Writing Your Statement of Purpose for Graduate School Applications


Don’t write the same things everyone else writes.

I recently had a conversation with a professor on the admissions committee at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I had applied to the School’s Master of Fine Arts Writing Program, and she called me on a Sunday night to give me a surprise phone interview. We ended up talking about my statement of purpose, which was quite unconventional. Although I felt my statement of purpose expressed who I was, what I wanted to do with my life, how I got there, and why I had chosen that school, I was afraid that because I hadn’t said the “typical” things that I might not be taken seriously as an applicant.

This professor reassured me that I’d written a wonderful statement of purpose, and that was why she wanted to call and get to know more about me. She said that she got so sick of all the applicants who wrote the same things, over and over again. “Of course they want to ‘attend our fine, fine institution with our fine, fine faculty,'” she said. “I get excited when I see something that stands out, with real reasons for their choices.”

I got my acceptance letter in the mail two weeks later.

The lesson to be learned here is that it’s better to be brave and honest in your statement of purpose than say the “right” things. The rationale behind the statement of purpose is that you’ve already demonstrated your qualifications in the rest of your applications. The statement of purpose helps the school you’re applying to determine whether or not what you want to do fits well with their particular program. The more honest you are, the more likely you are to get accepted by a school that will be as good for you as you are for them.

Don’t waste words on the obvious.

If you are applying to law school, don’t start out your statement of purpose with, “I want to become a lawyer” or “I think I would make a great lawyer.” They know that already-that’s why you’re applying. If you want to attend a particular graduate school because it’s top-rated, don’t say “I chose to apply to X program because it’s the best in the country.” Trust me, they know that already and assume you do, too.

Instead, get specific. Say, “My experiences volunteering as a clerk for the ACLU made me realize how gratifying the practice of law can be when it helps protect citizens’ First Amendment rights.” That’s a much more interesting statement, and it says something about you as a person. The fact that you want to become a lawyer is implied.

If you are applying to a top-ranked school, state specifically what you like about their program. Everyone wants to go to the best schools, but showing that you know something about their program means that you did your research and aren’t just looking for a name. Don’t write, “I want to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago because The U.S. News and World Report has ranked its MFA programs as number one in the country since 1994.” Who cares? That says nothing about why YOU want to attend. Instead, write “The School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s interdisciplinary approach to the study of art will allow me to present my short stories with photographs in an artist book format, which is something I’ve always wanted to experiment with.”

Don’t lie.

Lying will get you nowhere on your statement of purpose. If you are discovered lying, your application will be denied. On the off chance you get away with a lie and are accepted, you may not end up at a graduate school that is right for you.

The admissions committee will already have a pretty good sense of your life story from your resume, your transcripts, your writing samples, and your letters of recommendation. If you claim to have achieved something you didn’t in your statement of purpose, it will raise suspicion. Any major accomplishments in your personal, professional, or academic life will also appear in the other application materials, so fabricating something for your statement of purpose will give you away.

Likewise, don’t stretch the truth. If you volunteered for one semester as a tutor, don’t claim to have been volunteering since childhood. If you took one class in statistics, don’t claim to have taken several classes in political analysis. Instead, tell the admissions committee how a particular experience volunteering or in a class led you to want to further your studies. After all, if you’d already achieved all your professional goals, you wouldn’t need to go to graduate school.

Don’t ignore the instructions.

Every graduate school has different requirements for their statement of purpose. Read the instructions, and then follow them. If they want no more than 600 words and you send them 1200, you’re going to look like a jerk. If they want a single-spaced paragraph that fits on one page, and you send two double-spaced pages stapled together, you will look incompetent. Remember, you want the admissions committee to think of you as a capable person, ready for intense academic work. Not following simple instructions will give them reason to doubt your abilities.

Don’t send the same statement of purpose to every school.

Every graduate school has a different philosophy and different requirements for admission and graduation. If you write and photocopy one statement of purpose to send to all the schools you apply to, chances are good that you’re going to leave out something crucial.

What you can do to save yourself some time is to create a statement of purpose template. Write a generic statement of purpose and save it as a master file. When you go to write individual statements of purpose for the different schools you are applying to, open your template and insert and delete information pertinent to the individual school.


Do answer the question.

If the guidelines for a graduate school’s statement of purpose include questions to answer or issues they would like you to address, answer them! It seems like silly advice, but not answering a question contained in the instructions will lose you serious points. Have a copy of the instructions with you when you write the statement of purpose. When you revise and edit your statement of purpose, reread the instructions. Make sure you addressed all the key points and answered all the questions.

Do use humor.

If you’re a funny person, use that to your advantage. Think about the poor admissions committee, bogged down with stacks and stacks of applications to wade through. After awhile, they all probably look the same. A great way to be memorable is to make someone laugh and lighten the work a bit. You want to be taken seriously as a scholar, but a funny phrase, observation, or story will show the admissions committee that you might be a neat person to have around in the fall.

Do get personal.

Remember, they want to know you. All your facts and figures are neatly documented on the stacks of paper they’ve already got in your application packet. It’s almost a shame you get so few words to really shine as an actual person. Use them all to be yourself. If you had a particular role model, mentor, or moment of inspiration that led you down your particular path, tell them about it. We don’t make our choices inside an academic bubble-the real world influences us just as much.

Do play up your accomplishments.

While you shouldn’t ever lie to an admissions committee, or even brag excessively, chances are you’ve done some pretty great things. If you can work in a reference or two to some of your greatest accomplishments, do it. If you’ve overcome obstacles to succeed, let them know. Your statement of purpose is to make you human, but we’re all proud of something.

Do state specifically what you like about the program.

When you look at a particular graduate school’s material, pay attention to their mission statement. It should give you a pretty clear idea of how they teach. It should also give you an idea of how they structure their program. For example, some graduate writing programs claim to “teach” people how to write better, while others assume you already know how to write exceptionally well and “guide” you while you work on a focused project. Also, some writing programs concentrate mostly on writing, while others delve heavily into the academics of literary theory.

In your statement of purpose, you should demonstrate that you have familiarized yourself with the program by expressing what you like and how that fits with what you want. For example, “The heavy emphasis on literary theory as well as producing works of fiction will not only help me achieve my writing goals, but will also prepare me for a Ph.D. program in the future.”

Do give them a plan for your studies.

By the time you’re ready for graduate school, you should be ready for a long period of independent study. Most graduate schools want to know what you plan to study or create for your thesis project before they admit you. While no one will hold you to writing your thesis based on your statement of purpose once they’ve let you in, you do need to have a rough plan. Much like a campaign speech, you are welcome to change your platform once in office.

You don’t need to get too specific for this, but you do need to demonstrate movement in a particular direction.

Examples of a plan of study might be:

“I plan to focus my research on the effects of long-term smoking on the breakdown of cellular mitochondria.”

“Bakhtinian heteroglossia as evidenced in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales will be the focus of my thesis, with particular emphasis on the voices of the female characters.”

“For my thesis project, I intend to photograph people in the workplace over a period of several months to demonstrate a general discontinuity between the American concepts of job versus personal identity.”

No matter what you plan to do while you’re in graduate school, it should look like a logical progression from the person you’ve become over the course of your accumulated studies and life experience.

Good luck, and remember to make your statement of purpose yours and no one else’s.

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