Writing a Strong Statement of Purpose: Some Practical Advice and Answers to FAQs


By SMU Graduate Studies on November 29, 2018

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The dreaded statement of purpose — every program asks for it, but why is it so difficult to write? Your statement of purpose might seem intimidating at first, but it is meant to serve as an introduction to your graduate application.

Like a cover letter for a job application, it provides an opportunity for you to highlight your strengths and fill in the gaps. If you need some help getting started with yours, read our advice below for writing a meaningful statement that will allow your application to stand out from the crowd.

Research, research, research!

Being admitted to a program is a great feeling, but if you enroll in a program that doesn’t match your research interests or help support your career goals, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment later down the road. Applying for admission to a program is all about fit. Faculty reviewers are looking for students who best represent the department’s mission and will help them reach their research objectives.

By the time you apply, you should have a solid understanding of what the department’s primary research and content areas are, and which faculty members you’d like to work with more closely. This might mean finding out more information about what their labs do and reading published articles related to their work.

Be sure to include how your interests and past experiences align with the work that they do and how you would actively contribute to those endeavors. This approach shows that you took the time to look into their program, and in turn the committee will be more willing to invest theirs in reviewing your application.

Don’t be afraid to address your weaknesses

Many people assume they should avoid listing their shortcomings in their essay. The whole point of applying to a program is to impress the reviewers, right? However, by addressing your weaknesses in a constructive manner, you demonstrate how this program can help you achieve your academic goals.

Take a look at the course catalog and read through the courses that are part of the program. If there is a particular class that fascinates you, talk about how it could help you obtain a new skill or a better understanding of a concept that you’ve struggled with before. This demonstrates that you are actively seeking out programs that will help you further your education. It also exhibits that you’re mindful of the areas in which you need to learn more and grow, which shows maturity and the ability to self-assess.

Keep it succinct

If your program of interest does not specify a word or page limit, it’s best to assume that your statement should not exceed two pages total. It should be enough to give them a glimpse of who you are and what you have to offer, but not share your entire life story.

The aim is to communicate how and why this particular program is going to help you meet your academic and career goals. Limited space means that you need to prioritize what you include in your statement. Create an outline before you start writing to ensure you include the points that are relevant to your application and the program to which you are applying.

Your statement is also an example of how well you can write. By framing your essay before you write it, you can avoid stream-of-consciousness writing that can often come across as undefined and incoherent.

Proofread! And read it over and over

When you think you have a finished product, read your essay out loud. This makes it easier to catch typos, poor grammar, and oddly-worded sentences. If you have a friend who is also applying to grad school, help each other out by editing each other’s essays. Having someone else read your statement and ask questions can help you clarify your points and make it more compelling. Your statement is your one chance to present yourself professionally in your own words. The occasional mistake is excusable, but messy writing will make the reviewers think you lack attention to detail.

Before you hit submit on that application, be certain you have attached the correct document for the right institution. It can be very embarrassing if your statement mentions the wrong faculty member’s name or refers to another school’s library! It could also cause the reviewers to think that you are not as serious about their program. You’ve spent a good amount of time perfecting your application, so take your time to review everything before you submit. You can rest easily knowing you’ve presented your best.

Get tips and learn more about how to apply to a Ph.D. by reading our guide on Choosing, Applying for, and Thriving in a Ph.D. Program!

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