Need to write a graduate school statement of purpose, but not sure where to start? Let us guide you through how to write a statement of purpose for grad school!
We’ll go over what a statement of purpose, or letter of intent, for grad school is and how it’s different from other admissions essays like personal statements. Then we’ll discuss what schools are looking for in a statement of purpose for graduate school. Finally, we’ll give advice on how to write one!
What Is a Grad School Statement of Purpose?
If you’re on this page, you probably know that a statement of purpose (AKA a letter of intent) is an essay requested by lots of graduate programs as part of their application process. But there’s more to it than that.
A statement of purpose is where you tell the admissions committee why you’re interested in a particular graduate program, the kind of work you plan on doing when you’re there, and why you in particular should be doing that work. At more research-focused programs, like PhDs, the graduate school statement of purpose will be focused on your research skills and interests. At more professionally-focused programs, like MPPs and MBAs, the statement will more closely address your professional skills and goals.
It’s important to note that a statement of purpose is not the same thing as a personal statement. What’s the difference? Well, a grad school statement of purpose is more closely focused on your academic/professional qualities, accomplishments, and goals, while a personal statement is more concerned with you as an overall person. Personal statements allow for you to be more personal. There’s definitely some overlap in that both will expect you to address your goals and interests in the field, but a statement of purpose generally has a slightly tighter focus.
Of course, the demarcation between a statement of a purpose and a personal statement won’t always be hard-and-fast. Some programs will call the essay that they want a personal statement, but most of the questions they offer to guide you are academic/professional. Others will ask for a statement of purpose but provide sample essays laden with personal anecdotes and experiences. Still others will ask for a “personal statement/statement of purpose.” Graduate school admissions processes are, alas, not totally consistent across programs even within the same field.
You can allow the information available on the admissions website to guide the direction of your graduate school statement of purpose. However, if they don’t provide further specifications, the general scheme holds: A statement of purpose = tight focus on academic work/research and a personal statement = broader picture of you as a person (including academic goals).
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Some programs ask for a graduate school letter of intent instead of an essay. A letter of intent for graduate school is very similar to a statement of purpose in content and focus. You’ll just structure it a little more like an actual letter by addressing your writing to the admissions committee and signing your name.
What Are Schools Looking for in a Statement of Purpose?
Now that we’ve provided a brief overview of what a statement of purpose is, let’s consider what programs are looking for in a statement of purpose or grad school letter of intent more specifically. There may be some small variation in what different programs are looking for; you should consult any available guidelines for each program. However, here are the specific elements that most graduate programs will be looking for in a statement of purpose:
Your Research and Professional Interests
One of the main things programs will be looking for in your graduate school statement of purpose is a description of the research and/or professional interests you want to develop in their program. For a research-focused program (like pretty much all PhDs and some master’s programs), you’ll target this more specifically to the research projects you would like to do while you there.
For more professionally-focused graduate programs, there may not be much a built-in research component. In this case, focus more on your specific interests within the degree field and what related skills you’re trying to build through the program.
It’s best to be as specific as possible in discussing what interests you. Don’t be vague or say that everything in the field appeals to you. This will make you seem both unfocused and boring. Instead, use particular examples of situations or phenomena that you find exciting. You want everything about your grad school statement of purpose to be intriguing and memorable!
Don’t worry that your statement of purpose will box you into a particular research area. Admissions committees understand that interests change, especially as you become more immersed in a field. However, having a focused plan helps reassure admissions committees that you are motivated and will actually be able to complete the program.
How Your Background Qualifies You
The next essential component admissions offices will be looking for is evidence of how your background qualifies you to pursue this particular field and area of interest (and research area if applicable). What brought you to these particular interests? You can describe your undergraduate studies, relevant professional experience, any major projects you’ve worked on, papers you’ve written, talks you’ve given, mentors you’ve worked with, and so on. Don’t just tell the admissions committees what makes you particularly suited to what you’re pursuing—show it with specific, vivid examples.
A Track Record of Success
Admissions committees will also be looking for a proven record of academic and personal success. Your accomplishments will almost certainly overlap with your background and qualifications. Just keep in mind that you’ll want to emphasize major accomplishments that highlight your ability to succeed in the rigorous graduate school environment!
What Interests You in the Program
At every program you’re applying to, you should be able to speak to particular things about that program that appeal to you. Are there specific professors you want to work with? Does the department have a specific focus that gels well with yours? Is there something special or particular about the curriculum you’re excited to take advantage of?
You should also demonstrate how you (and your research/work) fit in with the program. Why is it a match? What do you bring? Again, admissions committees will want you to show, not tell.
Your Passion for the Field
Admissions officers will also be looking for you to show genuine passion for your field and research/professional area of interest. Why are you planning on devoting your life to this thing? Remain professional, but communicate your excitement!
It’s become a common refrain, but be specific. You won’t stand out—at least not in a good way—if you write things that are vague, cliche, and/or grandiose. Stay away from things like “I love engineering,” or “Ever since I was a child I knew I wanted to be a lawyer.”
And don’t just say that you’re interested in disease pathology because you want to help people or save the world. It’s fine to mention an altruistic motive, but you should be specific and particular when articulating what you’re passionate about within your field. So instead, say something like “Volunteering with HIV-positive individuals in a community program impressed upon me the critical importance of improving our understanding of HIV. I feel driven to work towards improved treatments with fewer side effects.”
Your Writing Skills
Graduate school invariably involves writing, and usually lots of it. Admissions committees will be looking to your statement of purpose (and any other writing you submit with your application) to make sure you have the writing skills necessarily to succeed in a graduate program. So you want your statement to be well-organized and clearly communicate your ideas. Admissions committees will also be looking for your statement of purpose to be descriptive but concise; a statement of purpose for graduate school shouldn’t be longer than two pages even if there’s no hard word limit. You also want your writing style to stand out. While you shouldn’t use an overly familiar tone, you also don’t want to be too staid and buttoned-up. You definitely don’t want to bore anyone reading your essay!
How to Write a Statement of Purpose for Grad School
When you sit down to write your statement of purpose, there are two major components to consider: content (what you’re going to say) and style (how you’re going to say it). Content is what makes up the underlying bones of your statement of purpose/letter of intent. Graduate schools care about both content and style, but during the writing process, it makes sense to focus first on content and then consider style more closely when you know what you want to say.
This nine-step guide will walk you through how to write a statement of purpose for grad school.
Step 1: Brainstorming
The first step is to generate ideas for what to include in your grad school statement of purpose. This should include many of the elements we addressed in the previous section. As you brainstorm, it’s fine to start with more general statements and ideas and then hone in on more specific examples to include in your statement. But thinking of specific examples in advance will make writing the actual statement of purpose much easier!
There are many brainstorming methods you could consider. Some people like making lists while others prefer to just free-write paragraphs. Some would rather draw a mind map or even make voice memos. Just so long as it helps you record the information and get your brain going, any method is fine.
Here are some things to consider in your brainstorming session, with brainstorming questions for each:
Your research/professional interests in the field
- What interests you most in your field? Consider what you’ve researched/done before, and how closely you want your future interests to hew to what you’ve done in the past.
- Are there particular themes, methods, theories, etc. that interest you?
- What problems are you hoping to solve or address through your work/future career?
Your research/professional background and qualifications
- What major projects have you worked on? Did you write a thesis? Do an amazing internship? Work on a research project? Build an app? Create a curriculum? Have clinical experience?
- Have you presented at any conferences? Do you have any papers published?
- If you have work experience, how is it relevant to your program? What competencies and skills did you build there that carry over to your planned research/work?
Your major accomplishments
- Any major accomplishments not covered in your background/qualifications? Try to tie them back to your ability to succeed in graduate school and your specific research/professional endeavors.
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What’s appealing about the specific programs you’re applying to
- Are there specific professors you want to work with?
- Do they have resources especially suited to your research/professional interests? Like particular classes or special programs?
- How will your work fit there?
Why you’re passionate about the field
- What made you initially interested?
- What goals are you passionate about accomplishing?
- What do you find particularly fascinating or intriguing in your field?
Weaknesses to address
Are there any weaknesses in your application you need to address? If you have a semester with very low grades or another “hole” in your application, you can address it directly in your statement of purpose. Graduate schools won’t want excuses, but it’s fine to provide some kind of explanation: were you dealing with a family emergency or chronic illness? Did you need to work full-time and go to school full-time? Whatever you write, try to frame it in positive terms, to emphasize your ultimate success in the face of setbacks.
If you find yourself struggling to generate ideas for any of the above areas, there are a few things you could do. You could look at old papers and projects you’ve turned in. You could also speak to mentors and friends. They’ll remember amazing things you’ve done and should talk about in your application.
It’s also a good idea to discuss your graduate school statement of purpose with a professor in your field of interest. They are likely to have a good idea what graduate programs and looking for and can help you generate and hone ideas.
Step 2: Outline
Next, you’ll want to select your most impactful ideas and examples from your brainstorming session and arrange them into an outline. Highlight the overall points you want to make and the examples that go with each of those points. Try to arrange your points in an order that flows logically.
However, don’t get too hung up on the details for your initial outline. It’s better to keep moving with a rough plan than to be paralyzed early in the process!
Step 3: First Draft
Next, with the help of your outline, you’ll write your first draft. Don’t feel like your first draft has to be application-ready. In fact, your very first draft doesn’t have to be ready for anyone’s eyes but your own. The purpose of this draft is to get your initial thoughts on paper. It’s fine to focus more on content than style. Hammer out your main points, and don’t worry too much about word limit yet (although you will have to cut down to 1-2 pages at most for your final statement of purpose).
Step 4: Initial Edit
Once you have a first draft, you’ll want to make a first editing pass through yourself to tighten things up. Try to make sure that your writing flows logically and start to cut points that seem less relevant. You don’t need to make your statement of purpose perfect right now on your first editing pass, but try to refine it into something you’re comfortable sharing with others.
Make sure that the following critical points are coming through clearly:
- Your research/professional interests
- Your qualifications and accomplishments
- Why you’re interested in the particular program
If you’re feeling lost or stuck, it’s fine to move on to step 5 and solicit some feedback from others.
Step 5: Get Feedback
Now that you have a workable draft, it’s time to get feedback from other people—preferably people familiar with the graduate school admissions process. They can read your statement of purpose and give you advice on the clarity and organization of your ideas. They can help you figure out if you’ve framed your examples correctly and advise where you need to further develop ideas.
It’s a good idea to have several people look at your draft. You don’t necessarily need to accept every piece of writing advice from every person who looks at your essay. However, if multiple people give a similar piece of feedback, you should probably take that advice.
Step 6: Edit Again
Next, you’ll revise your graduate school statement of purpose again based on the feedback you received from others. Now you should try to really tighten things up and think about how the final product will be received by the admissions committee. Make sure all of your examples and points are well-organized, concise, and impactful. Bring your statement under the word limit.
Step 7: Make It Sparkle
As you work on finishing up your statement of purpose for graduate school, you want to really go the extra mile on making your statement stand out. So make the following stylistic tweaks:
Make sure your opening sentences are attention-grabbing (in a good way)! Starting with a cliche, a generalization or another boring statement will disengage your readers right from the start, which is the last thing you want. Here are some cliches to avoid:
- Don’t start with a quote unless it’s somehow very directly linked to your research interests. Admissions committees are interested in your thoughts and insights; borrowing the insights of others can make you seem intellectually lazy.
- Don’t start with “Ever since I was a child, I wanted to…” This is a hugely overused beginning and also says nothing about you as a person now, which is what programs are interested in.
- Avoid starting with an overly broad or vague statement, like “I love science” or “I was born to be a lawyer.” You want to engage readers from the very first sentence, and since everyone applying to the program presumably loves science or wants to be a lawyer (etc), you’ll make yourself seem generic.
Of course, you should avoid platitudes and cliches throughout your writing, not just in the introduction. Try to replace cliche phrases like “Achilles heel,” “wake-up call,” “right up my alley,” and so on with more vivid and memorable language.
Make sure you’re using active voice instead of passive voice in your writing. So instead of “I was told by my professor…” try “My professor told me…”
Avoid overly informal language, contractions, and slang.
The first time you use an acronym, spell out what it is.
Step 8: Get Feedback Again
Now that you have a fairly polished second draft, hand it around for another round of feedback. You can ask more specifically for writing-style based feedback at this point if you would like.
Step 9: Final Tweaks
After you get your last round of comments from your readers, it’s time for the final tweaks. Incorporate any comments you want to address. Fix any punctuation, grammar, or spelling mistakes. Reading your entire essay out loud is a good technique as it will allow you to catch mistakes more easily and point to places where the text may sound awkward.
Once you’ve put on the final finishing touches, you’re ready to submit your graduate school statement of purpose!
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The Keys to a Great Graduate School Statement of Purpose
A graduate school statement of purpose serves to introduce your research/professional skills and interests to the programs you’re applying for. It’s more tightly focused on your academic and professional life than you as an overall person.
Here are the key ingredients committees will be looking for in your graduate school statement of purpose:
- A clear articulation of your research and/or professional interests (whichever is more applicable to the program)
- What qualifies you for the program (and for any proposed research)
- Examples of your professional/academic success
- Your interest in the features of a particular department/program
- A deep level of passion for the field
- Skillful writing!
And here’s a nine-step process to writing one:
- Brainstorm: Brainstorm ideas and examples for all of the essential ingredients mentioned above
- Outline: Arrange the best ideas from your brainstorm into a loose outline
- First draft: Write a rough first draft. Focus on getting ideas onto paper.
- First edit: Make a pass through to clean up your thoughts and ideas.
- Ask for feedback: Ask mentors and people you trust to look over your draft and give feedback.
- Second edit: Incorporate feedback and tighten everything up into a more cohesive piece of writing.
- Make it sparkle: Hone in on writing style concerns. Make sure your language is lively, concise, and effective.
- Get feedback again: Get a final round of feedback. This can focus more on style issues if you’d like.
- Make final tweaks: Address any comments from your readers and make sure your statement is error-free!