Writing the Statement of Purpose

(From the Princeton Review website, with modifications and additions by Susan Besse)

Graduate study is not for slackers. It takes focus and determination to pursue an advanced degree. That's why admissions committees examine your statement of purpose very closely—they want to see whether you have the right stuff to succeed in graduate school.



Different schools will give you different prompts for the statement of purpose. Nonetheless, they're all asking for the same four pieces of information:
  • What you want to study/research at graduate school?
  • Why you want to study/research it?
  • What experience you have in your field?
  • What you plan to do with your degree once you have it?

Admissions committees look for candidates with clear, well-defined research interests that arise from experience. With that in mind, your statement should reveal that you care deeply about your chosen discipline and that you have the background to support your ideas and sentiments. It should also demonstrate that you're a diligent student who will remain committed for the long haul.

However you approach these points, it's imperative that you answer the questions asked in the essay prompt. Being substantive and direct is much better than being creative or flashy.


Grad school applicants commonly make the error of including a paragraph about how well-rounded they are: They're avid ultimate-frisbee players, they write short stories or they love to cook. Colleges are interested in this stuff; graduate schools are not. Grad schools are looking for great minds who will achieve mastery of a specific subject area. They don't care that you make a great chicken casserole or play intramural bocce ball.

They do care about those activities that speak to your suitability for graduate work. As a graduate student, you'll be called upon to do difficult coursework and research. You may have to teach undergraduate classes within your field and conceivably even design a course. And you'll have to get along with a diverse group of colleagues who will sometimes work very closely with you. Any experience in school, work or your extracurricular life that speaks to those abilities is worth talking about. Remember, however, that doctoral programs are looking primarily for promising researchers; discussion of your experience and dedication to teaching should be subordinated to discussion of your research experience and ambitions.

Social commitment is an asset, but it is best to communicate this by demonstrating the social relevance of the research you have done and propose to pursue, and/or by discussing any experience you have teaching or mentoring students. Many admissions committees are committed to promoting diversity, but it will not advance your cause to lecture committees that are not already committed. Instead, explain how your background puts you in a position to ask important new questions, to contribute important new insights that will enrich your chosen discipline, and/or to teach and mentor a diverse range of students.


Admissions Committees are made up of professors in your discipline (and sometimes in your specialty in your discipline). Do not name drop or preach to them about what academia should be or what professors in your field should be doing. If you are conducting research in new areas or using novel research methods, they will know this; you do not have to tell them. Use the academic language you feel comfortable using; do not try to stretch to sound more knowledgeable or sophisticated than you are. This is a sure-fire way to appear foolish.

Members of Admissions Committees have piles of applications to read. Do not strain their patience with verbose language, statements that are longer than what is requested, information that is not relevant, or broad generalities. Ask yourself what purpose each sentence (and each word!) serves, and whether it helps to accomplish the goal of selling yourself as a highly qualified doctoral student in your discipline.



While it's important to be focused, there's no need to be boring. Distinguish your essay with unique (yet relevant) information. One of the best ways to do this is to discuss, briefly, an idea in your field that turns you on intellectually. It's an effective essay-opener, and it lets you write about something beside yourself for a bit.

Remember, the idea you choose to talk about can tell an admissions committee a lot about you. And it demonstrates your interest in your field, rather than just asserting it.



Be sure to show your statement of purpose to several people you respect (preferably the professors who are writing your recommendations), and get feedback on the content before you send it in. If you need to revise it, do so and then ask for more feedback.

Have someone else proofread your essay for spelling and grammar. A fresh set of eyes often picks up something you missed. Better yet, if you have enough willing friends, have a couple of people proofread each statement.

Finally, don't assume you can use the same statement of purpose for each school to which you apply. Recycle the same information, but change the presentation as needed to fit each school's individual program. The final paragraph of your statement needs to show that you are familiar with the areas of strength and the faculty of each program you apply to and that you are a good "fit" with this program. Name specific faculty members you would like to study with (making sure they are still there and not retired—"emeritus"—faculty), and explain why you think they can help you grow intellectually and successfully carry out the broad research agenda you laid out in your statement. This will require some familiarity with their publications and perhaps the approaches they use.



What aspects of your background, personal experiences, employment, volunteer work, etc. have given you important skills, insights, and/or inspiration to pursue a doctoral degree? Have you overcome special circumstances (whether socioeconomic, physical, familial, etc.)? If so, what are they and how has your experience affected your decision to pursue doctoral studies as well as the particular topics you want to research?

Will your application have some weaknesses (such as GPA, or GRE scores, or a bad semester, etc)? If so, what are these? (Often, it is best to ask the faculty members who are writing letters of recommendation for you to address these weaknesses, especially low GPA and GRE scores. If you mention past difficulties in your personal statement, do so very briefly and focus on your success in overcoming them. Always keep it positive and forward-looking.)

Was there a moment (a "turning point") when you decided you wanted to pursue doctoral studies in your discipline? Describe this.

What academic work has inspired you (including ideas, authors, specializations, methodologies, etc.)? Explain. (Grad schools want applicants to be focused, but it is also an advantage to have a broad educational background and to be flexible and open to learning. Do not shy away from discussing interdisciplinary experiences that have been formative to your intellectual development.)

What research experiences have you had, how did you find and why did you choose your research topic (if it is an individual and original project), and what have you learned in the process of conducting research? Did you face obstacles? If so, how did you overcome them? (Be sure that important academic skills you have, such as foreign language fluency or technical expertise, become apparent in some way in your application.)

If you have presented your research at a conference or published it, what is interesting/significant about this research, how does it fit into your intellectual development, and what directions does it point to in terms of future research?

What research do you want to pursue in a doctoral program and why? What excites you about this research? Why is it important / relevant? How does it fit into the broad scholarship or address key debates in your discipline?

What do you plan to do with a PhD?




(Prof. Susan Besse, History Dept)
Remember that a statement of purpose should be an intellectual autobiography. Focus on your research (future, present, past) and your intellectual interests. The committee wants to gain insight into how you think and engage with issues and authors in your discipline. Don't focus primarily on your life story. Instead, weave in (sparingly!) personal details that explain the source of your intellectual interests and reveal any interesting background or perspectives that you will bring to your studies, research, and (eventually) teaching. 
Use a thematic approach, focusing on: (1) where you want to go in the future in terms of research interests; and (2) how you have prepared yourself to succeed through present and past work. Don't be wedded to chronology. And omit or pare down to the barest minimum information about your childhood and high school years. 
Discuss the content of any readings, research projects, academic activities, etc. that have been important in shaping you. What did you learn? Explain your perspectives on key authors, or the thesis of your research paper. Reveal an understanding of your discipline and ability to engage intellectually with important issues and authors whose writings interest you. Don't include lists of courses you have taken, titles of papers you have written or presented at conferences, fellowships and prizes won, gpa, major, graduation date, or any other such factual details. These will appear on your transcript or elsewhere on the application, so it is a waste of space. Besides, this is really boring to read. 
Lay out as concretely as you can a broad research project you would like to pursue in graduate school. Try to discuss where the project fits within, and how it contributes to, scholarship in your discipline. Committees want to see that you are familiar with scholar-ship in your discipline, can conceptualize a research project, frame good questions, use professional language, etc.  Don't lay out too narrow a topic that might suggest you are inflexible, think you already know all the answers, or are not open to learning. Don't worry that anyone will hold you accountable for doing the research you propose in your statement. It is very common for grad students to change their research agenda after starting a doctoral program. 
Remember your audience: professors in your discipline who will know the authors you refer to.  Don't name drop or discuss authors whose work you do not know well. Don't list authors you have read unless you can (and do) engage with their work. 
Focus on what makes you unique/special, what distinguishes you from the pack. Don't say anything that could be said by lots of other applicants. Avoid broad generalities.
Tell stories about yourself that reveal your strengths: intelligence, ambition, passion, creativity, curiosity, focus, capacity for hard work, ability to take constructive criticism, etc… Don't just assert (in unsubstantiated claims) that you possess all kinds of excellent traits. You must show, not tell. Even your recommenders must show as well as tell. Help them out!
Keep it interesting and succinct. Engage the reader right at the start. Tell the truth, but tell a good story. Keep a sharp focus.  Don't worry about including everything; depth is better than breadth. Avoid repetition.
Keep it positive, upbeat, forward-looking. Don't reveal insecurities, weaknesses, mistakes, etc, that they don't need to know. Honesty does not require full disclosure! If you mention past difficulties, focus on your success in overcoming them. Never look like you are asking for pity. 
Conclude with a different paragraph for each application showing how your interests fit with the strengths of the programs to which you are applying and what faculty members you would like to study with. Don't misrepresent your interests, plans, and goals. Be honest and genuine; sound genuine.
Make sure the grammar, spelling, use of vocabulary, syntax, punctuation, etc. are flawless. Pack tons of content into the fewest words possible. Edit, edit, edit… Don't use jargon, slang, abbreviations, contractions, vocabulary that you cannot use properly, famous quotations, clichés, too informal or flowery language, or broad generalizations. 
Solicit feedback on your statement from various sources, especially from professors who will write you recommendations; but in the end, make sure the statement reflects who you are. Start very early! It is not uncommon for students to go through a dozen revisions over several months before they produce the best statement they can. These may be the hardest 1,000 words you will ever have to write! 

Last Updated: 07/07/2015 14:58