Application Essays

Statement of Purpose

The statement of purpose or something like it is required for every graduate school application, though some schools will call it a research statement or a personal statement, which is actually something different (see below). If an application requires a single essay, no matter what they call it, it is the statement of purpose. The question prompt will read something like this one (taken from Michigan's application in 2005):

"The Statement of Purpose should be a concise, well-written essay about your background, your career goals, and how Michigan’s graduate program will help you meet your career and educational objectives."

Many professors, department websites, applications, and current graduate students will tell you that the statement of purpose is the most important part of the application. While the statement of purpose is the best way for the admissions committee to gauge your writing skills, it is quite different from the college admissions essay, or the law school personal statement. Admissions committees will not be looking for the most well-written essay with the catchiest introduction. Rather, the reason they say the statement of purpose is important is that the research interest match between you and the program is the most important factor for admission, and your interests are revealed in the statement of purpose. In addition to making sure your interests and experiences are aligned with the program's offerings, the statement of purpose is a way for the admissions officers to see how you think, either by your evaluation of your prior research experiences and coursework, and/or by the new ideas that you present as possibilities of what to pursue in graduate school and beyond.
Here are some tips for the personal statement.
  • Reserve roughly 1/3 of the essay to talk about the future
    In this section you can describe your interests, goals, career plans after graduate school, and why the school you are applying to is a good choice to pursue these interests. If there is a stringent word limit, make sure you include this part, even at the expense of leaving out some of your past. Your history should be reflected elsewhere in the applications, through your recommendations, c.v., etc.

  • Don't list experiences and awards
    If awards are listed elsewhere in the application (which they are according to nearly all forms), don't put them here again! Not only is it a waste of space but it also makes you sound arrogant. If there is something listed on your c.v. that deserves explanation, you can put it in here, but even then it is better for a letter writer familiar with the award to mention it.

  • Write for each school
    Your statement should read as though you wrote it specifically for the school to which you are applying. This may mean that five of the paragraphs are the same for each school, and one is different. However, sometimes it means tweaking other parts of the essay as well, or even writing an essay with a different structure altogether. You should definitely mention specific professors you would like to work with. If you do not do this, your application may be missed altogether.

  • Show, don't tell
    Sometimes the best way to demonstrate your passion for or knowledge of your field is to include an anecdote. It takes up space, but it can be engaging to the reader, and is much more convincing than saying, "I love reading about...". Instead, say, "One night I stayed up until 8am doing non-required reading on XXX because I was so curious as to why...."

  • Don't get too personal
    Remember, it's called a "statement of purpose," not a "personal statement" (see below for information on the personal statement. This is not an essay about your emotional development. On rare occasion, something in your personal life is integral to your studies and it is worth mentioning. But in most cases, it makes sense to leave it out. The statment of purpose should read more like a professional document.

  • Mention/explain rough areas
    Though you should avoid "getting personal," it is useful to explain rough patches in your application. If there is a specific reason your GPA was 2.0 one semester, then very briefly mention it in the statement. However, if there is a separate optional essay for this sort of thing, include it there and don't mention it in the statement. Regardless of where you disclose this information in your application, do so as quickly as possible and do not make excuses for yourself.

  • Use professional language
    Convey passion, but avoid using "passion," "love," and similar words to describe your research. Avoid superlatives. In particular, don't say, "this is the best program for me" unless you're absolutely sure it is. Also, do not use colloquial language in your statement.

  • Avoid cliches
    Many students will say, "I've always wanted to be a psychologist/scientist/writer/historian," or, "ever since I went to the ___ museum when I was five, I knew I wanted to ___." These stories will make the committee members' eyes roll and they don't do anything to explain your current knowledge, ideas, and goals. It is ok to start off with a "boring" introduction in order to avoid these openings. If you start with a meaningful anecdote that demonstrates your intellectual development, that is a great idea, but avoid throw-away sentences.

  • Be concise
    Many applications will have a page or word limit which is usually about 1 page single-spaced or 2 pages double-spaced. Adhere to these guidelines, unless they sound unreasonable, in which case you should call the department to ask whether the guideline is strict. (One of my applications called for a 500 word limit, which is quite short! When I called about it, they said there was no actual limit.) Even if an application does not have a word limit, you should keep it as brief as possible. A committee member is more likely to read your essay thoroughly if it is no more than 2-3 pages long.
See the "Downloads" page for an example statement of purpose.

Personal Statement

The personal statement is a requirement for a small percentage of graduate programs. It is not the same  as a statement of purpose. If you are reading this section because your application instructions ask for a personal statement and no other essay, odds are the application is actually asking for a statement of purpose and you should read the previous section.

A personal statement prompt will read something like this (taken from the University of California--Berkeley in 2005):

"Please provide a statement about how your personal history or experiences have influenced your intellectual development and future goals. This statement can include a discussion of educational and cultural opportunities or of circumstances that deprived you of these; family background; economic circumstances; special interests and abilities; and community or social service involvement, especially as they intersect your academic goals and intellectual pursuits."

You may wonder why some schools ask for this essay, and what information to put in it. It may help to understand the history of this statement at some schools. Like most institutions of higher education, the public schools in California and Michigan are dedicated to maintaining diverse environments that serve students from a variety of backgrounds as opposed to just the most elite and privileged ones. However, these states have laws prohibiting any kind of affirmative action for underrepresented or oppressed groups. In order to legally achieve their goals, California and Michigan schools implemented the personal statement, in which they could learn more about the applicant and his/her background, as well as how that background could positively contribute to the University. Other schools have occasionally followed suit simply to acquire similar personal information, even without the same legal restrictions on admissions.

If you are someone who has overcome barriers to higher education or you have helped break down these barriers for others, you should talk about that in your essay. The main purpose of this essay is to identify those individuals. Mentioning this information may substantially help your chances of admission and/or access to scholarships. On the other hand, the goal is not to make yourself appear as unfortunate or as saintly as possible; doing so will rub committee members the wrong way and will make you sound like a whiny brat or arrogant. Rather, if you have had unusually fortunate educational opportunities (e.g. study abroad) you should mention them if they fit in your overall narrative, and express that you are grateful for them. Your chances will not be hurt if you have a privileged background. Just respond to the essay prompt to the best of your ability. Most committee members will use this essay to get an idea of your personality and to evaluate the clarity of your writing.

I am someone who came from a privileged background and at the time I did not have a wealth of community service experience. I used the essay to talk about how I was a late bloomer academically, but how cognitive psychology (my field) made me excited about learning. I then talked about my extra curricular and leadership activities in college, my interests in and experiences with teaching, and my desire to inspire other late bloomers to reach their potential.

At this time, there is no example personal statement on the website (I felt mine was a bit too personal to share beyond what I've said already!) but depending on demand there may be more specific tips for tackling this essay, including possibly an example statement.