Writing an Effective Statement of Purpose

A statement of purpose (or personal statement; the terms are often used interchangeably) is the central piece of your application to graduate school. Think about all parts of the application and how they work together:  Show breadth on the résumé/CV and transcript; show depth in this statement.

Follow directions very clearly: if there is a specific prompt, answer every part of the question. If there are formatting instructions, follow them exactly. If no length limit is given, about 1000 words is reasonable.

Make your case clearly, concisely, and compellingly:

  1. Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF): State your main goal in the first paragraph (or even the first sentence): “I am pursuing a master’s degree in public health with a focus on epidemiology so that I can work to prevent the spread of infectious disease in the developing world.”
  2. Provide the evidence: How do you know that you will succeed? What have you done so far? How did it confirm your goal?
  3. Show your fit with the program: Why this program? Which faculty, what resources? Why is this the perfect place to do your specific work? (Don’t tell them what they already know: how, specifically, will you leverage their resources to meet your goals?)
  4. Long(ish) term plans: What will you do with the degree? How will you make the program look good as an alum 5–10 years out?

Use concrete details and specific examples. When describing work or research, talk about your specific role and the skills you used.

You may address weaknesses (e.g., low grades) or extenuating circumstances—explain, don’t excuse—especially if doing so helps you make your case: did you learn something valuable? In some cases, there’s a place for this material in a separate question on the application. Sometimes certain experiences are best explained on your behalf in a letter of recommendation.

The style and format of a personal statement differs by program:

  • Academia: the personal statement is read by faculty, so write for an audience of experts. Demonstrate knowledge and make your research interests and your fit with the program extremely clear.
  • Law school: the personal statement stands in for the interview, so tell the admissions committee what they can’t discern from the rest of your application. It really should be personal.
  • Healthcare: what is your motivation for this career? Why this particular field within healthcare? What experiences have shown you that this is the right decision?
  • Other professional degrees: provide specific, concrete evidence of your relevant experience. For example: If you are applying for an MBA program, what is your experience as an entrepreneur?


Brainstorming questions

Relevant qualifications and preparation:

  • What experience do you have that prepares you for graduate studies? What did you learn from this experience? How did it help you understand your motivation for wanting to pursue a graduate degree?
  •  What research experiences have you had? How have they helped you grow as a scholar? What skill sets have you developed? What questions do you still have?
  •  What other experiences (internship, volunteering, leadership, mentoring etc.) have been particularly formative in your decision to pursuing a graduate degree?

Focus and motivation:

  • What is your motivation for pursuing graduate study? Are there personal experiences that you can use to help you illustrate your motivation for pursuing a graduate degree?
  •  What are your research interests?
  •  What questions do you want to answer?
  •  What problems do you feel compelled to solve?
  •  What are your career goals?
  •  What kind of impact do you want your research and career to have?

Fit with program:

  • Why is a particular program the right fit for you?
  • Which faculty/research group are you especially interested to work with? How does their work align with your research interests?
  • How will attending this program help you to achieve your goals?