Statement of Purpose

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Please note: this is not an official document of the English department at the University of Northern Iowa. These are my own opinions about applying to grad school. Your professors may disagree with me; you may want to check with them before you take my advice. — VG You are allowed to download and print this document under the following conditions: (1) you may not modify any part of the document, (2) my name, institutional affiliation, and the date must be left as is, and (3) you may not charge anyone for copies of the document. — VG

How to Write a Great Statement of Purpose

Vince Gotera
English Language and Literature
University of Northern Iowa

January 2006

The Statement of Purpose required by grad schools is probably the hardest thing you will ever write. (Incidentally, the statement of purpose may also be called an Application Essay, Objectives for Graduate Study, Personal Background, Cover Letter, or some comparable title.)

I would guess virtually all grad-school applicants, when they write their first draft of the statement of purpose, will get it wrong. Much of what you have learned about writing and also about how to present yourself will lead you astray. For example, here's an opening to a typical first draft:

I am applying to the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at the University of Okoboji because I believe my writing will blossom at your program since it is a place where I will be challenged and I can hone my writing skills.

How's that? It's clear, it's direct, and it "strokes" the MFA program, right? Wrong. All of it is obvious and extraneous.

The admissions committee knows you are applying to their MFA program because everyone in the stacks of applications they are reading is applying for the same thing. The admissions committee will also know that your writing will "blossom" there since they feel they have a strong program. Of course you will be challenged — all undergrads going on to a grad program will be challenged, no matter how well-prepared they think they are. And of course the new grad student will "hone [her] writing skills" — isn't that the main purpose of the MFA program?

Let's assume the required length of this particular program's statement of purpose is 300 words. Well, with this opening you will have used up 15% of your space saying virtually nothing. 15%!

In fact, not only is this opening paragraph obvious, extraneous, and space-stealing, it's boring! Imagine who's reading this and where: five professors "locked" in a room with 500 applications. Do you think this opening paragraph will command their attention? Will they read the rest of this statement of purpose with an open mind that this applicant is the kind of student they want? Will they remember this application later? You be the judge.

Remember what you learned in first-year composition? You need a "hook."

A former student of mine applying to enter a master's program in library science had a great hook. I don't remember Susan's exact words, but the opening paragraph of her statement of purpose went something like this: When I was eleven, my great-aunt Gretchen passed away and left me something that changed my life: a library of about five thousand books. Some of my best days were spent arranging and reading her books. Since then, I have wanted to be a librarian.

Okay ... it's clear, it's direct, it's 45 words, and, most important, it tells the admissions committee about Susan's almost life-long passion not just for books but for taking care of books. When the committee starts to discuss their "best picks," don't you think they'll remember her as "the young woman who had her own library"? Of course they will, because having had their own library when they were eleven would probably be a cherished fantasy for each of them!

Suppose Susan had written this opening paragraph instead:

I am honored to apply for the Master of Library Science program at the...
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