Brainstorming for Your Grad School Statement of Purpose: 4 Questions to Consider Before You Start Writing


Getting starting on your graduate school statement of purpose can be stressful and perplexing as the statement of purpose is unlike any other writing assignments you regularly complete. I would even venture to say it’s worlds apart from the personal statement you wrote for undergrad. While a personal statement should intentionally focus on the writer’s personal narrative (i.e. on who you are and how you got there), a graduate school statement of purpose, on the other hand, should emphasize the writer’s academic interests, skills, and career goals. But of course, your grad school statement shouldn’t be devoid of personality either.  

Here are four questions to consider before you start writing your graduate school statement of purpose.

1.     Who is the audience?

2.     What are my three whys?

3.     What’s my story (and how do I tell it)?

4.     How do I avoid being cliché?

1. Who is the audience?

When writing a statement of purpose for a graduate program, you should consider what that discipline values. The department’s admissions committee will want to know why you chose this program of study and why you think you will do well in it for the long term. As an example, if you’re applying to a graduate program for public policy and you know the discipline values civic engagement in the policy making process, it would be prudent to mention your desire to involve the community in shaping legislation as you detail your goal of becoming a policy analyst in the future.  


2. What are my three whys?

Often, the readers of your statement of purpose want to see you answer three general questions:

  • Why them? Why are you applying to this school, department, internship, or program and not some other? What is special about them? Are there specific professors you’d like to work and conduct research with?

  • Why you? What is special about you? What is in your background, interests, or achievements that shows you are an ideal candidate?

  • Why now? Why are you applying at this point in your life? How does this decision fit in with your long-term goals?

Think about these three questions and make a bullet list of the answers as a guide to use while writing the outline for your statement of purpose.

3. What’s my story (and how do I tell it)?

If the prompt is asking you talk about something you accomplished or a challenge you faced, use your statement of purpose to tell a story about the kind of person you are and how that accomplishment or challenge affected, influenced, or changed you. Dig deep and be vulnerable. Your passion and authenticity will shine through in your writing.

And be specific. Good stories have details in them that make them seem believable and that bring the story to life.

4. How do I avoid being cliché?

Every year the faculty on the admissions committee read about Legos in the personal statements of several applicants. Many students who pursue engineering enjoyed playing with Lego bricks as children (and maybe even still do). Perhaps you look back at your enjoyment of Legos as an early indicator that you were “meant to be an engineer” but the faculty likely do not believe that a student's attraction to playing with plastic blocks has any correlation with their potential success as engineers. So, in this case, it’s important to recall and demonstrate what sets you apart from other engineering applicants? You want the members of the admissions committee to remember your story and be able to pick you out from the crowd of incoming students when they finally meet you in person.

Sounds easy, right? Well, writing a good essay certainly can be. Answer these four questions and you’ll be well on your way to writing a uniquely personal and memorable statement of purpose tailored for graduate school.


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