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Statements of Purpose: Overview and Before You Draft

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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:

  • having a low grade in one or two of your courses
  • breaking a tie with other applicants who have performed at your level in terms of GRE and GPA scores
  • getting into programs in which standardized test scores are weighted significantly less than demonstrating one’s professional interests and abilities (i.e., Humanities and certain Social Science fields).

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.