Writing the Statement of Purpose: aka Letter of Intent

What To Talk About

Schools phrase their prompts for the statement of purpose in a variety of ways. They even name them differently; what is a statement of purpose at one school is a letter of intent or a personal statement at another. Some schools will even call it an autobiographical statement. These prompts will also impose different restrictions on length, and some will give you more guidance than others will. Nonetheless, they're all asking for pretty much the same four pieces of information:

  1. What you want to study at graduate school.

  2. Why you want to study it.

  3. What experience you have in your field.

  4. What you plan to do with your degree once you have it.

These four points provide an accurate sketch of an admissions committee's interest in you. They want to read about a candidate with clear, well-defined research or career interests based on academic or workplace experience in the field. They seek someone who has a specific degree goal and who understands what's involved in getting that degree. They want a candidate whose ambitions don't end with the attainment of the degree, but include a career afterward that has some relationship to the degree earned.

It takes considerable dedication to earn a master's degree, and earning a doctorate requires still greater commitment and focus. Admissions committees know this quite well, and they examine candidates carefully, looking for indications that applicants have the right stuff. They want to hear that you care deeply about your chosen discipline; they ask why, not because there's a right or wrong answer, but to find out how deep your commitment runs. They'll examine your reasons for undertaking graduate work to see how badly you want it and how well you know what you're getting into.

Your job is to tell the committee about any experience that helps to establish you as a dedicated student of your field. Use the statement to prove that you are a diligent researcher capable of working hard and a consistent individual able to stick to a difficult task for a long time. Your job is also to avoid bringing up topics of no interest to a prospective admissions committee.

What Not to Talk About

There are a few things you should avoid discussing in your personal statement. Remember, they have to read hundreds, or even thousands, of essays. A paragraph that wastes the reader's time will annoy your committee -- something you obviously want to avoid. It may also cause the committee to wonder how well you really understand the academic world that you are trying to enter.

Applicants commonly make the error of including an undergraduate-style paragraph about how well-rounded they are: They're avid ultimate-frisbee players, they write science fiction short stories, or they love to cook. Colleges are interested in this stuff, since they're trying to build communities of creative, interactive individuals, but this is not true of graduate schools. Grad schools are looking for the best minds in one subject area that they can round up and are trying to build a department of at least a few people working in every major field.

The activities that interest admissions committees are strictly those that speak to your suitability for graduate work in that specific subject area, be it engineering or archaeology. As a graduate student, you'll be called upon to do difficult coursework, and unless you're in a professional degree program, you'll do extensive research. You'll need to write up your results precisely and clearly. You may have to teach undergraduate classes within your field and conceivably even design a course. And you'll have to get along with a diverse group of colleagues who will sometimes work very closely with you. Any experience in school, work, or your extracurricular life that speaks to those abilities is worth talking about.

You've got a lot of latitude in your essay. You can talk about whatever you want to, within certain constraints. The most important constraint is the need to answer the questions asked in the essay prompt. Whatever you do, don't ignore those four pieces of information. You can be sure that the administration phrased its questions carefully, and no matter how creative or flashy your essay is, the committee will notice if you don't give them the information they've requested.

Making Your Statement of Purpose Unique

If you're applying to a Ph.D program, why not make the effort to differentiate your essay from the others? You won't write a very memorable essay if you simply list the facts of your academic life. Most applicants write very similar, straightforward essays, and march through the basic topics in the order they're listed in the prompt, which produces a huge pile of essays that all sound the same:

"I studied yadda yadda as an undergraduate at XYZ University. There, I had the opportunity to take part in the yadda research project, where I became fascinated with the questions of yadda yadda and their implications for society. I am pursuing doctoral study in yadda yadda in order to deepen my understanding of these topics and extend my research further into the area of yadda yadda yadda."

To distinguish your essay, add something unique to it without throwing in irrelevant information that will annoy your readers. One of the best ways to do this is to discuss, briefly, an idea in your field that turns you on intellectually. It's an effective essay-opener, and it lets you write about something besides yourself for a bit. There are other benefits as well. The idea you choose to talk about, and your comments on it, often tell an admissions committee more about you than your own self-descriptions can.

Discussing an idea will catch people's attention and give your readers a reprieve from people writing about themselves. That "me-me-me" stuff can get irritating after a while, even though it's what the prompt asks for. A discussion of an idea demonstrates your interest in your field, rather than just describing it. Ultimately, that's more convincing.

A Few Last Words of Advice

No matter how difficult this may be, be sure to show your statement of purpose to someone you respect, preferably the professors who are writing your recommendations, and get some feedback before you send it in. Pay attention to what they say. It's absolutely vital to get an external viewpoint, since you'll often find yourself too close to your own writing to see it clearly. If you need to revise it, do so and then ask for another opinion.

Also, make sure you have someone else proofread your essay. A fresh set of eyes often picks up something you might miss. Better yet, if you have enough willing friends, have a couple of people proofread each statement.

Finally, don't just reuse the same statement of purpose for each school you apply to. You can recycle the same information, but make sure you tweak it for every school. Your statement will sound stale and the admissions committee will notice if you don't do this.

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