Of all the factors that come into play when applying to graduate school, writing the statement of purpose is oftentimes the biggest challenge for students.
And while it’s easy to brush it off as just another supplemental essay on the winding list of requirements, the truth is, admissions officers weigh it significantly when making their final decision. After all, they want to see whether or not you have the skills, drive and passion to make it through an advanced degree.
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We spoke with John Fulmer of the Princeton Review for some strategies to help students write their way into the school of their choice.
Do your homework
Before you even begin writing, research the university, says Fulmer. And that doesn’t mean scrolling through a few admissions pages. Students should thoroughly investigate the faculty— and then use that research in their writing. After all, it’s not enough to say you want to attend a university because it has a top-ranked political science department. A more strategic statement of purpose would say, “I’d like to attend this university because professor Rubenstein’s research on the relationship between democracy and development is something I’m really interested in.” In other words: Get specific. At the end of the day, you want to be able to tell admissions officers, “I know the faculty, I’ve read some of their publications, I know what they’re working on, and I’m excited to learn from them.”
Tell a story
“It’s really easy to sit down and write something that says, ‘I’ve been passionately interested in this topic for most of my life, and that’s why I want to go to graduate school,’” says Fulmer. The problem with that approach is that 90 percent of applicants are saying the same exact thing. To stand out from the crowd weave together a narrative of exactly what it was that sparked your interest in the field. Hook the reader by beginning with your moment of epiphany — and then take him step by step through the journey. When you get to the end, “that’s when you describe what it is that you want to get out of this passion,” he says.
Just don’t make it sound like a diary entry. “The language needs to be relaxed enough that you can tell the story in your own voice, but formal enough to remind yourself that there are strangers who are ultimately reading and evaluating your intelligence,” says Fulmer.
Give yourself time
You might have waited until the last minute to submit papers during college, says Fulmer, “but a statement of purpose is not something you write the night before it’s due.” For one, there’s a lot of ground to cover with such a limited word count. “If you try write it too fast, you’re going to have a lot of difficulty getting the details to fit,” he explains.
Once you’ve successfully written up your first draft, you should be handing it to others to proofread. “You want to shop it around to a few professors whose opinion you trust and respect, and ideally, who are working in that field that you’re applying to,” he explains.