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August 24, 2008


This is the first of two posts on writing statements of purpose by Steve Green. The second post is here, but read this one first. To learn more about Steve's graduate admission counseling services, please click here.

This post is for anyone applying to a graduate school program that requires a statement of purpose (also referred to as personal statement, statement of intent, etc.) For detailed advice on MBA essays, please read my colleague Adam’s many excellent posts on the subject. Additionally Adam has posted his analysis of the essay questions for Harvard Law School's LL.M. program.

In this post I provide detailed advice for how to write a strong statement of purpose (SOP). My advice is based on working with successful applicants to graduate programs in economics, electrical engineering international affairs, physics, public policy & administration, sports management, and statistics.

I will provide advice for master’s degree and for PhD applicants.

REMEMBER: You should carefully read the application instructions for each school to which you are applying. Depending on the school, the program and the field, there can be a wide variety of expectations about what applicants should write in the statement of purpose.

The statement of purpose for a graduate program arguably is the most important component of your graduate application.  Here’s why:

  1. The SOP is the only chance for an admissions committee (“adcom”) to see how you think, and how you write

  2. Great test scores & a great GPA will not be enough if your SOP is weak. On the other hand…

  3. A strong SOP can overcome weak test scores and/or a low GPA: The SOP is a way to overcome potential weaknesses in the objective components of your application by demonstrating, without you stating so explicitly, that one or more objective components of your application are not the best indicators of your abilities.

Think of the statement of purpose as your first writing assignment for graduate school: Everyone is asked the same question and evaluated by how much specific detail they can utilize to support a main point, and by how well they organize their thoughts.


I. Before writing

II. Understanding the statement of purpose

III. How to write a strong statement of purpose

I. BEFORE you begin writing the first draft of your SOP, you should do the following:

  1. Determine your specific career goals. For a way to think about that, see one of Adam's earlier posts.

  2. Prepare your resume or CV. See my earlier post on how to do so.

  3. Choose several accomplishments from your resume/CV to write about in your SOP (The number will depend upon the length of the essay.) Choose accomplishments that:

    • Illustrate the strengths that will help you to succeed in graduate school. These typically include skills in text and/or data analysis, organizing, time-management, leadership, communication and, writing, demonstrated academic excellence such as a high GPA and/or scholarships, among others.

    • Highlight different skills, i.e. do not use different accomplishments that illustrate the same strength.

  1. Decide how you can distinguish yourself. Assume that everyone applying to the same programs is as qualified as you. (After all, everyone who is accepted will, as will be many who are not accepted.)

What makes you unique?

    • Think about this in terms of marketing yourself: Figure out how to stand out in a field of qualified applicants. From my experience of working with successful applicants to graduate programs some possible unique selling points include international experience, such as working or studying abroad, extensive professional experience, internships as a university student, academic excellence, publications, and even unique post-graduation goals.

      • REMEMBER: The point of your SOP is to demonstrate in detail how what makes you unique will enable you to:

        • Succeed in graduate school.

        • Contribute to the value of your fellow graduate students’ education and, when combined with a degree,

        • Succeed professionally

  1. FOR PH.D. APPLICANTS: In addition to the points above, you will also need to describe a particular area of research you are interested in pursuing. For PhD programs, the SOP is also a test of whether you can at least formulate a research question. Many programs publish titles of the dissertations by successful graduates, which can give you an idea of the kind of research pursued in different departments.

    • Your goal is to show you seek to solve a particular problem or answer a particular question: You should not merely discuss some area of interest.

    • Be as specific as possible about what you want to research and study

    • Find out what each program expects from applicants in the SOP


First, read the sample SOPs below, which are taken from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia and from the UCLA Master of Public Policy program. These SOPs ask for essentially the same information and are representative of graduate school SOPs universally: You will not find much variation in application essay topics BUT you should check each program’s procedures carefully.

  • Please describe how your academic, professional, and personal background has influenced your decision to pursue a graduate degree from SIPA. How and why will the pursuit of a degree at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs assist you in achieving your professional goals? Please be specific as possible concerning your goals and limit your response to no more than 850 words.

  • Write a Statement of Purpose describing your background, interest, and qualifications for the MPP program. If you use more than one page for your statement be sure to number the pages and include your name on each page. Your SOP should not be longer than 3 double-spaced pages or approximately 750 words. (UCLA’s MPP program)

Taking these SOPs as representative samples, we can break down the SOP into three core parts: your background, your interest in a program and your professional goals. In the second example above, “interest” can be interpreted to mean interest in the UCLA program as well as professional interests (i.e. goals) and “qualifications” means applicants should provide specific details about why they fit the UCLA MPP program.

I’ve divided the next three sections of this post into one each for the core parts.

  1. Your background:

You should:

  • Highlight only those factors from your professional, personal and academic background that are relevant to the task at hand (i.e. getting into a graduate program of your choice) and that reflect your strengths and the development of your interest in the field.

    • Decide what you will emphasize from BOTH your academic and professional backgroud

  • Be able to highlight at least one accomplishment from your academic background, whatever your major was. This can include an overall high GPA, high grades in courses related to your graduate study, participation in a selective seminar, academic awards or merit-based scholarships.

  • If you are currently working in your field, e.g. are already working in public service but seek and MPA or MPP then you should:

    • Highlight your specific professional accomplishments as well as relevant academic accomplishments

  • If you are currently working in a different field from the one in which you seek a graduate degree then, in addition to highlighting your academic strengths, you should discuss in detail how you achieved particular professional accomplishments. MOST SKILLS ARE TRANSFERABLE! Even if you are working in a field that is unrelated to the one you wish to enter after graduation, you probably use certain skills in your work that will enable you to succeed in graduate work.

    • AN EXAMPLE: One of my successful clients entered the graduate program of her choice in international affairs and diplomacy, although she had majored in communication in college and had worked for five years as an analyst for the financial arm of a major bank. She wrote in detail about how she achieved success in her work through superior analytical abilities and time-management skills and suggested she would apply these skills to her new interest of study.

  • If you are currently a university student, then emphasize your academic achievements in detail as well as any extra-curricular activities in which you developed skills relevant to graduate success. Even if the activity itself does not seem related to graduate study, such as a sport, or even a part-time job that you worked at for 20 or more hours weekly, the fact that you pursued it diligently while maintaining a high GPA says a great deal about your ability to manage your time, which is an important skill.

    • Current students should also discuss in detail activities such as internships, volunteer work, study abroad or workshops/events you organized or joined, e.g. Model U.N.

  • If you are applying for a PhD program then you should emphasize your interest in a particular academic subject in your field and how you came to it, i.e. focus on particular coursework or experiences that introduced you to the topic, cite specific authors if you can.

You should NOT:

  • Write a biography, chronology of your life or prose version of your resume.

  • Discuss anything prior to entering university UNLESS it is directly relevant to your current goals. FOR EXAMPLE: In my experience, some applicants to psychology programs write movingly and logically about the impact the mental illness or emotional troubles of someone they when they were younger knew affected their lives and their decision to enter the field. REMEMBER: If there is not a clear and continuous thread between the event and your decision to apply now, then NEVER talk about anything prior to your undergraduate studies.




  1. Your interest in a particular program

You should:

  • Specific courses, i.e. the skill & knowledge you need to achieve your professional goals

  • Dual-degree or interdisciplinary coursework opportunities

  • Unique opportunities outside the classroom, e.g. fieldwork, internships

  • The desire to work under the guidance of a particular faculty member (if applicable: This is often the case for PhD applicants but usually not for Master’s degree applicants.)


No graduate admissions committee will accept you if they do not believe you actually want to study at their particular program. TAKE THE TIME TO LEARN THE SPECIFIC ATTRIBUTES OF EVERY PROGRAM TO WHICH YOU PLAN TO APPLY

  1. Your professional goals

Here’s one-question, pass-or-fail test:

“After earning a degree in (field of your choice) I aim to begin working as

a/an _________ at _____________.”

If you cannot provide a job title and organization name above, then you have “failed” this test and may not be ready to apply to graduate school right now.

If you are applying to a 1-2 year graduate school program now, then 1-2 years from now (late summer, 2008) you will probably begin job hunting. If you do not have a specific career vision in mind right now, then you may not actually be ready to start graduate school.

Keep in mind that you are free to change your mind AFTER you are accepted, but right now you need to make a convincing case that the graduate degree is the next logical step to a specific career goal.

Graduate school reputations are not based not only on the caliber of students accepted to the school, but also on the career paths pursued by graduates.

In this part of your essay, you should:

  • Explain a specific job title, level of authority and name or type of an organization or institution where you wish to work

  • Illustrate that, combined with your existing academic/professional strengths, the degree AT THIS PARTICULAR SCHOOL is the best possible means to reach your professional goals

You should not:

  • Present vague goals, e.g. a plan merely “to work in the field of international development.”

  • Present lofty goals that are unrealistic for any new graduate degree holder, e.g. a plan to be the Secretary General of the United Nations immediately or within a few years of graduation



In my next post, I will discuss how to write a strong statement of purpose.

For questions regarding this post, please contact me at h.steven.green@gmail.com. To learn more about my graduate admissions consulting services, please click here.
- H. Steven ("Steve") Green, グリーン・ハロルド・スティーブン

大学院留学 カリフォルニア大学バークレー校 マクスウェルスクール シラキューズ大学 ハーバード大学ケネディスクール コロンビア大学の国際関係・公共政策大学院(通称SIPA)
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