How to Apply to Graduate School: Writing your Statement of Purpose

Photo by Kiyun Lee

With millions of brilliant entrepreneurs stuck at home, and many more of those looking to re-tool their skills in light of 2020’s colossal economic shifts, you may already be thinking: how in the hell is my grad school application going to stand out from the rest? Other first-timers or recent graduates may even be certain they’ve got this in the bag: “I’ve written tons of theses and applied for so many scholarships,” they’ll say, “…what’s another silly statement of purpose?”

Well, as someone who has gained a ton of first-hand experience writing and editing a great number of successful graduate school, scholarship, and granting applications, I’m here to tell you that in our COVID-present, your statement of purpose is the handshake that can no longer happen. In business, you pitch to a person, not a job. With grad school, scholarships, and other funding applications, it’s just the same: your CV and statement of research will get you through the gate, but it’s your Statement of Purpose (SOP, or Statement of Intent) that’ll add the necessary human touch. 

Image by Van Tay Media

I’ll say it again: writing an SOP requires a lot more than just rehashing everything you’ve already told admissions reviewers on your CV and research statement. It’s also a lot less than writing a business proposal, listing all the intricate details of marketing and growth plans you have yet to set in motion. Most importantly, applications committees are not there to read your whole life’s story: they want to know how that story has contributed to your motivation, drive, and enthusiasm for knowledge in that industry; more so, they want to know how a degree from their institution is going to kick your career into hyper drive!

Okay! It’s time to offer up your enthusiasm and brilliance, and make sure that your SOP addresses each and every one of the major factors reviewers are looking for. That’s why I’ve come up with 5 critical tips for writing an outstanding Statement of Purpose that’ll be sure to catch the attention of your future school’s admissions team!

(And of course, if you’re much better at talking about yourself than you are at writing, feel free to stop right now and reach out to get a quote from JB Editing for assistance with your graduate school application’s SOP!). 

5 Tips for Writing an OUTSTANDING Statement of Purpose for Graduate School

Graphic Designed by @wordsofhers.comms

1. Research Every School or Program on Your List

“Duh,” you may be thinking as you skip ahead to tip number two, but wait: there’s a lot more to this tip than meets the eye! 

Seriously: just about every admissions committee person I’ve spoken with says this is one of the key factors that differentiates even the most high-performing candidates. In other words, a perfect application can go out the door if you don’t show that you’ve done some serious and dedicated research on the school and program to which you’ll be applying.

Photo by Kyle Gregory Devaras

This means pulling out a piece of scrap paper and sitting down, one school at a time, to pull keywords, program attributes, and other key school information from about pages, press releases, or other school news articles, all so that you can later connect this information with your own interests or intent. This activity will also have the added benefit of helping you narrow down your research fields of interest as they pertain to the school you’re hoping to attend.

Here’s a general example that you can build from: 

“I believe that a Master’s degree in [degree/ discipline] from [university name] will, more than competitor institutions, augment my current passion for [research interest]. Indeed, it was [university name]’s commitment to offering [what?] that cemented by motivation in applying for a studentship with this program in the first place.”

-Graduate Statement of Purpose Sample from JB Editing

WRITING TIP: Keep this piece of paper (or digital document, we’re not in the stone ages) with you during writing, but also as you edit. This is an old writing trick that will help you ‘fill in the blanks’ as you search for the right terminology during writing. For a digital media application, for instance, an applicant may want to use academic/industry keywords like ‘modern-day technological solutions’, ‘interdisciplinary digital arts’, ‘responsive product development’, ‘IoT’, or ‘emerging technology’.  

2. Select One or Two Professors with Shared Research Interests

If you didn’t skip step one, you should already be deep into the program listing pages of the institution to which you’re going to apply. Great! Now it’s time to go through and take a look at who teaches in the department to which you’ll be applying. And though you may have already memorized the requirements list for your full graduate application, it’s time to get a little specific and make room in your SOP for a paragraph that describes how your research interests match the research histories and interests of those very professors. 

Here’s another example you can build from when writing: 

“I am keen to gain knowledge under the mentorship of [professor name] and [professor name], whose dual research interests intersect with my own with respect to [research interest of first professor] and [research interest of second professor].” 

-Graduate Statement of Purpose Sample from JB Editing

Remember, now is not the time to reach out to these professors. Just search over professor bios, look at the titles of their publications, and narrow down a list of one or two professors who you think would be great mentors for your particular research future. This is also another great place to nab keywords for your brainstorming page—chances are, some of these very professors will be on your admissions review committee, and they will remember your name when it comes time to make final selections if you show interest in their areas of study. 

3. Consider your Weaknesses

Surprised by this one? You shouldn’t be: humility is a great winning factor when applying to the school of your choice, but more so, it’s important to show admissions reviewers that you do recognize the reality of your position as a learner at this stage, and that you are keen to seek more guidance before you take on the big projects of your future.

Here’s an example of what I mean, or how you may want to consider incorporating mention of your strengths and weaknesses in your own SOP: 

“I do think further learning in the areas of [subject] and [subject] would be best met with criticism from industry experts employed at your institution, as my present understanding of [subject] is still in its rudimentary stages, and could greatly benefit from further exposure and review.”

– Graduate Application Statement of Purpose Sample from JB Editing

Basically, you should pursue this step in two parts: first, list one or two of your current research weaknesses. Say for instance that you have completed a large retroactive research project, but need to ensure some of these studies are replicable—requiring in-person research study. Here, you would mention that you would benefit from better disciplinary teaching in modern research methods.

Second, discuss how you believe this institution will strengthen your understanding of the discipline. And be specific! In the example above, you would perhaps then mention that you believe the school you’re applying to is in a good position to extend your knowledge in relation to new ethics protocols in the psychological discipline, and more importantly, why you believe this to be so.  

4. Reflect on Present and Future Goals

Photo by Ben White

You’ve been reflecting on these goals for a long time, but now it’s vital that you do so in the context of your new understanding of the school and program offerings you’ve chosen. Now it’s time to ask yourself the truly important questions which will work to centre your entire SOP. Here are three to get you started, but be sure to check up the applications guidelines of your intended school for added help:

What are your goals and expectations upon completion of this degree? You might want to build a business, or provide a disruptive technological solution to the world’s biggest problems. Whatever your future goals may be, it’s time to draw a direct line between these goals and the program you’ve chosen. 

How do you intend to use this degree toward your future? In what ways do you think this degree is going to contribute to your ability to achieve your goals? Be specific!

What problem do you intend to address in your industry, and how do you think this degree will contribute to that solution? What was your motivation for getting into this industry in the first place? More than likely, it was some problem or adversity you faced that you are determined to solve in your research. On the other hand, your pursuit could be a niche passion to which you are willing to dedicate your life. In either case, you’ll be exploring new terrain and it is that new potential for knowledge capital that your reviewers will want to hear about most. 

5. Organize an Outline for your Statement of Purpose

Photo by Magnet.me

When you’re writing anything please, for me and your future reviewer’s sake, write an outline or wireframe FIRST. At its essence, all it takes to write any piece of work is this: you find the questions, you answer them, you organize the answers, and then piece them together into a coherent whole. 

In this case, you can use the generic outline below (adding or subtracting information as needed for wording and formatting guidelines), or create your own. Either way the goal is to, again, go through and answer each question, and then go ahead and remove those question prompts to sew the resulting ‘answers’ together into a coherent beginning, middle, and end. (PS: There’s a copyable version following the infographic below!).

BASIC STATEMENT OF PURPOSE OUTLINE FOR GRADUATE SCHOOL APPLICATIONS
To purchase this or any other infographics from @wordsofhers.comms, click here to reach out!

BASIC STATEMENT OF PURPOSE OUTLINE FOR GRADUATE SCHOOL APPLICATIONS

  • Personal introduction and motivational statement.
    • Address the severity of your research problem.
    • Introduce yourself.
    • Introduce your primary purpose with writing this statement.
    • Address your motivations or inspirations for your aspirational/ educational undertakings. 
  • Areas of interest and state of industry statement.
    • Address the significance of your research IN THE CONTEXT OF MODERN ADVANCEMENTS IN YOUR INDUSTRY.
    • Who else is doing similar research in this field?
    • What are the social and theoretical contexts of your research applications?
  • Why this school or program?
    • What elements of this program or their related offerings will make you a competitive asset in your field?
    • Which professor-mentors would most affect your academic potential in your research area?
    • How is the fit between your research and the academic institution of your choice mutually beneficial to you and the school?
  • Future goals and aspirations
    • How do you intend to use this degree upon graduating?
    • Which fields/ industries do you hope to serve upon graduating?
    • Why do you want to achieve this degree?
  • Concluding Statement
    • Summary of goals, expectations, and motivations. 
    • What are you willing to commit to this program?
    • Restate significance of school choice in achieving your dreams
    • Sign off. 

And with that, dear applicant, I wish you the best of luck with your future Statement of Purpose! You’ve answered the most important questions, and now you just need to put pen to paper and sew it all together. You can do this, and I can’t wait for you to start receiving all those acceptance letters in the mail! 

PS: if you’ve gotten this far and the words just aren’t coming together, I would love to help! Just catch me through my website, and we can get the ball rolling right in time for your next application deadline. 


Want more advice on how to build out or format the other pieces of your graduate application? I’ll be updating this post with more advice soon, but until then don’t hesitate to reach out via Instagram to ask specific questions on the subject! If enough people start asking the same questions, I’ll be sure to address them in a future post.

Good Luck!

Published by Jessica Barratt

Writer, Photographer, Academic | Founder of JB Editing, wordsofhers.com, and thosepicturesshetook.ca

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