Writing an Outstanding Statement of Purpose

By Dr. William Wittels, Program Manager, The Leadership Alliance

The statement of purpose is one of the most important elements of your application. This article offers a framework for thinking about your statement that should help you write a memorable and effective one.

Your statement of purpose is your only opportunity to tell application reviewers your story in your own words. Knowing your story makes your application much more memorable and, as a result, helps you stand out from the larger application pool. Moreover, it is your best opportunity to tell the application reviewers why you are a good fit for their program. They are planning to invest significant resources in the graduate students that they admit. Knowing that you are applying to their programs for compelling reasons is a central motivation for every decision to accept.

Focus on articulating three kinds of fit:

  1. The fit between you and your chosen field (i.e., why you want to get a PhD in your chosen field and are likely to excel in it).
  2. The fit between you and the program to which you are applying (i.e., why this particular program will be the best place for you to go).
  3. The fit between the program and your plans after graduate school (i.e., why this particular program will be the best launching pad for your research and teaching career).

Think of the statement of purpose as a narrative, with you as the protagonist. Part of that narrative is your story of who you are, why you want to get a PhD in your chosen field, and the experiences that led to and deepened your desire for getting a PhD. The other part of the narrative describes why going to the program to which you are applying will result in your becoming a thriving scholar in your chosen field.

To the end of telling that narrative, many statements of purpose follow a similar, four-part structure.

  1. Introduce yourself and your motivations. Articulate your fascination with the questions that bring you to your field of study and root that fascination in an experience or set of experiences. You are the protagonist of this narrative. You need to show your readers what motivates you on this journey.
  2. Develop your backstory. Here you should summarize your previous academic, work, and volunteer experiences. For PhD programs, be sure to highlight any research experiences you have. This section should not read like a laundry list of the items already on your resume. Pick the most important experiences and highlight them.
  3. Connect your backstory to your next chapter. Elaborate upon your experiences to show why they are relevant to graduate school. If you are highlighting your accomplishments as an undergraduate, focus on why they have put you in a position to thrive in graduate school. If you have taken time off for work or a post-baccalaureate course of study, explain how those experiences have prepared you for graduate school, particularly if you are changing fields.
  4. Preview your next chapter. Describe what, if admitted, you plan to study. Be specific both about the questions you would like to research and why the program is a good fit for that. Carefully study the current research of the faculty and be sure to highlight the research interests of three of them in your statement.

Throughout this narrative, be as specific as possible about your experiences and intentions. Use a formal, but conversational tone. Do not try to impress with technical jargon or disciplinary vocabulary. Be selective in your choices of what to highlight. You will not have enough space to follow a “more is better” strategy when choosing experiences and interests to emphasize. If you have a poor grade or two on your transcript, feel empowered to explain the reasons behind that grade if it reinforces your overall narrative as a researcher. For example, particularly intense volunteering may have distracted you from your coursework while also sparking the research interest that has led you to apply to grad school. If the explanation for the grade is personal, such as an illness or a death in the family, try to address it in an addendum to your application.

Be sure to proofread multiple times and have multiple people review your statement. Ask roommates, friends, or coworkers to read for clarity and grammar. Ask one of your undergraduate mentors to give you feedback on how you are describing the three kinds of fit discussed above. Above all, be true to who you are, what you have done, and what you want to do. If you get accepted on the basis of an inauthentic statement, you will likely find yourself in a graduate program that is a poor fit for you and will stifle your growth as a scholar. You want to join a program in which you will thrive. A compelling, authentic statement of purpose will help you toward that goal.

Action Items

  1. Focus on writing a narrative of how your experiences shaped your interests.
  2. Connect this narrative to the program. Cite the research interests of three of them in your statement.
  3. Proofread multiple times and ask multiple people to read your statement.

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