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7 Steps to Writing a Great Statement of Purpose

April 17, 2020

The time has come to begin your application for graduate school. I congratulate you on making it this far, and I sincerely wish you the best on your journey. It is an exciting time filled with anticipation, wonder, hope and probably some anxiety. The application itself requires strenuous soul-searching and dedicated focus, especially the statement of purpose. Also known as the Personal Statement, Letter of Intent, or Cover Letter- the Statement of Purpose is a crucial part of your application to graduate school. Whether you are applying for a professional degree program such as a Master of Business Administration  or a research degree such as a Ph.D., the statement of purpose is required with your application. The admissions committees of most graduate schools rely heavily on this one-page essay to get to know who you really are, so this is your opportunity to shine! In this special document, you will explain how your background has made you the ideal candidate for that school and program, how your personality and career interests align with the offerings of the school, and how your goals will make that school proud. It is a daunting task for everyone who begins (if it isn't daunting to you yet, trust me- it will be) and can sometimes take 50 hours or more of solid planning, soul-searching, writing, re-writing, revising, restarting, proofreading, peer reviewing, rereading, re-writing and even re-starting again. The experience can be extremely difficult, but just like anything, a good process can help reduce some anxiety and help focus your efforts. This guide will take you through each step with specific examples and tips to help you write a great Statement of Purpose that will get you where you want to go.

 

Look at your resources

 

ISU Career Center

It's always a good idea to take stock of the options available to you when you start out so you don't spend too long spinning your wheels if you get stuck. If the whole process is totally unfamiliar to you, I would stop by the ISU Career Center right away to help you get started. They have a flood of resources to help you get started. Most importantly, if you are still not sure about the decision to attend graduate school, or if you are waffling between different degree programs, they can help you make that decision and solidify your goals for the future. One thing that you will learn through this process is that writing your statement of purpose will be much easier with a clear end-goal in mind. 

Even if you are already clear on what you want to study and where you want to end up after your graduate school days are over, the friendly and helpful counselors at the Career Center can help you brainstorm a theme for your essay, help you see the relevant experience that you have, and help you see what parts of your story would be valuable to an admissions committee. Their advice is helpful, free, and open daily from 8 am to 5 pm. The ISU Career Center is located on the 4th floor of the Museum, Room 418. https://www.isu.edu/career/ 

ISU Writing Center

After you have gone through a first draft of your statement of purpose, it can be helpful to have a professional set of eyes look over your essay for grammar and style. They can help you make sure that your essay reads well and is persuasive. If you are not in the area at the time, you can conveniently schedule an online Skype appointment, or you can submit your essay online and receive written feedback within 48 hours. Particularly if English is not your first language, I would highly recommend having your essay read by the writing center before submitting it.  The ISU Writing Center is located on the 3rd floor of the Rendezvous, Room 323. https://www.isu.edu/tutoring/writing-center/

Purdue Online Writing Lab

This website was recommended to me by Lance Erickson, Director of the ISU Career Center. Purdue OWL publishes a writing guide for all different styles of content, including how to write a great personal statement (link: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/642/1/). This guide includes questions to help you brainstorm what to write, a few excellent examples of well-written and persuasive personal statements, advice directly from admissions committee members of top universities, and some rules to follow and pitfalls to avoid. 

CAUTION: I would recommend only reading the two examples that are posted on Purdue's Online Writing Lab before getting started with brainstorming and writing a first draft of your own. These two should be enough to get an idea of what to include and how to write. Reading more than a few examples can put you at risk for plagiarism, even if unintentional, according to a study conducted by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) . The trouble with reading examples is that the style and stories that you read will get into your head and it can be hard to approach the personal statement with a fresh viewpoint. Remember that your personal statement is meant to uniquely identify YOU, so don't get caught up in replicating someone else's style. 

Find a Mentor

Having a mentor throughout this process is invaluable! When I went through this process myself, I was privileged to have a professor edit and recommend changes to my statement of purpose multiple times. I had gotten to know him over the previous year as an active participant in two of his classes and by working with him on a semester-long university research project. The key point here is that we had interacted enough for us to get to know each other well, and we had many conversations about my goals for the future. His academic experience included sitting on the admissions board for a PhD program at Brown University, so he had read hundreds of statements of purpose and he therefore knew what admissions boards are looking for and what they are tired of reading.

His advice was much needed: when I started writing my statement, I opened with a dramatic scene from the stage of my life that reflected a major turning point in who I am and what I want to accomplish with my life. The story took up half a page, and I had little left to talk about who I am and what I bring to the table. He gave me valuable advice about cutting out the fluff and drama and getting straight to the point with a good thesis statement: "I am thrilled to apply for the xxx Program at xxx University and believe my educational, research, and professional experiences have provided ideal training to be successful in this program." Then I launched into how I showed hard work despite challenges, how I was recognized for accomplishment, how I was uniquely positioned as an excellent candidate, how the attributes of the program fit with my interests and career goals, and what I planned to do with my degree after graduating. After using his advice, the essay appeared MUCH more professional and was a perfect representation of my experiences and goals. I was admitted to every university that I applied for, including a well-known and highly competitive school. I am extremely glad that I cut out the fluff.       

 

Look at the instructions

 

Now that you have a handle on the resources that can help you through the process of writing your personal statement, let's get started. The first thing to look at is what the school's requirements are for the statement of purpose. Here at the ISU College of Business, there are two parameters: length (a page or less) and a certain question asked (why you want to earn an MBA, MAcc, MHA, etc.) (link:https://isu.edu/cob/future/graduate/). Other schools may ask more questions, such as what are your career goals? Why would you be a good candidate for this program? What are your academic interests? What are the benefits you anticipate receiving upon completion of the program? Although all of these questions are implied within the nature of the personal statement, make sure you directly answer the specific questions that are asked.  

 

Assess your audience

 

What are they looking for? 

This is the number one, million dollar piece of advice that will save you hours and hours of knowing what to write about. Here it is: find out what the ideal candidate of that program looks like. Here's why: if you know what the admissions committee is looking for, it will be so much easier to write about yourself using those standards. Think of it as a job interview: the manager will think critically about the skills needed in the position he/she needs to fill and will create a job posting listing those specific skills. When you submit your application, you submit a convincing resume that touches on each of those points. If invited to interview, the manager will likely ask you to demonstrate those skills by telling them about personal experiences. 

The statement of purpose works the same way. Most admissions committees have a few attributes in mind that they are looking for, such as academic strength, leadership capability, team orientation, professional experience, etc. Finding out what that specific program is looking for will do wonders to help you portray your background in a way that is attractive and interesting to them. And remember that different programs will be looking for different things, so remember to tailor your statement of purpose to each institution if you are applying to more than one. 

One way to find out what the admissions committee is looking for in an ideal candidate is to ask current students in that program. Most professional graduate students in business-oriented fields will be on LinkedIn, and most from good programs are willing to speak to prospective students about their experiences in the program. If you are this far in the process, I hope that you have already spoken with several current students to make sure that this school is one that you really want to attend. If you haven't yet, reach out and try to discover what about their background made them uniquely qualified for the program: what was their “X-factor” that helped them get in? Was it their professional experience, high-test scores, volunteer service, or entrepreneurial experience? The program is likely to admit students from many different backgrounds, so there will probably be several reasons that an admissions committee will accept students. Take stock of what is out there, then answer that question for yourself: what makes me unique? When I went through this process, I found that most of those who had been admitted from my undergraduate institution had consulting experience, so I emphasized that portion of my experience in my statement of purpose while adding a personal flair.

Who is on the committee?

Admissions committees can be made up of a handful to two dozen faculty members who may read up to 40 or 50 essays per week, depending on the school and whether they do phased or rolling admissions. Some professional admissions advisors can even read up to 40 essays per day during peak times of the year. Just imagine: if you were reading essay after essay, what would be important to you? You would want to read something interesting that stood out from the others, but also specific and detailed enough to hold in your memory after a day's worth of reading. An admissions advisor for a medical school remarked, "When pushed, I have read 40 statements in a day. That means that by the end of the day, I've developed a very low tolerance to nonsense" ("Essays that will get you into medical school"). So how do you write something catchy but not fluffy? 

Catchy but not Fluffy: MAP it

A good model to help you focus on information that is interesting but relevant is MAP: Motivation, Aspiration, Perspiration (https://blog.accepted.com/essential-components-of-mba-personal-statement/). Motivation: what has motivated you throughout your life? What has led you to accomplish what you have so far? What motivates you to study at this university and to finish the program? Aspiration: what are your professional goals? How will this university and degree program help you achieve them? How have you reached some of your goals already? Perspiration: what have you worked day in and day out to accomplish? What results have you seen from your work? You want to paint a picture for the admissions committee of how hard you will work in your graduate program. Remember, all of this is designed to help the committee get to know the real you. A dry list of achievements and goals will not tell the story of who you are, so make it personal! 

 

Do some self-discovery

 

Now that you're clear on what is expected for the statement of purpose, it's time to start gathering as much insight as you can about yourself, your interests, your goals, your objectives, your desires, your accomplishments—everything! Do some creative brainstorming and make several lists: 

Chronological 

  • Start with your childhood- as young as you can remember- and make a list of every major event that has ever happened to you. What happened, what did you learn, and how have those events affected you today?

Greatest accomplishments

  • Write down everything you have done within the past 5 years or so that you are proud of. Include personal accomplishments that may not relate to your career; remember, this exercise is to help you understand what you have worked hard on. This can help you as you prepare to write about the "perspiration" aspect of the MAP model. 

Personal attributes: personality, skills, etc. 

  • How do your best friends describe you? What is your leadership style? What role do you usually take on group projects or teams? When people come to you for advice, what do they ask about? After looking at your list, consider how some of the things you wrote put you in a unique position to succeed in your chosen career field. 

Major influences on you

  • Is there a specific person or event that has had a major impact on who you are today? What did that person or event do to impact you, and how did you change as a result? Looking at this can also help you discover what your motivations are, or the root of what direction you want to go in. 

Identify your goals

  • What do you really want to accomplish in the five, ten and twenty years? Where do you see yourself? Try to write about your goals in as much detail as possible. Is it real? Can you see it? The more clarity you have on your direction, the more concretely you will be able to explain why this particular program will help you get where you want to be. 

 

 

Buckle down on your outline

 

By now you should have a pretty good pool of personal experiences and attributes to draw from as you channel your ideas into beginning to write the essay. Pick just a few of your top unique identifiers that set you apart as a great candidate for this program, and start organizing them into an outline. Your themes could be any number of things from the list below: 

    1. Unique talents, awards, test scores
    2. Diverse or interesting background 
    3. Your undergraduate experience
    4. Other educational experience
    5. International experience
    6. Business/professional experience
    7. Research experience
    8. Volunteer experience
    9. Leadership experience

When I created my outline, I picked the top things that I thought the admissions committee would be looking for, as well as some of the things that drove my passion and demonstrated my hard work. First, I knew that one particularly competitive school would be heavily weighting my grades and test scores, so my first theme talked about my undergraduate success as a way to show that I am a successful student and will succeed in the program. Next, I wanted to talk about something I did in my free time that both explored my interests helped me progress professionally, so I wrote about my research experience. I also included this because I found from speaking with current graduate students that the admissions committee was particularly interested in applicants with a qualitative background, so I emphasized that aspect of my background. Thirdly, I included my professional experience as I would in a job application, knowing that professional graduate programs are looking for applicants that will be highly employable. I also emphasized my dedication to learning, working hard, and obtaining great results throughout the description. Finally, I addressed the very specific attributes of the program that I found attractive and how each of those unique attributes were going to help me reach my ultimate career goal. Here is what my outline turned out to be: 

  1. Thesis statement: How my education, research, professional experiences, and goals make me an ideal candidate for this program
  2. How my education has prepared me for this program
    1. How I became interested in business management
    2. Volunteer and leadership experience in undergrad
    3. High test scores and grades
    4. Letter of recommendation is included from the Psychology department chair
  3. How my research experience has prepared me for this program
    1. Unique research projects 
    2. Evidence of working really hard
    3. Letter of recommendation is included from the research director
    4. The skills I used are the same required in my desired field 
  4. How my professional experiences have prepared me for this program
    1. Unique internship
      1. What I did and what my results were
      2. What motivated me to succeed
    2. Another unique internship
      1. World-class mentors
      2. How I excelled and applied my skills to make a difference
      3. The skills I exhibited are the same for my desired field
  5. Why I chose this school and why this school should choose me
    1. Why I chose this school
    2. What my ultimate professional goal is
    3. How this school will help me achieve that goal

 

 

Write

 

Using your outline, fill in the blanks and write a first draft. It doesn't have to be perfect at first; getting the words on the page is more important than getting it perfect the first time around. It's always easier to edit and revise what is already there than to craft something new, so just get it out on the page! Then leave it, and come back to it later with fresh eyes. Is it detailed? Is it interesting? Does it flow well? Are the ideas unified with a theme? 

Remember, the purpose of the essay is to persuade the admissions committee that you will be the ideal candidate, so make sure that everything in your paper contributes to that purpose. If there are any extra ideas floating around, either tie them into your purpose or let them go. 

Pay attention to other stylistic attributes, such as topic sentences, paragraph transitions, and vocabulary. While it is important to show by your writing that you are intelligent, refrain from replacing banal indicators with the lavish and hyperbolic- your readers will thank you. 

And please, be honest. If an interview is included in the admissions process, you can bet that they are going to ask about something that is on your statement of purpose. You don't want to be found squirming because you over-dramatized an interest or event that you included.  

 

Make it Perfect

 

Have at least 10 people read your essay and give you feedback before you submit it. Include in that list someone with professional academic experience such as a college or faculty staff member- they will help you know if what you have written is relevant and convincing. Also include someone who knows you well- they will help you see if you have represented yourself well without exaggerating. Also have it read by the ISU writing center for some professional feedback! They can help you know if your ideas are structured well and if the paper flows as it should. Then read it aloud to yourself, as doing so forces you to look at each word and will help you know if the message sounds as you imagined it.

As you receive feedback from each of these sources, be gracious and accepting. You certainly don’t have to include every change that is proposed, but try to grasp the concepts behind the feedback. You are the owner of your essay, but others can offer important perspectives that you may not have seen on your own. 

Then repeat the process. Make changes, and have it read by others again. If what you’ve written is not a good representation of your skills and abilities, then don’t be afraid to start over or to revert to earlier steps of the process. I went through about four restarts and put in about 50 hours of pouring over just one sheet of paper. The end result is nothing like what I started with, and that’s okay. This is an important step in your life- the jumping off point of what may be the best adventure you have yet. The perfect statement of purpose is one that represents you well, speaks for itself, and gets you where you want to go. And that’s worth all the effort. 

 

Sources: Dowhan, Adrienne, et al. Essays that will get you into medical school. Barrons, 2009.