Writing a Statement of Purpose for Graduate Education

How should a statement of purpose for a graduate school application differ from one for an undergrad program? This post outlines the elements of a compelling graduate school statement.

3 minute read

February 27, 2013, 10:00 AM PST

By Ann Forsyth


Elvert Barnes / Flickr

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

Trained in planning and architecture, Ann Forsyth is a professor of urban planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. From 2007-2012 she was a professor of city and regional planning at Cornell. She taught previously at at the University of Minnesota, directing the Metropolitan Design Center (2002-2007), Harvard (1999-2002), and the University of Massachusetts (1993-1999) where she was co-director of a small community design center, the Urban Places Project. She has held short-term positions at Columbia, Macquarie, and Sydney Universities.

Green rapid transit bus pulled into station in dedicated lane.

Indiana Once Again Considering Ban on Dedicated Transit Lanes

The proposed legislation would impact the construction of planned IndyGo Blue Line, the third phase of the city’s bus rapid transit system.

February 25, 2024 - Fox 59

Aerial view of New York City architecture with augmented reality visualization, blue digital holograms over buildings and skyscrapers

4 Ways to Use AI in Urban Planning and City Design

With the ability to predict trends, engage citizens, enhance resource allocation, and guide decision-making, artificial intelligence has the potential to serve as planners’ very own multi-tool.

February 20, 2024 - ArchDaily

View from shore of Sepulveda Basin water catchment basin with marsh plants along shore.

LA’s ‘Spongy’ Infrastructure Captured Almost 9 Billion Gallons of Water

The city is turning away from stormwater management practices that shuttle water to the ocean, building infrastructure that collects and directs it underground instead.

February 25, 2024 - Wired

Ice fishing tents surrounded by fence in Safe Outdoor Space for unhoused people in parking lot in Denver, Colorado.

An Affordable Housing Model for Indigenous Americans

Indigenous people make up a disproportionately high percentage of the unhoused population, but many programs designed to assist them don’t reach those most in need.

March 1 - High Country News

An electric bicycle is shown with the legs of a human who is riding the e-bike.

Oregon Bill Would Ban E-Bikes for Riders Under 16

State lawmakers seek to change Oregon e-bike laws following the death of a 15-year old last summer.

March 1 - Oregon Capital Chronical

Aerial view of canal cut into beach in Charlestow, Rhode Island with boats parked in sand.

Northeastern Waterways More Polluted After Wet Year

Intense rains washed more runoff into local bodies of water, while warmer temperatures contributed to the growth of an invasive bloom.

March 1 - University of Rhode Island

Write for Planetizen

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.