English Undergraduate Advising offers Statement of Purpose
Workshops every autumn quarter, generally in October. Check the englmajors
listserve postings for dates and locations after the beginning of Autumn
Quarter, or contact English Advising at firstname.lastname@example.org or
(206) 543-2634. UW English majors and alumni are welcome to consult
with English advisers on an individual basis about drafting the Statement of
Purpose. Contact English
Advising at email@example.com or
Writing Statements of Purpose for Admission to Graduate Programs in English
Admission as Matchmaking
Applicants are usually very aware of one of the implied questions in the graduate
admission process: “Am I good enough?” This is obviously an important
question. Any admission committee will be looking for applicants who have demonstrated:
adequate preparation in their field
maturity and purposefulness
intellectual curiosity and a sustaining enthusiasm
for the work
Applicants are generally insufficiently aware of the other important implied
question, though: “Is this program a good fit for me, and am I a good
fit for this program?” Admission committees want to make a good match
between their programs and the applicants, recruiting students who are not
simply smart or talented, but students with scholarly or professional interests
that can be pursued successfully within their programs. Applicants should research
prospective schools thoroughly so that they know how those programs “match
up” with their own intellectual priorities.
The job in the statement is not to talk about your intellectual prowess, but
rather about your interests and goals! If you do a good job of this, you will
demonstrate your intellectual prowess.
Before you can hope to make a good “match,” and certainly before
you can write a powerful statement of purpose, you need to engage in a couple
different types of assessment:
Self assessment is a critical first task for any student considering graduate
study. Is graduate study in English the right choice for you? Graduate school
is not a natural extension of undergraduate study, but rather a rigorous training
ground for scholars and professionals. To know whether graduate study is desirable
or necessary, you should, ideally, have a firm sense of your academic and career
goals. Find out what training and credentials you actually need to pursue your
individual goals. Do you want to do original research in literature, English
linguistics, or critical theory and teach at the undergraduate or graduate
level? If so, then graduate study is definitely in your future. Looking for
a career in publishing, editing, public relations, journalism, or technical
communication? Well, graduate study in English might be one way to go, but
it’s probably not the most efficient. Instead, some really targeted internship
experiences, or an M.A. in a professional program may be better choices. In
some cases, however, extremely capable applicants may not have a firm sense
of professional direction. This doesn’t necessarily mean they shouldn’t
go to graduate school. But it may mean that they could use a “gap” year
to explore and make decisions. Finally, even in the absence of a clear professional
pathway, a strong desire to learn and do research at advanced levels may be
a sufficient basis for pursuing graduate study. Just be sure you’re not
making this decision based on fear of a bad job market, lack of knowledge about
career options, or sheer laziness!
The self assessment process also asks you to reflect on your specific intellectual
interests within your field. Are you more interested in scholarship and criticism,
or in creating your own original poems, stories, and novels? Do you like reading
and writing about texts and authors from a given historical period? Is there
a critical approach or set of methods which interest you? Do you like to solve
theoretical problems? Are you drawn to interdisciplinary approaches to literary
study? Is there are particular set of issues or questions to which you find
yourself returning as you encounter new texts? The more aware of your own interests
you are, the likelier it is that you will pick programs that are right for
Finding the right program takes a great deal of research. Identifying “nationally
ranked” programs is only one way – and a very limited way – of
going about your search. More importantly, you need to find those programs
that will allow you to do work within your field of specialization. You need
to make sure that the schools you choose have the necessary faculty and facilities.
For example, if you wish to specialize in medieval and textual studies, you
need to make sure that the programs you select have a sufficient number of
good medievalists, and at least a couple people who do research in the art
of the book. Or, if you wish to do research into women’s literary responses
to the opening of the American frontier through letters and memoirs, then you
should look for libraries with rich special collections in 19th-century American
personal documents. If you want to do post-colonial studies, then you need
to make sure your chosen schools have English faculty who work in that area,
and preferably also have graduate programs in related fields, such as African
Studies or Near East Studies, where you may find additional mentors.
If the programs you select do not offer opportunities to study in your chosen
specializations, then it’s not going to be a good “match." You’ll
either end up dissatisfied with the program, or you may be denied admission
because the faculty people on the admissions committee will see the mismatch
between your stated goals and interests and what they have to offer.
Beyond that, make sure that other factors which may affect your quality of
life over the next 5 to 7 years are acceptable. Hate cold weather? Don’t
go to Buffalo! Need a large, lively Jewish community to sustain you? Think
twice about relocating to Iowa. Just because you’re a graduate student
doesn’t mean you stop being human!
The Statement as a Matchmaking Tool
The other parts of the application tell only part of the story. Students have
a tendency to focus on the so-called “objective” factors, such
as grades and test scores. Unlike some fields, firm “cutoffs” for
GPA and GRE scores are not the norm in English. Although each school may weight
these factors differently, it is generally true that the so-called “subjective” admissions
factors, which include letters of recommendation and the critical and/or creative
writing sample, are absolutely critical. One of the key “subjective” factors
is the statement of purpose. The statement provides information about the applicant
that cannot be conveyed by the transcript or by test scores. Because the statement
focuses on the applicant’s interests and goals, it is vital for helping
admission committees make a good “match” between their program
and applicants. It also, along with letters of recommendation, acts to document
educational experiences such as undergraduate research which may not necessarily
Finally, the statement puts a “human face” on the application,
lets the committee know a little bit about the applicant as an individual.
This is particularly important in fields where “suitability” is
an issue, such as K-12 education. It can make an applicant stand out favorably
(or unfavorably!) from an impressive pool. It can tell the faculty on the admissions
committee whether you’re somebody they want in their graduate seminars,
in their research labs, or under their supervision for exams or dissertation.
Don’t underestimate the “human” element in the admissions
The Statement as Aid to Recommenders
Provide a copy of your statement, or at least a good working draft, to your
recommenders. This will help ensure that what you say about yourself does
not conflict with what they say about you and your goals. It will also function
as a helpful reminder of details they may forget.
Statement of Purpose Content
The statement of purpose is – first and foremost - a place to
express your intellectual interests and professional objectives.
should look both backward and forward. If it doesn’t
say something significant about where you have been intellectually
and/or professionally and where you see yourself going, then it hasn’t
done its job.
Ideally, the statement should be institution-specific. This
enhances its value as a matchmaking tool and shows that you know
how to do research.
The statement may address gaps or weaknesses in your
history when necessary but should not dwell on them.
It should not be
a loose collection of information or informal laundry list of accomplishments,
but rather a coherent essay
on one or two
important ideas and develops those ideas with a fair degree
It should include plenty of concrete information!
Vague generalizations and other types of content-free writing should
Discipline-Specific Information and Variations
For information about conventions, usages, vocabulary, or concepts which
may be peculiar to your discipline, make sure you consult with advisers
or faculty in your field. Don’t use language that just sounds “impressive.”
importance of the role played by the statement of purpose varies
from one field to another. For example, it plays a much more central role
in admission to a Master in Social Work program than to law school.
never assume it is unimportant! In English and other humanities disciplines,
it is a key part of your application.
The biggest danger is the completely bland or “voiceless” statement.
statements can be either more conversational, or more formal and “academic” in
Do not experiment! Be conservative, even if it seems less
Meticulous proofreading is required. The statement
should be completely error-free.
Gratuitous self-revelation. This is not a confessional occasion. Every
piece of information needs to pass the “so what?” test for
Showboating (going on and on about awards, honors, prizes, etc.).
jargon of one’s discipline in a heavy-handed manner intended
Name-dropping, flattery, or other attempts to ingratiate
Clichés, vacuous truisms, vague generalizations,
Misrepresentations of yourself
or your interests.
Varies wildly from one school to another. Follow instructions!
is the accepted convention, except when an application specifies otherwise.
no specific instructions regarding length or format are given, produce
an essay that is one and a half to two single-spaced pages.
Any less gives
you scant room to be detailed; any more gives you plenty
of room for judicious editing.
Begin drafting early, at least two months prior to your deadline.
months will give you time to put together a decent draft in time to
provide it to recommenders.
Two months will also allow sufficient time to
revise, revise, revise! Get responses from real readers, then revise,
Director of Academic Services
Department of English
University of Washington