How to Write a Graduate School Statement of Purpose
The College Essay
Every graduate school statement of purpose should include two things:
- Your purpose for applying to grad school
- Your preparation for attending to grad school
In these essays, you aren’t telling the story of a single incident, you’re crafting a narrative that covers years of experience in your field. It’s the story of why you want to do this work and why you can do this work.
Step One: Coming up with Content
First, you’ll want to decide what should be included in your grad school statement of purpose. Brainstorm with the following questions. We’ve sorted them into three broad categories.
- Goals: What motivates you to pursue your degree? What do you plan to specialize in within your course of study? If you are pursuing a research degree, how would you summarize your research interest as a question, problem statement, or theme? What are your goals immediately after graduation? Five years after graduation? Twenty years after graduation?
- Catalyst: Which particular experiences sparked your interest in pursuing this field of study? Focus on your life in college and after graduation, and think about academic, work and personal experiences that helped you realize this was what you wanted to do.
- Academic: What are the academic steps you’ve taken that have prepared you to pursue this course of study? Think about high-level coursework, projects, research, conferences, academic mentorships and publications.
- Work: What are the professional steps you’ve taken to grow your knowledge in this field? Think about jobs, professional mentorships, and professional development.
- Independent Learning: What else have you done to grow your knowledge in this field? If you’ve kept up on current research relating to your interests, think about the developments and publications that excite you.
How graduate school will help: Why is this degree the logical next step in your intellectual and professional journey? What will you be able to do with this degree that you would not be able to do without it?
Look at your answers to all of these questions, and then try to write a sentence or two that summarizes the most important points. This is your statement of purpose- a thesis for your essay as a whole. Let it guide you as you craft your story.
Step Two: Structuring your Story
How long should a graduate school statement of purpose be? That depends. Some programs will give specific prompts and lengths, others won’t. You should try to tell your story in one or two succinct pages, as most essays will have a 500-1000 word limit, and you want to be able to adapt your statement for multiple schools.
In general, word limits for graduate school statements of purpose aren’t strict. The important thing is to lay out your goals and experience in a clear, comprehensible way. Here’s a simple structure to help guide you.
Introduction The introduction must succinctly state your purpose. If it’s a research/academic degree (like a Phd in physics), it will need to cover the specific subfield and what you hope to accomplish within it. If it’s a professional degree (like an MBA), it needs to cover career goals that can only be achieved with the help of a degree.
- “By investigating X and Y, I hope to provide new insight into the question of Z.”
- “By A and B, I hope to start a company that will C.
If you like, you can start your introduction with an experience that sparked your interest in this field of study— one of the catalysts from your brainstorming session. For example:
- A student pursuing an MBA in order to start a company focusing on curing a particular disease might summarize how being diagnosed with that disease changed her life.
- A student pursuing a particular subfield of chemistry might describe the project that led them to fall in love with that subfield.
- Note: If you include a catalyst, it should only take up a few sentences. It’s crucial to move quickly into your overall thesis by the end of that first paragraph.
Section One: Relevant Experience: This section, which should take up the bulk of your essay, is where you can prove that you’ve done the work needed to prepare for a successful grad school career. It will definitely require multiple paragraphs! You can include:
- Relevant work experience
- Relevant academic experience
- Relevant independent learning or personal experience
- Note: Any method of ordering the experience is okay, as long as it’s clear for the reader and flows logically from one experience to the next. It’s always going to be different based on what you’ve done.
Section Two: Why This School: This is where you can discuss any relevant school-specific resources, and make a strong case for why joining this department at this university is the next best step for you… and a great choice for the school!
- Research applicants will often know exactly which professors they need to work with, and might have already connected with them.
- Professional applicants might reference specific programs or networking opportunities, or explain how the typical career path of grads from this program is the path they want to follow.
- Note: You don’t have to separate your “Why This School” section from your “Relevant Experience” section! Some applicants might benefit from combining them, mentioning relevant experiences next to school-specific opportunities. (Just be aware that this will take a bit more effort if you are customizing your essay for lots of schools.)
- This is where you can summarize why you’re qualified for admission to this program, and how it will support their goals. I.E. why is this program the logical next step?
Step Three: Make it Perfect
Once you have a draft of your essay, it’s time to revise! Leave yourself plenty of time. For a piece of writing this important, you should expect to go through at least three drafts: one to get the basics down, a second to clear up any issues with structure and content, and a third to polish your writing on the sentence level.
When you are ready to polish, prioritize straightforward, error-free, professional writing. There’s no need to be poetic in a graduate school statement of purpose— your goal should be to communicate your purpose and preparation as clearly as possible.