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What Makes a Good Statement of Purpose for Graduate School? Part I and Part II

Graduate School - Statement

Graduate and professional schools often require some sort of written statement -- often called a "statement of purpose," "personal statement," or "letter of intent"-- as a part of the application. Some statements require rather specific information--for example, the applicant's intended area of study within a graduate field. Still others are quite unstructured, leaving the applicant free to address a wide range of matters. The importance of the statement varies from school to school and from field to field.

Determine your purpose in writing the statement

Usually the purpose is to persuade the admissions committee that you are an applicant who should be chosen. Whatever its purpose, the content must be presented in a manner that will give coherence to the whole statement.

  • Pay attention to the purpose throughout the statement so that extraneous material is left out.
  • Pay attention to the audience (committee) throughout the statement. Remember that your audience is made up of professionals in their field, and you are not going to tell them how they should act or what they should be. You are the amateur.

Determine the content of your statement

Be sure to answer any questions fully. Analyze the questions or guidance statements for the essay completely and answer all parts. Usually graduate and professional schools are interested in the following matters, although the form of the question(s) and the responses may vary:

  • Your purpose in graduate study. Think this through before you try to answer the question.
  • The area of study in which you wish to specialize. Learn about the field in detail so that you are able to state your preferences using the language of the field.
  • Your intended future use of your graduate study. Include your career goals and plans for the future.
  • Your unique preparation and fitness for study in the field. Correlate your academic background with your extracurricular experience to show how they unite to make you a special candidate.
  • Any problems or inconsistencies in your records or scores, such as a bad semester. Explain in a positive manner. Since this is a rebuttal argument, it should be followed by a positive statement of your abilities. In some instances, it may be more appropriate to discuss this outside of the personal statement.
  • Any special conditions that are not revealed elsewhere in the application, such as a significant (35 hour per week) workload outside of school. This, too, should be followed with a positive statement about yourself and your future.
  • You may be asked, "Why do you wish to attend this school?" Research the school and describe its special appeal to you.
  • Above all, this statement should contain information about you as a person. They know nothing about you unless you tell them. You are the subject of the statement.

Determine your approach and style of the statement

There is no such thing as "the perfect way to write a statement." There is only the one that best fits you.

DO

  • Be objective, yet self-revelatory. Write directly and in a straightforward manner that tells about your experience and what it means to you. Do not use "academese."
  • Form conclusions that explain the value and meaning of your experience, such as what you learned about yourself and your field and your future goals. Draw your conclusions from the evidence your life provides.
  • Be specific. Document your conclusions with specific instances. See below a list of general words and phrases to avoid using without explanation.
  • Get to the point early on and catch the attention of the reader.
  • Limit its length to two pages or less. In some instances it may be longer, depending on the school's instructions.

DON'T

  • Use the "what I did with my life" approach.
  • Use the "I've always wanted to be a _____" approach.
  • Use a catalog of achievements. This is only a list of what you have done, and tells nothing about you as a person.
  • Lecture the reader. For example, you should not write a statement such as "Communication skills are important in this field." Any graduate admissions committee member knows that.

Words and phrases to avoid without explanation

significant
interesting
challenging
satisfying/satisfaction
appreciate
invaluable
exciting/excited
enjoyable/enjoy
feel good
appealing to me
appealing aspect
I like it
it's important
I can contribute
meant a lot to me
stimulating
incredible
gratifying
fascinating
meaningful
helping people
I like helping people
remarkable
rewarding
useful
valuable
helpful

Where to go for help

  • If you need some help figuring out what to write, make an appointment with a Career Center counselor to come up with a plan.
  • Once you have done a draft (or 2 or 3), show it to people you trust such as faculty, GSIs, family, friends, letter of recommendation writers, etc. The best people to review your statement are those who know you well and have excellent writing skills.
  • If you want to improve your writing, the Student Learning Center Writing Program offers programs on writing technique as well as individual tutoring.
  • Statementofpurpose.com is an excellent resource that includes essay critiques and writing tips.

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This page last updated 11/22/2010 (jw)