On Writing Statements of Purpose

By Ephraim Freed

Hundreds of written pieces come into the University Writing Center each semester. As consultants, we have to be acquainted with a vast array of assignment types and citation formats. During sessions, we put significant effort into helping clients make the best out of the given assignment, but we also work at transforming them into better writers. Investing ourselves in the well-being of clients can be stressful when they bring in something with serious real-world implications. Some of the most high-stakes written pieces clients bring with them to the University Writing Center are “statements of purpose” on graduate school applications. Clients have come to me with these pieces frequently enough that I decided to do some research on what constitutes a good statement of purpose and how to improve the early drafts they bring in. What follows is a collection of advice for such clients:

Each university has its own requirements, so (as with all assignments) reading the prompt is absolutely necessary; however, there are typical questions that need to be answered on each statement of purpose. The reader needs to know what you want to study and why, what experience you already have in the field, and what you will do with your degree. Most colleges want the statement to be short, perhaps as few as 300 words, and so every sentence counts. You are expected not only to provide the necessary information, but also to make it stand out from the competition. Imagine a half-dozen professors sitting at a table for hours on end, going over hundreds of statements of purpose. Much like a resume, the goal is to capture the attention of these professors as quickly as possible.

A common mistake is opening the statement with something like “I am applying to the graduate program at Appalachian State University.” They already know that. Skip it. Instead, start by telling a brief personal narrative. Discuss the history of your interest in the field, but don’t write something like, “As far back as I can remember, I’ve been interested in…” Come up with a solid starting point, and make yourself look like a real person to bring the readers closer to you.

Be selective in what information you provide. Hobbies and sporting preferences are not necessary, unless they directly connect to your field of study. What the professors want to see is your familiarity with the field, examples of your work ethic, and whether or not you are willing to work with a diverse crowd of people. Prove you already know a thing or two about the field by talking about a specific sub-area of research you find interesting. Not only does this express your knowledge, but it also assures the professors that you know exactly what you want to study at the university.

At some point in the statement, you need to bring up what you plan to do with the knowledge you attain in the graduate department. Don’t undersell your dreams. If you want to get a PhD and teach at the university level, say so. If you are still struggling to decide what career you want, but are fairly sure grad school is the next step, consider several options, and write down what sounds most likely. You can change your mind later; just let the professors know you are thinking seriously about the matter.

Finally, it is always a good idea to bring the statement back in after revising; you can even take it to the Career Center. The more sets of eyes on the project, the better.

For more information, see the following:

The Princeton Review’s Writing the Statement of Purpose:

http://www.princetonreview.com/grad/statement-of-purpose.aspx

Vince Gotera’s How to Write a Great Statement of Purpose:
http://www.uni.edu/~gotera/gradapp/stmtpurpose.htm