The statement of purpose is one of the best ways that you can demonstrate your intellectual development, ability to write and think clearly, and knowledge of your field. Graduate admissions committees want to know that you understand what you're getting into, and that you have the commitment to survive a demanding academic program.
So how can you prove that you know what graduate school is all about? If you aren't already a graduate student, you probably have little firsthand experience to draw upon, but you almost certainly do have a broad range of other relevant experiences that you can share as you work to show the admissions committee that you've done your research and know what you're going to do with your degree.
1. Identify your goals.
2. Write about your goals.
Identify your goals.
You know you want a graduate degree, but do you know exactly what you want to do with it? What is your purpose? The guidelines for your Statement of Purpose ask you to share your background, interests, and future goals-but are you sure exactly where you want this degree to take you?
- Consider exactly why you feel so passionate about your subject area.
In your personal statement, you will need to demonstrate to the admissions committee that you have enough interest in and commitment to your field to slog through years and years of study, weekends when your friends are going camping but you have to finish a paper, and long nights wading through dense tomes just so you'll have something to say in the next day's seminar. So, spend some time considering the experiences that sparked and fuelled your interest in your field!
- Do you have a specific memory of what first got you interested in your subject?
- What experiences confirmed that this is what you really want to study?
- When did you realize that this wasn't just a casual interest, but what you actually wanted to do with your life?
- Evaluate your personality, aptitudes, and interests.
An "academic career" can mean many things, depending on the discipline and on the individual. Some people enter the academic world because they have a burning desire to teach; others are born researchers who would enjoy nothing more than spending all day in a lab; still others (perhaps most!) fall somewhere in the middle. Which type of person are you, and how did you originally discover where you "fit in"?
- Explore different career paths.
Research the various employment options available to graduates from your department. Visit university career centers, do some Internet and library research, and interview people who have jobs that appeal to you. What do people DO with a Master's Degree in Chemical Engineering? A Ph.D. in Art History? An M.F.A. in Creative Writing? Are most of the opportunities in academia or industry? Once you know where the opportunities are, it will be much easier for you to discuss your goals in a way that makes sense.
Think about where you want to be after completing your graduate degree.
Do you envision yourself on the "tenure track," teaching and researching at a large university? Teaching at a community college in a smaller urban area? Moving from academic life into industry or consulting? If you're applying to Master's-level programs, will you be able to achieve what you want to achieve with your Master's degree, or will a Ph.D. be the natural next step?
Write about your goals.
Now that you have clarified for yourself exactly why you want to attend graduate school in your particular field, it's time to articulate it to the admissions committee!
- Explain your motivations.
Share your specific memories of how you decided that teaching is the ideal career path for you, how you realized that a Ph.D. will help you break into a non-profit career, or why you are certain that a terminal master's degree in financial engineering will help you become a financial analyst. Beyond the financial rewards of your desired career path, what motivates you?
- Share some "snapshots" of the experiences that made you want to enter this field!
- Explain how your specific experiences have helped you to fine-tune your goals.
- Show the admissions committee what steps you have already taken towards these goals.
- Tailor your graduate school experience to your goals.
Will you be applying for Teaching or Research Assistantships? Have you contacted particular faculty members with experience or publications in your area of interest who could sit on your committee? Have you considered the various course offerings and come up with a "short list" of courses that will bring you closer to your career goals?
- Tailor your past experiences to your goals.
Explain not only what you know about your field, but also what you don't know-where is your knowledge particularly strong, and what areas do you still need to learn more about in order to reach your goals? What particular experiences or elements of your background make you stand out from the crowd of other applicants who want to achieve much the same thing?
- Keep your goals statement focused.
Remember that graduate school is just one step in an ongoing and flexible process, not the "magic button" that will make all your dreams come true. Even if you think your career could take you in three or four very different directions, try to commit to a single clear career path in your application. You can always change your mind!
Finally, remember that if you would like the guidance and support of experienced admissions consultants as you work on your Statement of Purpose or other parts of your grad school application, Accepted.com is here to help. We offer a range of services that can be tailored exactly to your needs.
For information on how Accepted.com can help you, please see our grad school admissions consulting and application services.
Or, if you are still researching the application process, check out our graduate school admissions resources:
- Get Your Game On: Prepping for Your Grad School Application
The essentials you need to know before you apply to grad school.
- 5 Fatal Flaws
Eliminate the five most common flaws in graduate school statements of purpose.
It’s the night before the application deadline and Jamal has completed all application forms, requested transcripts, and asked for letters of recommendation from his professors and research mentor. One last piece needs his attention, however: the personal statements. One application states, “ Discuss how your past educational, research and/or work experience(s) will contribute to your proposed studies.” Another application asks, “What are your career goals and how do you see our program supporting your goals?”
Jamal thinks, “I’ll write up a quick one-pager of my life story and send it to all the programs I’m applying to. The review committees won’t even look at it. Anyway, I’m a science major, not an English major.”
Jamal’s approach to writing a personal statement is risky; he is making several assumptions that could jeopardize his admission to graduate school. In my capacity as program coordinator of undergraduate educational research programs, I have learned what admissions committees are looking for in a personal statement. I am aware of the mistakes students commonly make and offer suggestions about how to present yourself effectively.
What is a personal statement and why is it important?
A personal statement (also known as graduate school essay, statement of interest, statement of goals, among other names) is a document, submitted as part of a graduate school application, that describes your abilities, attributes, and accomplishments as evidence of your aspirations for pursuing a graduate education and, beyond that, a career in research. This is your chance to stand out from all the other applicants.
An important quality of a graduate school personal statement is how well it communicates professional ambitions in personal terms. It outlines a career-development plan including previous experiences, current skills, and future goals. Faculty reviewing graduate school applications want to know that you have a personal commitment--the deeper the better--to the path you desire.
What is the structure of a personal statement?
Your personal statement should clearly express your understanding of what graduate school is about and how the graduate degree will build upon your previous experiences toward the attainment of your career goals. The outline below is just a guideline, a suggested structure. You can follow it precisely or devise a structure of your own. But either way, make sure your personal statement has structure and that it makes sense.
The Introduction--Set the stage for the rest of your essay. Begin with a hook (i.e., a personal anecdote that relates to your career path, a unique perspective on your academic career, or a statement that clearly summarizes your level of commitment) that will draw the reader into your story. Once you lose a reader, he or she is gone for good. On the other hand, don’t get too creative or humorous; you may offend someone inadvertently.
The Body--Describe your experiences, professional goals, your motivation for attaining these goals, and how you intend to get there. Discuss the research project(s) you’ve been involved with intelligently and clearly: identify your research area, state the research question you were addressing, briefly describe the experimental design, explain the results, state the conclusions, and describe what you gained from the experience. If you have not been directly involved in hands-on research, describe other experiences you’ve had that have influenced your career path, how the graduate degree will advance you toward your career goals, and why you feel you would be adept at such a career. Provide evidence of your progress and accomplishments in science, such as publications, presentations at conferences, leadership positions, outreach to younger students, and related experiences that sparked your interest in specific areas of science. Since this section--the body--demonstrates that you can communicate science effectively, you should devote the bulk of your writing time to it.
The Conclusion--Once you're done with the body, it's just a matter of wrapping things up. This is a good place to reaffirm your preparation and confidence that graduate school is right for you. Explain what contributions you hope to make--to science or society--and how a graduate degree will help you make that contribution.
Questions to consider
The following questions will help shape your personal statement. Address the ones you feel are most appropriate to what you want to convey to the review committee. Most of these questions will be addressed in the body of the piece, but one or more may help you structure the article as a whole.
Why should the admissions committee be interested in you? Why might you be a stronger candidate for graduate school than other applicants?
How or when did you become interested in a specific area of science? Was it through classes, readings, seminars, work, or conversations with people already in the field? What have you learned about the field and about yourself that has further stimulated your interests?
Are there any gaps or discrepancies in your academic record that you need to explain?
Have you had to overcome any unusual obstacles or hardships in your life? How have these experiences shaped your professional growth?
What personal characteristics do you possess that would tend to improve your chances of success in the field (i.e ., persistence, determination, good problem-solving skills, a knack for collaborative--or independent--work)? Provide evidence.
What experiences, skills, attributes, both in and out of the lab, make you qualified?
Tailor your personal statement to the institution and program you’re applying to. Be certain your statement is in line with the program’s mission and focus. Describe why you want to work with specific faculty members in that particular program. If you’re interested in studying obesity, for example, be sure that institution or program has researchers working on obesity.
Describe your research concisely and leave out minute details (e.g., 1M solution of NaCl was added to the master mix at 50oC…).
Stick to the length guidelines specified in the application. If there aren't any length guidelines, keep the document to about 2 single-spaced pages of typewritten text, no more than 3 pages.
Proofread for spelling, punctuation, and grammar errors.
Give your essay to at least 3 other people who will provide feedback and suggestions for improvement. Consider all feedback and revise accordingly.
Don’t use slang.
Don’t use abbreviations unless generally known in the scientific community (AIDS and DNA are fine, but spell out other, discipline-specific technical terms instead of using abbreviations).
Don’t make up experiences you’ve never had or write what you think the review committee wants to hear.
Don’t send in a first draft.
Write it yourself; don't steal--or borrow--someone else's words.
Don’t say you want to help people, want to cure cancer, or use other clichés. A desire to help humanity can be a plus, but only when expressed in very specific terms.
Things to keep in mind
Here are three points that you should be aware of while writing.
Remember your audience. Applicant review committees are composed primarily of faculty from the department you are applying to. They may be familiar with some terminology but assume that they are not familiar with all aspects of your research project. Faculty read many--sometimes hundreds of--applications. Make your statement unique.
If you are submitting applications to multiple programs, each personal statement should be customized for that particular institution and application. Ensure that each personal statement includes the correct name of the institution or program and states faculty member's names correctly.
Ensure that you address specific questions posed as part of the personal statement portion of each application for different programs.
The personal statement is an important part of your application package. Developing one is a process that takes time, persistence, and revision. Start early and take it seriously. Remember, the statement is a reflection of you. Don’t be like Jamal. Use it to your advantage and it will land you an interview with your program of choice. Happy writing.
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Brian Rybarczyk is director of academic and professional development at UNC Chapel Hill's graduate school. He has a Ph.D. in pathology and laboratory medicine from the University of Rochester.