Excerpts from an article on statement of purpose writing by Dr. Steven
Olswang, University of
Washington Provost, written for the Fulbright Commission:
Applying to Graduate Schools in the US: The Statement of Purpose
Copyright © The US-UK Fulbright Commission, used by permission
of the author:
G Olswang, JD, PhD
Vice Provost and Professor, University of Washington;
Fulbright Academic Administrative Fellow
"Perhaps the most difficult part of the application process for admission to graduate
school...is the composition of a Statement of Purpose. It may be helpful first to understand a
little about graduate education...before undertaking to write this Statement.
Graduate Education Overview
" ...Faculty at institutions of higher education in the United States take their
work with graduate students very seriously. Faculty take strong personal interest
in their graduate students (after
all, they will work with those students for many years), and expect their students
to complete their programs once admitted. Faculty expect their students to go
on after graduation to important
positions in academia, industry, or government. Therefore, the work of graduate
students affects the reputation of the Faculty. As a result, the selection of
the right graduate students is very
important to both the faculty and the long term reputation of the department
Why the Statement of Purpose?
" Faculty want to know as much as they possibly can about all applicants. This
is especially true today because most graduate programs have only a limited number
of admission slots available. Test
scores, grades and degrees, institutions of previous study and personal recommendations
are all important indicators of an applicant's future success. However, these
data do not reveal much about
the individual, his/her motivation, why the applicant is interested in that particular
program, or whether the applicant is the kind of student the Faculty want around
the department. The Statement
of Purpose exists to allow applicants to convey something personal about themselves
and to convince the Faculty making the admissions selection that the applicant
is an especially attractive
" The Statement of Purpose should not relate a life story or flatter either the applicant or
intended readers. It provides applicants the opportunity to present information that is not
conveyed through objective data, in a clear, direct, and concise way, to explain their interests,
motivations, goals and special talents. It must be honest.
Writing the Statement of Purpose
" So with this broad understanding
of the Statement of Purpose and its function, how should it be
" The first thing to remember is that each application process for each university
is different. That means that the questions asked in the application MUST be
the questions answered, and answered
directly. An effusive, evasive, or non-responsive answer will inevitably result
in rejection. Be absolutely clear what the application instructions ask of you
and tailor your statement
accordingly. That may mean that each application requires that you write a somewhat,
if not entirely, different Statement of Purpose, since each Statement must answer
"As a general rule, the two generic questions that need answering, at least inferentially, in
most Statements of Purpose are: "Why are you interested in this program?", and "What makes you
special?". This allows applicants the opportunity to provide Faculty substantive information about
themselves. This is where applicants can demonstrate that they did their homework about the program
and that they thought seriously about the strengths and weaknesses they bring to graduate
Answer the Question!
" The following are some questions that Faculty ask themselves when they read
a Statement of
Why are you interested in graduate study?
" There is some personal reason that made you decide to continue your education beyond the
bachelor's degree. Tell them directly why. This may be something that you have always wanted to do,
or for which your parents or others were role models, or perhaps you have recently been excited by
new possibilities of learning. All the Faculty had their own reasons for going on to get their
graduate degrees and they will want to know that you are truly interested for a legitimate reason.
Do not try to write what you think Faculty want to hear ("to advance the field");
they have heard
it all already.
Why are you applying to this particular graduate program?
" Is the program noted for a particular emphasis, speciality, or orientation?
Is it in the same city where your sister lives, and you could get free housing
that would allow you to go to graduate
school? Are there particular professors with whom you want to study because of
their area of expertise? Whatever the reason, explain it. This is where the Faculty
evaluating your application
will be able to tell if you have thought seriously about their particular program.
It will indicate your interest in them and show that you did your homework, a
good early sign of a serious
What is it about you that is special?
" It is important that you explain your motivations and your goals This is what
will distinguish you from all other applicants and make you memorable to the
Faculty...Explain your academic
background and your performance in the bachelor's degree program. If you wrote
a bachelor's thesis, briefly explain its importance and what you learned from
writing it. Be sure to mention any prizes
you may have won. If you worked while in school, tell why, especially if it was
for a Faculty member. If you had any special experiences outside the formal learning
environment that directly
relate to the field of study you are interested in pursuing (e.g. travel or study
abroad; employment in the field) tell about those. Describe any experience that
creativity, dependability, and independence - these are important personal characteristics
Faculty desire in their students.
Are there items that need special explanation?
" Faculty will first look at the empirical data in your application: your grades,
transcripts, test scores, even the recommendations, before reading the Statement
of Purpose. They will spot
peculiarities they want explained. Is there a gap in your years of study; did
it take you more than the traditional time to finish your degree; did you leave
to work to support your family, or to
care for an ill family member; did you change fields; do you have related work
experience? All these are questions that need to be answered. Unexplained voids
in your record make you a less
attractive candidate. On the other hand, honest explanations make you human and
the kind of person
with whom others will want to work.
Do you add diversity to the program?
" American institutions of higher education are very interested in diversifying
their student body, particularly at the graduate level. If you are a woman, a
member of a minority group, disabled, or
have another distinguishing characteristic that may be relevant, let the Faculty
know in your Statement in an appropriate way. It may relate to your motivation
to pursue a graduate degree.
Understand that under American law, Faculty cannot ask questions about many personal
topics. Since it is unlikely that many international students will interview
in person at all the graduate
schools where they submit applications, the Faculty will know you only by what
you write in your
What to Avoid
" While there are some things that a Statement of Purpose must address, there
are some matters that
generally also should be avoided.
Do not be overly informal.
" The written Statement of Purpose for many applicants is the way they first
introduce themselves to their prospective professors. The Statement should be
formal, direct, and appropriately
respectful in tone. Undue informality or attempts at irrelevant humour should
Do not include irrelevant information.
" Try to keep to the topics that directly relate to your qualifications and desire
for admission to the graduate program. Information about hobbies, outside interests,
academic pursuits that do not
have any real connection to your credentials for success in your chosen field
only take up valuable space and divert the Faculty's attention from what is really
important in your Statement.
Do not write your life story.
" If the application instructions give a specific -or maximum - length for the
Statement of Purpose, do not exceed it. If there is no stated length, remember
that Faculty on admissions
committees may be reading hundreds of such Statements. Be brief, yet complete.
Do not talk about anything in your life before you began your baccalaureate program,
unless it's absolutely relevant.
A suggested maximum length is four pages, three is even better.
Style & Presentation
" A guide of this kind would be incomplete if it did not mention something about
the presentation of the Statement. We live in an era of word processors and personal
computers. Unless the
directions specifically require that the Statement of Purpose be hand-written
- and I doubt that any still say that - it should be typed or printed, double
spaced, with absolutely no spelling or
grammatical errors. It does not matter if you are applying for a graduate program
in English Literature or Physics, Art or Physical Education, you are expected
to be literate and to be able to
communicate well. A spelling error on your application will make the Faculty
evaluating your application view you as careless and not really interested enough
in their program to consider you
further. Many will stop reading the Statement at that point, regardless of how
good your other records are. They will react similarly to errors of grammar,
pronoun errors, using plural verbs
with singular subjects, and the like. Proof-read your statement many times. Have
someone else read your Statement critically. Run it through 'spellcheck' and
'grammarcheck' on your computer.
" ...In sum, the Statement of Purpose is your way to introduce yourself personally
to a group of intelligent people . In this document you are asking strangers
to allow you to enter their working
homes for an extended length of time to learn from them. This presents them with
a major decision. In this statement you must present yourself in a favourable
light, show who you are, express your
interest in them and the subject they teach and tell them why you are special
enough to be admitted. It must be honest in conception, accurate in detail, and
direct in address. And it must
look good and be error-free.
"If you are satisfied that you have given a fair and accurate picture of yourself, as seen in
your best light, Faculty will be equally pleased."