Writing a Statement of Purpose for Graduate Education

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A few years ago I blogged about the statement of purpose in planning. I made five suggestions that are still relevant:

  • Provide specific details about your past work, study, and activist experience preferably linking them to your plans for graduate work. 
  • Assume an intelligent reader.
  • Balance experience, opinion, and a desire to learn.
  • Show an interest in the program to which you are applying.
  • Finally, keep it short. And make the key points stand out.

Over the past few years I’ve noticed statements improving in some ways. However, they also may be suffering from the explosion of advice on the internet, much of it presumably focused on the large group of people trying to enter undergraduate programs. Many schools require two statements of these undergraduate applicants—one about the applicant as a person (perhaps a general topic, maybe focused on a theme such as learning from mistakes) and one about the applicant's interest in a major (often linking it to life experiences and written in a novelistic or journalistic style). Such statements frequently start with anecdotes—even directly quoted conversations. I’ve been a reader of such statements and the format is well honed.

However, the graduate school statement of purpose is different in some fundamental ways:

  • In a graduate school statement you should focus on what you want to learn. You are not trying to get a job or show you are smart (read the section in the earlier blog on assuming an “intelligent reader” for more about this). You are, instead, trying to show you want to build on existing knowledge and fill important gaps.
  • The statement should read less like a novel or newspaper article and should have a more direct style. After one has read a hundred of them, even the undergraduate statements tend to feel canned and overly coached. When I was doing undergraduate admissions I longed for some directness so I would get a sense of the student rather than the team of adults presumably honing every word in a way that might work for a short story but felt artificial in a statement. In a graduate statement this is even more important. The University of Washington has reproduced advice from the Fulbright program that says something similar: http://depts.washington.edu/engl/advising/gradschool/SoP2.php
  • As I outlined in the previous blog: “If you describe personal details make them relevant to your career trajectory. If you grew up in a single-parent family you'd perhaps mention it to demonstrate a motivation for your desire to study rental housing discrimination....” However, take care with such personal details—including where you have lived or traveled for leisure. It is only a very rare statement that uses such details in a compelling way.

After five and a half years of doing monthly blogs, I am now changing to one blog every 2 months.

For earlier advice on Getting into graduate school in planning see: how to decide if planning is for you, whether to get work experience before you go to grad school, find the right program, understand the basic philosophiesunderlying graduate education in planning, evaluate universities, use social media to find out about schools, applywrite a statement of purposeobtain letters of reference, assess your undergraduate transcripts and your GREsvisit successfully, and decide which offer to take up including how to assess the real costs.

Ann Forsyth is professor of Urban Planning at Harvard University.

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