts of your graduate-school application — test scores, transcripts, letters of recommendation, writing samples — do not say as much about you as a person as the statement of purpose can: your proudest accomplishments alongside your fondest hopes and dreams.

 


 

Checklist for Writing a Statement of Purpose
Vince Gotera | University of Northern Iowa

 

[  ] Organization ...
 
       [  ] A "hook" that demonstrates your passion for the field
 
       [  ] Segué to your background in the field
 
       [  ] Description of your academic background in the field
 
              [  ] Specific classes you have taken, given by name
 
              [  ] Specific professors you have had, especially if well-known in that field
 
       [  ] Extracurricular activities in the field
 
       [  ] Publications or other professional accomplishments in the field (perhaps conference presentations or public readings)
 
       [  ] Explanations about problems in background (if needed)
 
       [  ] Explanation of why you have chosen the specific grad school
 
              [  ] Mention one or two professors in that school and what you know of and appreciate about their work
 
              [  ] Specific features of the grad program which attract you
 
[  ] Get advice from several of your professors — philosophical advice as well as specific writing advice
 
[  ] Proofread and copyedit; ask friends to proofread and copyedit as well
 
[  ] Keep working on the statement of purpose, even after you have already sent it to school(s) with earlier deadline(s)
 
 

 

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