Writing a Winning Grad School Statement of Purpose


Your statement of purpose for graduate school is an important part of the application process, and one that should not be taken lightly when you are preparing it. Graduate programs receive many applications from potential graduate students, each one detailing GPA's, letters of recommendation, past club memberships, and other standardized criteria. The statement of purpose is the place where you demonstrate your individuality, even outside of academics, and why this specific graduate program at this university and you make the perfect match. All things being equal in other areas including diversity, transcripts, test scores, community service, or free space within the college or relevant fellowships, your statement of purpose could become the deciding factor in whether staff accept or decline you the opportunity to join a program.

The content of a statement of purpose needs use professional language, while at the same time displaying some of your personality, so that the professors on the committee get a feel of how you would be in person if they were teaching you. Knowing how to find the balance between your unique personality and professional wording will help you write a successful grad school statement of purpose.

What is A Statement of Purpose (SOP) for Grad School?

A statement of purpose is basically a sales pitch to secure you a position as a graduate student. While it's important that you meet other deadlines, this is a significant part of the application process. Admissions committee members will read hundreds of these from students each year, along with student GPAs, required documents, recommendations, and more.

The difference between a statement of purpose and other parts of the application is that the statement of purpose starts as a blank canvas on which you use words to paint a picture of exactly who you are as a person and why this is the graduate study program for you. You will use it to not only detail your educational and life goals, but to also tell your story about why you wish to pursue graduate education and point out why you would be an asset to the program.

What Do Schools Look For?

To know what it is the schools look for in a statement of purpose, it is important to know what they are not looking for. Graduate schools are not looking for generalists. If your statement of purpose says you love everything about the field or industry that the program targets, admission committee members will most likely move quickly to the next applicant's package.

What they are looking for is a selective, thoughtful plan of action for your education and future career. What this means for this essay is that you might need to pick a niche or focus within the field of study you’re looking to enter and target it. You might note a current faculty member with which you'd like to study, an alumni who has experienced success, or international development opportunities that you wish to complete within the program. Don't worry that you're locking yourself in – program leaders understand that interests change and, when you get to campus, you could very well move in a different direction, but this shows that you have thought about your future, you can see yourself in the program, and have a direction to start. The last thing graduate programs want is the student who still has unanswered questions about their future career joining the program to “experiment” in the field; you should search through your available options in your undergraduate experience.

The following elements are important components of your statement of purpose:

  • Educational interests
  • Research interests (where applicable)
    If the program includes research-based studies, take some time to describe the main research you hope to be a part of while in the program and why you want to develop those research interests.
  • Professional goals
    Schools are interested in knowing that, if they give you access to their graduate degrees, you will use the skills and knowledge that you gain to work in the field or industry it pertains to.
  • Your qualifications
    Be specific when you use an example. These should be additional things you have accomplished in your personal, professional, or educational life that dovetail with what this program offers.
  • Your contributions
    Now is the time to shine. Use real life, past experiences, activities, and accomplishments that align with the intent of the graduate program. Showcase why you were good at these, special knowledge you learned from them, and how they helped prepare you for this specific program.
  • Program interest
    The admissions committee knows what is good about the program, but it needs to know that you know. Use this section to explain why this graduate program is the one you want and how it will help you develop skills and useful knowledge and help you get close to your future education or career goals.

Overall, your statement of purpose should convey your passion for the field the program prepares you for, whether that is within the realm of social services or hard science. Do not make general statements such as “I love helping people solve problems.” Instead use something like “My volunteer work with the homeless population opened my eyes to the lack of mental health help for this group. This program will help me to become a counselor and target the homeless-indigent parents of this group and provide them with coping tools and guidelines that will help them parent their children within the harshness of their living situation.”

The most important component in writing a statement of purpose is to show the admissions committee who you are. They read a large number of statements that students submit, and at some point many of them start to sound alike. Your ace in the hole is to be sure yours paints such an accurate picture of who you are, it is as if they know you personally.

Most parts of an application for graduate school are dry forms and require more of a mechanical response. In your statement of purpose, you can let your personality shine through, while remaining professional throughout. Do you have hobbies or volunteer work that you do and that aligns with this program's foundation? This is the time to bring it up and detail note why it helped prepare you for grad school in general and this program specifically. You should also consider the statement of purpose a place to include anything you feel is important for the committee to know, but there was no other place on the application to work it in.

NOTE: Check the school's website admission's section to find exactly what this particular school's admission committee expects to see in a statement of purpose. They may have policies in place about whether or not they want explanations of grades included or what type of language is appropriate.

Steps to Take When Writing Your Essay

While your statement of purpose should be as individual and unique as you are, there are specific steps you can follow to produce the best possible outcome.

  • Be aware of specific requirements and prompts
    Check the school's website admissions area to determine specifications for the statement of purpose. Is there a length requirement? What specific prompts, if any, do they want you to use? Note these at the beginning and then check again at the end to be sure you followed them.
  • Prepare/Outline
    Using an outline or list of points you wish to include will help reduce your stress level as you put the statement together. The last thing you want is to remember after sending it in that you left important information out. Make an outline, or a list of points before you begin writing so that you can check against it and include everything.
  • Be Specific/Unique/Enthusiastic
    Target this specific program and the reasons it is what you are looking for. Hand pick several aspects of this program and detail how it will add to your knowledge and what you believe you will get out of it. Also, show sincere enthusiasm, not only for the program, but also for the school overall. Do some research into whether awards have been achieved by the academic department and mention them here.
  • Relate your interests and plans to your chosen program
    By the time you are ready for graduate school, you should already be settled on a chosen career. To this end, outline and include what those plans are and how this particular program is going to help you attain those goals.
  • Make sure they know why you want to be there rather than anywhere else
    This is the time to get specific. Do the research, find out the background of the program. Did this department create, publish, invent, or support something noteworthy? Now is the time to bring it up and discuss how your past accomplishments and future goals will fit right in here.
  • Proofread/Refine
    Get an outside view. Enlist the help of a friend or mentor who understands the field of study and your career goals to read your statement and provide feedback. Ask them to proofread and make suggestions on any areas that are not flowing or are too vague. You can take those suggestions and decide whether or not to apply them to the statement. You might consider asking a professional, such as anyone that wrote you a recommendation letter, to do this so you have a more practiced eye on the whole thing.

Writing Tips and Advice

Start this process early so that you don't become rushed. You minimize the chance of leaving important information out of this statement if you aren't anxious about rushing to meet the deadline, which you should definitely mark on your calendar. In addition to giving yourself plenty of time, the following tips can help build a well-written, program-specific, all-star statement of purpose.

  • Make sure you understand the prompts. It‘s easy to misread or misinterpret prompts at first glance. Take the time to go back, read it a second or even third time, and think about what they are asking for. Be sure to understand what it is the admissions committee wants before you begin the outline. Once started, go over the prompts again periodically to be sure you are staying on track and selecting experiences that work within those prompts.
  • Take a few days before beginning to think about the graduate program this is meant to address. Find out what you can about how it is structured and why this particular program will benefit your school and life goals. List them so that you remember to mention these factors when you write the statement.
  • Brainstorm and make a list of your most unique qualities as a person that work with this specific graduate program. Do the same thing with past experiences and select 2-3 that you will showcase. A unique statement of purpose will stand out as long as it targets key elements of the graduate program you’re looking to enter.
  • One thing all graduate programs have in common is that they are academic in nature. Spend some time deciding on and writing about your academic strengths. If there are any weak areas, a questionable grade, or other issues, address them with one or two sentences, then continue on with the positive information.
  • Include your research desires. Regardless of the field of study, most graduate programs require research and a paper detailing and defending that research in order to graduate. Show enthusiasm for the chance to do this. If you already have ideas about what area you would like to research, provide the details here.
  • Include non-school periods. Did you take summers off? What did you do? Hopefully, you can detail volunteer work, personal research projects, educational travels – even if you were on vacation, and other activities demonstrating you are actively engaged in life and in your future area of interest/study. For periods of illness or injury that kept you out of school, keep it short and sweet, but do address it with assurances you are on top of your game and ready to move forward.
  • Find other statements of purpose, preferably from friends who got accepted to grad school and see how they wrote them. Don't copy them, you want yours to be unique, but it will give you an idea about what admissions committees like to see.
  • Edit and proofread several times. Then find an English major and have that person do the same. A fresh set of eyes always helps. If you don't know an English major, find someone whose statement got them into graduate school and have that person edit and proofread yours. This is a crucial step in the process. While going through the writing process, rough draft, final version, and everything in between, you have seen your statement many times. That makes it easier for your eyes to skip over small errors, such as typos, and not notice them. This is the same reason authors have editors; it’s important that you get a third party to read your statement and catch any errors prior to sending it in. A statement filled with errors suggests you aren't concerned about details.
  • When it is completed, proofed, and edited, if you have time, set it aside for several days. Don't look at it during this time. After 3-4 days, sit down when you are well-rested and not distracted and read it out loud. If it sounds great, send it in. If not, make corrections and reread it out loud, then send it in.
  • Always keep a copy of the statement of purpose for your own records. This is especially important if you are applying to more than one program. You might get called in for a personal interview, and you can read the copy again right before the interview to refresh what you highlighted in it.