Higher Education > Advanced Advice

The Statement of Purpose

How to write a personal statement, aka the statement of purose, for your graduate school application

By the editors of gecc

There's one piece of the process that you cannot rely on anyone to write for you—the statement of purpose. This is your opportunity to dazzle the admissions committee with your intelligence, maturity, focus and compatibility with the faculty's research interests. All of the admissions officers, deans, and faculty I've interviewed take this part of the application seriously, and some weigh it as the number one criterion for evaluation. In addition, many faculty regard the essay as an example of your writing skills, an important part of your graduate career whether you're pursuing English or engineering.

Writing an essay, or personal statement, is often the most difficult part of the application process. Requirements vary widely in this regard. Some programs request only one or two paragraphs about why you want to pursue graduate study, while others require five or six separate essays in which you are expected to write at length about your motivation for graduate study, your strengths and weaknesses, your greatest achievements and solutions to hypothetical problems.

An essay or personal statement for an application should be essentially a statement of your ideas and goals. Usually it includes a certain amount of personal history, but unless an institution specifically requests autobiographical information, you do not have to supply any. Your aim should be a clear, succinct statement showing that you have a definite sense of what you want to do and enthusiasm for the field of study you have chosen. Your essay should reflect your writing abilities. More important, it should reveal the clarity, the focus and the depth of your thinking.

Before writing anything, stop and consider what your reader might be looking for; the general directions or other parts of the application may give you an indication of this. Admissions committees may be trying to evaluate a number of things from your statement, including the following things about you:

  • Expectations with regard to the program and career opportunities
  • Writing ability
  • Major areas of interest
  • Research or work experience
  • Reasons for deciding to pursue graduate education in a particular field and at a particular institution
  • Maturity
  • Personal uniqueness—what you would add to the diversity of the entering class

If there is information in your application that might reflect badly on you, such as poor grades or a low admission test score, it is better not to deal with it in your essay unless you are asked to. Keep your essay positive. You will need to explain anything that could be construed as negative in your application, however, as failure to do so may eliminate you from consideration. You can do this on a separate sheet entitled "Addendum," which you attach to the application, or in a cover letter that you enclose. In either form, your explanation should be short and to the point, avoiding long, tedious excuses. In addition to supplying your own explanation, you may find it appropriate to ask one or more of your recommenders to address the issue in their recommendation letter. Ask them to do this only if they are already familiar with your problem and could talk about it from a positive perspective.

In every case, essays should be word processed or typed. It is usually acceptable to attach pages to your application if the space provided is insufficient. Neatness, spelling and grammar are important.

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Higher Education > Advanced Advice