First, you’ll need to determine – very specifically – what the school, department, and program wants from its applicants/future students. For instance, the English department of a university will most likely emphasize that applicants ought to write a statement of purpose that “… explains the applicant’s reasons for applying to our graduate program, your qualifications, your individual academic interests and any unusual circumstances that your application presents. This should be a professional statement, and you should envision yourself as a potential member of an academic community…”
Now, consider the statement of purpose requirements from a university’s engineering department: “…please include three areas of research that you are interested in.
Note: You may also upload any other documents that you think relevant or important to your application.” …
These examples draw attention to the reality that “statement of purpose” isn’t necessarily, if ever, defined in the same terms.
It’s important to remember that “statement of purpose” is interpreted in an infinite number of ways; each university, department, program, will have its own interpretation – and its own, unique expectations – for what this statement ought to address.
Now what? Next, I’d suggest taking notes on the program. I’d make a two-column document: in the first column, make a bulleted list of:
- keywords(look for keywords, or words that are repetitive in the program’s description of its purposes, etc.)
- concentrations (how is the major, for instance, “English,” separated into specific areas of interest?)
- professors’ research projects (look for key terms that describe the general details of what professors, in the program you’re interested in, are researching, studying, and publishing ..)
Then, in the second column, compare these lists with your academic background/experiences (i.e. degrees/courses, etc.)
- keywords (how do these keywords connect with your academic degree)
- concentrations (which concentration/emphasis are you interested in? understanding this is important for defining your academic “niche”)
- professors’ research projects (what are your research questions AS THEY ARE RELATED to the research agendas of existing professors in the department? Explain that you need graduate school to enable you to answer these questions …)
Using your list/outline of questions and answers, ask yourself, “What my strongest connection?” In other words, which, of the three bulleted points, offers the most specific information about you as a scholar? This is your “niche.”
So now that you have identified your “niche,” what’s next? Most students find it useful to read their notes (see Part I) aloud a couple of times, to continue to think-through what’s important and why. It’s best to write down a couple of comments, thoughts, questions, etc. in the margins of your notes as well.
Next, you’ll want to refer to the statement of purpose prompt, this time, concentrating on how to organize what the school/department/program wants. For instance, if the prompt directed you to: “… explain your reasons for applying to our graduate program, your qualifications, your individual academic interests and any unusual circumstances that your application presents. This should be a professional statement, and you should envision yourself as a potential member of an academic community…” then you may organize your statement in the following way:
Q1: What are my reasons for applying to this graduate program?
Q2: What are my qualifications for applying to this graduate program?
Q3: How would I explain my academic interests as they relate with this graduate program?
Q4: Is there anything that may threaten the confidence of the committee members who are reviewing my application package? (i.e. changes in majors, academic dismissal, etc.)
Q5: How do I relate with this academic community? (i.e. what are these professors researching/teaching that I want to research/teach, too?)
Once you’ve organized questions centered around “what they [the graduate program] want,” you’re ready to synthesize, or combine, your notes (the two columns you made earlier) as “answers” to the five questions you’ve outlined above.
This can serve as a type of informal outline for your statement. As you’re synthesizing your notes document with the questions document, don’t worry about style, tone, rhetorical strategies or techniques, etc. but rather, concern yourself with getting information down, in an organized way (if you answer each of the questions one-by-one, your organization is essentially done for you …)
Once you’ve done this, you’re ready to revise, because now you can concentrate on style, rhetorical strategies and techniques, etc.
When I’m explaining the reasoning behind a statement of purpose to any student, I almost always describe its purpose as “graceful but confident” and perhaps, even “respectfully aggressive”. Negotiating style is an individual preference; each statement of purpose is different. I don’t necessarily use examples of effective statements in order to inform the content of my statement, but rather, to inform the style or even the organization of ideas.
Below is an excerpt from an effective statement, as an example of how to clearly, concisely, and efficiently answer the statement of purpose prompt: