The Statement of Purpose Explained

The statement of purpose can seem like a vague concept when students are first introduced to it, and many may question whether they are fulfilling the requirements fully and adequately. Because confusion continues to swirl around statements of purpose, we asked Melinda Maxwell, director of graduate admissions at the University of North Georgia, to share answers to some of the most common questions students pose about this process.

  • “The statement of purpose gives an applicant the opportunity to express non-quantifiable characteristics for consideration to an admissions committee,” Maxwell notes. “This may include the applicant's personal or professional strengths and goals or passion for career fields related the academic program.” She goes on to explain that, for the admission committee, the statement provides great benefit. “Graduate school is rigorous, and admission is often competitive,” she says. “They want to select students who are not only academically qualified, but also show commitment to achieving success in the program from start to finish.”

  • Before ever sitting down to write or outline a statement of purpose, students need to ensure they thoroughly read any and all instructions or guidance provided by the school. If, after making sure they haven’t missed any details, they still need clarification, they can contact an admissions officer to receive specific answers to their questions.

  • “Expound upon why you want to achieve this degree and how you intend to use it, and include any personal, educational or professional experiences you have that would relate to the course content and research,” encourages Maxwell. “Answer the question: ‘Why should we choose you for admission to this program?’”

  • While schools like to see unique the unique skills, passions, talents and interests of prospective students, these learners must also be judicial in deciding which details may be interesting but ultimately unsuitable for the statement of purpose. While the summer you spent teaching English to adults in Slovakia is fascinating, your recipe for fail-proof chili isn’t.

  • “A personal statement is, well, more personal,” Maxwell says. “It's your voice telling who you are and why you are passionate about achieving the degree.” Most programs will ask for one or the other, she adds. “I encourage students to reflect their desire and propensity for success in either format. That being said, personal statements should include characteristics about you as an individual — separate from what they ascertain about how you perform as a student from your transcripts and recommendations.”

  • It’s imperative that students write their statements of purpose to guard against any type of plagiarism or ethical issues, but that doesn’t mean they can’t ask for help along the way. Schedule time to sit down with former professors, mentors or supervisors to help get a clearer sense of your strongest attributes. Once written, allow time for trusted friends or family to provide feedback on content, style and syntax.

What Do Grad Schools Want?

As will be discussed thoroughly in this guide, one of the most important things students can do to write a winning statement of purpose is to stay focused on their story, interests and unique qualities. While this remains true, applicants must also consider how to structure and present their SOP in a way that appeals to the needs and values of the school to which they apply. The following section highlights what schools do and don’t want to see in a statement of purpose.

What Grad Schools Do Want to See

  • “We want to know why a student is pursuing admission to this particular program,” Maxwell explains. Students who apply to countless programs without giving much thought to the unique qualities of the school itself often fall short of the institution’s expectations.
  • “We look for wording and language showing evidence that the applicant thoroughly and carefully researched the program,” she says. It’s one thing to focus on the values and mission of the school itself, but many graduate departments also have independent personalities and methods of operating. Students who tap into these qualities and highlight why they want to be in such an environment often leave a more lasting impression on admissions experts.
  • “Applicants should strive to illustrate why it’s a mutually beneficial fit, including drawing clear connections between the degree and any of their future goals,” encourages Maxwell. Many students forget that statements of purpose need to be future-focused rather than dwelling too much on the past. Admissions experts want to know about the experiences that made you the person you are today, but they also need to see that you have a plan for the degree you gain from their institution.
  • “Many students forget the simple step of clearly outlining what they are willing to commit to the program,” Maxwell notes. In the same way that universities lay out their curriculum and list of steps for moving through the program, students should provide a clear sense of what they plan to bring to the degree and how they hope to be an asset to the department and their peers.

What They Don’t Want to See

  • “We do not want to see poor writing or grammar,” Maxwell says. Applications and statements of purpose offer prospective students the first chance to demonstrate their passion for academics and seriousness about graduate education. Those who make careless errors tell the admissions panel that they aren’t taking the process seriously.
  • “Similarly, lackadaisical statements of purpose will be dismissed,” she says. Having read thousands of statements of purpose during their time in higher education, admissions experts can easily spot one that hasn’t been properly thought out.
  • “We also want to see students who understand how to maximize character limits to reflect substance,” Maxwell adds. Because many SOP forms have word limits, students must know how to succinctly and clearly convey their interests and passions within a structured space.

12 Tips for Writing a Stellar SOP

  • After filling out numerous applications, some students start paying less attention to specific instructions and instead move into autopilot mode. It’s important to remember that individual schools seek different information, so pay close attention to the prompt at hand.

  • Admission panels read thousands of applications each year, so students must find innovative ways to uniquely share their story to stand out from the pack. Instead of simply talking about the importance of sports or travel in your life, share your distinctive recollections or accomplishments.

  • Many students believe simply stating their accomplishments or activities will impress readers, but far too often they forget to qualify or quantify what they’ve done to provide context. Rather than saying you worked at a summer camp, be sure to include information such as how long, how many children, how you spent your days and any commendations you received.

  • In the same way that colleges and universities want students to share matchless information about themselves, they also want to see that students recognize the unique qualities of the school. Spend time with the institution’s vision plan and statement of values before writing your statement of purpose.

  • While it’s important that readers get a sense of your personality and motivations, it’s equally important that they understand the academic side of you. Don’t shy away from talking about what you learned during your undergraduate degree and how you hope to build on that knowledge in graduate school.

  • If you didn’t move directly from your baccalaureate program into a graduate degree, make sure you talk about how you used that time off — especially if you continued working on the skills you hope to further hone while in school. Discuss how any jobs, volunteer experiences or research contributed to your future.

  • It’s not enough to say you want to study your given topic, you must go into the specifics of the degree. As an example, students hoping to pursue a history degree should discuss specific eras, methodologies or frameworks that serve as inspirations.

  • Many students leave their statement of purpose until the last minute, as they feel overwhelmed by the task at hand. Even though it can feel intimidating to condense your life into 500 words, get started with plenty of time to spare so you aren’t scrambling the day before the application deadline.

  • Perfection rarely takes place on the first attempt, so don’t be afraid to write several drafts of your SOP. If you’re unsure of what you want to focus on in the statement, write a few versions and then see what themes or information keeps appearing. Focus on that topic and cut anything that feels irrelevant.

  • A quick Google search provides hundreds of sample SOPs for students who learn best by seeing examples. Read through a few to get an idea of writing style, structure and tone before you begin the process.

  • After getting the SOP to a point where you feel reasonably good about the content, consider asking a few people who you trust and respect to review the document. Examples include family, previous professors, mentors or supervisors. These readers can often provide perspective on whether the statement adequately conveys your abilities and passions.

  • More than a few students have labored endlessly over their SOPs only to find a careless typo or grammatical error — after the document has already been submitted. Read over your SOP several times and ask multiple people to review the document for any mistakes.

Sample Statement of Purpose

Having reviewed the many tips and tricks for writing a stellar statement of purpose, many students may feel antsy to start the process. It’s important for students to keep an eye on the overarching requirements while also ensuring they provide specific examples throughout the statement, says University of North Georgia’s Melinda Maxwell. “To begin with, students need to make sure they answer any specific questions and stay within set character or page limits,” advises Maxwell. She also reminds students of the importance of starting strong with the first paragraph. “The first paragraph should make an impact, allowing the reader to get to know you,” she explains. “Use the next section to discuss goals, relevance, commitment or drive before closing with a summary of information presented.”

If you feel overwhelmed by the task, remember to tap your resources for help. “Lots of higher education institutions offer free services to students and alumni, including graduate school application prep,” she says. “Have a professional read your statement and provide feedback prior to submission; if this service isn’t readily available, reach out to a former professor or mentor from your undergraduate experience and ask if they will agree to a review.”

SOP Template

  • 1st First paragraph: Overarching statement of goals

    Within this first section, students need to clearly and concisely let readers know what they hope to accomplish by completing this degree. For historians, their goal may be to earn a Ph.D. that allows them to move into a postsecondary teaching role upon graduation. For biologists, they may want to use the degree as a springboard for a meaningful research position. Whatever the reason, panels need to understand what you hope to do both generally and specifically. While the goal of the historian may be a teaching role, they need to provide specific examples such as time periods, methodologies or frameworks they hope to study to prepare them for specific teaching roles.

  • 2nd Second paragraph: Explanation of why you’re pursuing this goal

    This is the space where students need to clearly define their experiences up until this point in their life and connect those experiences with their desire to pursue a graduate degree. Schools want to see that you have a strong, grounded reason for pursuing advanced education, as those who don’t often find that they aren’t prepared for the rigors of graduate school. Individuals working within business may find themselves hitting a ceiling and discover that the next logical step for them involves an MBA. Meanwhile, those working in political science may discover that a master’s in public policy helps them get to the next rung on the latter. Regardless of your field, use this paragraph to passionately express your intense focus on meeting goals.

  • 3rd Third paragraph: Academic/personal survey of the field

    Not all schools require this section in their statements of purpose, but those that do want to see that students possess a good command of the discipline before admitting them. Students can use this section to highlight any books or studies that motivated them to pursue higher education. They can also discuss specific frameworks and/or methodologies they hope to study while enrolled.

  • 4th Fourth paragraph: Explanation of why this is the perfect program

    As discussed by Maxwell earlier in this guide, admissions panels want to see that students understand how their goals and interests align with the department’s vision and values. Some students decide to highlight a few professors in the department with whom they would like to study under, while others discuss the accomplishments of alumni they respect and want to emulate. Many paths exist to highlight individualized programmatic interest, and students can use this space to creatively demonstrate their knowledge of the school and department to impress the admissions officers — so long as they connect it back to their goals.

  • 5th Fifth paragraph: Summary of SOP

    Having laid out your case from various angles and made sure to hit all the points required by the school, the final paragraph provides you the space to succinctly cover all the high points once more and wrap up the statement with a neat finish. While it’s important to restate the most important aspects of yourself and your goals, be sure to keep this section short since it contains no new information.

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