Your Statement of Purpose document can seem hugely intimidating, particularly if you are an undergraduate writing one for the first time. And frankly, it should feel important. This document is the first point of contact between you and the admissions committee, and it remains the only document within your application package where you are able to speak frankly and directly about who you are and why you want to go to graduate school. It is a navel gazing kind of document, where you think hard about who you are and what you want. It should be at least a little intimidating, and you should definitely not leave it until the last minute. A statement of purpose is your chance to stand out among the crowd, and become more than just grades and test scores.
This post gives you some general hacks for writing this challenging document.
Be honest about why you want to go to graduate school. It is obvious very quickly when applicants are unsure why they are applying for graduate study, or are choosing graduate school because they are uncertain about their career options. Take it from me, graduate school is hard, grueling work for very little tangible reward. If you don’t have a real, genuine passion for your chosen field of study, you should be rethinking your graduate school goals. That said, assuming you have that passion, share your genuine, honest goals and passions with the committee. Let your letter spill over with your excitement for potsherds or 17th Century letter writing. And be honest about what you expect to gain from graduate school experience. Putting in time while you figure out the rest of your life is not a good enough reason to chain your life to studying the DNA patterns of Brazilian jumping spiders.
Know your research agenda. This is particularly important for PhD students, who will have to succinctly articulate their plan of study and potential dissertation plans, but at any level you should have a general idea of what, specifically, your passions are and what kinds of things you want to study. You don’t need to know every detail specifically at this stage, but you should know more than “I love history!” What specific time period in history excites you, for example? What types of research drive your passions?
Know your field. Following the first point, it is important to know what you are applying for and why. If you want to study Rhetoric and Composition, for example, you probably shouldn’t spend your letter talking about your love of literature. It will be far easier to express your genuine passion for the field when you can talk about current, exciting research in engineering, or you understand the research goals in speech therapy. Demonstrate to the committee that you understand your field, and you will have an easier time positioning yourself as a scholar within that field.
Know the schools you are applying for. Make sure that you have done your research on the schools, and be able to customize your letter based on the programs and people there. For example, if you are passionate about studying postcolonial American poetry, you should make sure the school you’re applying to offers courses in American Literature. You should have a feel for the faculty at the school and the kinds of scholarship they produce, so that you can position yourself as a potential member of that department. Where do your passions overlap with the department, and can the school match your research agenda up with the right scholar?
Offer clear, engaging examples about why you’re a good fit for graduate study. Remember, this statement is a chance to talk about what makes you awesome. Talk about courses you’ve taken, extra curricular activities you’ve participated in, and your other accomplishments, work experiences and skills. Be specific about why you’re mentioning each example: what does your work with the English Society say about you, and how does that relate to your goals for graduate study? Use really concrete examples: talk about a specific paper you wrote, and how that relates to your future research plans.
Avoid cliche. Every single faculty member that I talked to when preparing this post mentioned that applications for English start with “Ever since I was little, I’ve loved reading!” It’s a given that you love reading if you’re applying to any graduate study (if you don’t, you might want to rethink your life choices. There is a lot of reading in graduate school). I imagine that there are these same kinds of cliched examples for every field of study; avoid these empty, bland statements whenever possible. If you are using specific, concrete examples about your life, they should be easy to avoid.
Have your statement read by as many people as possible. Your statement should be one of the first things you write when you’re thinking about applying to graduate schools. For one thing, writing this document can help you really think through whether or not graduate school is the right choice for you. But completing your statement at least a month before it is due will ensure that you can have your drafts read by faculty, friends, the writing center, and anyone else who will stop long enough for your to wave your letter at them frantically. The more feedback you get, the better and tighter this document will be. Make sure your statement is read by at least two people in your field.
Do customize your statement for specific schools
Do write a hooky, interesting opening statement
Do stay positive about your experiences and goals
Do allow some of your personality to show
Do use a professional tone
Do pay attention to document design (font choice, for example)
Do ensure you are meeting the requirements for specific schools
Do make sure that your letter is impeccably proofread and free of surface errors
Don’t name drop members of the department unless you truly know their work and can envision working with them
Don’t go over the page limit
Don’t talk about how much you love reading. Seriously.
Don’t be too informal or unprofessional, or use language that is overly flowery
Don’t get the name of the program wrong
For more hacks, there is a great collection of tips from different schools here, and useful writing exercises here. For particularly excellenttips about structure and writing a solid, hooky opening, check out Vince Gotera’s article here.
Special thanks to the English Faculty at Ball State University for their thoughts, tips, and feedback for this post!
What suggestions do you have for writing a statement of purpose? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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Communication Studies scholar Alice made the leap from her MA to industry without an internship. She reflects here: bit.ly/22lWteb
Pursuing an industry job after graduation? No internship? Alice Williams has some advice for you: bit.ly/1NH55cF