Write a Grad School Statement of Purpose in 12 Simple Steps

August 10, 2023

grad school statement of purpose

If you need to write a graduate school statement of purpose, we’ve got good news. Writing cover letters, a snappy Twitter bio, or a college essay has prepared you for this moment. However, there are a number of qualities that make the graduate statement of purpose a form of its own. We will discuss them here, as well as how to make your statement of purpose for grad school stand out from hundreds of other grad school statements of purpose penned by your competition.

Crafting an amazing graduate school statement of purpose is not just helpful for getting into grad school. The act of writing out your career goals, and reflecting on your academic and professional journey can be extremely helpful for choosing where and what you want to study. It’s also a great opportunity to appreciate how far you’ve come.

Spoiler alert: the number one guideline that you’ll see in the following steps to writing a smash-hit statement of purpose is specificity. The clearer you are about who you are, why you’re drawn to this field, what you’ve accomplished, and what you want to achieve, the more excited admissions officers will be. Plus, the more specific you are in writing, the more you’ll know which grad school would make a great match.

Click here if you are looking for Examples of a Statement of Purpose for Graduate School. 

What Is A Graduate School Statement of Purpose?

To apply to graduate school in any field, you need to submit a document called a Statement of Purpose (or SOP). The SOP is kind of like the introduction to your transcript and CV and other application materials. Usually a one-page document, the statement of purpose synthesizes all the other information to explain why you and the program you’re applying would be a mutually good fit.

What makes a good fit? First of all, your SOP should display your past preparation in your specific field. Secondly, it should show that you are capable of graduate-level study in general: independent, collaborative, intensive, and academically challenging. Third, it should show how your goals align with what the program offers, and that you have something to offer the program.

Put simply, the graduate school statement of purpose is an essay proving why you are the best person for this specific program in this particular field. Return to these words often as you write, and try to make sure each sentence is connected to this aim.

Statement of Purpose Grad School (Continued)

On the admissions side of things, the statement of purpose has two functions. One is to evaluate if you are a qualified match: i.e. if you will be successful in their program. They are not trying to admit people who will fail out, bully the rest of the cohort, or transfer because their research interest isn’t being met. Second, the SOP is a tool for remembering you. By understanding the candidate’s profile in a condensed way, the jury can talk quickly about “The one who is so into X” or “The one who did Y.” These are both things to keep in mind while crafting your own graduate school statement of purpose.

Think of graduate school as a desert island, where everyone is bringing something with them. (You often will end up spending a ton of time with these people, also like a desert island.) Your knowledge and skills will contribute to the range of tools people are bringing so that everyone can grow together. The SOP is meant to show in a clear, concise way what you’re bringing to the island.

Statement of Purpose Grad School (Continued)

By the end, it should be clear:

  • Why you want to go to graduate school
  • How you’ve prepared for graduate school
  • What specific field of focus you want to study
  • Why X University/program

For this reason, a good place to start is to be clear on what graduate school is. If you’re applying for a Master’s degree instead of a PhD. program, be clear on your reasons for that too. And once you’re sure about the type of degree you’re applying for, make sure you know the types of programs in your field, be it an MFA in Creative Writing or a Master’s in Psychology.

What a Graduate School Statement of Purpose Isn’t

Your SOP is not a personal statement. Your love of Wiz Khalifa, Boston terriers, or fly-fishing with your grandfather do not belong in this essay (unless they connect meaningfully to your field of study). This is also not the place to share anecdotes of overcoming hardship–that kind of information is more suited to a personal statement, which is meant to introduce more of your voice, personality, and life history.

Think of a job interview: a NASA employer does not care that your favorite taco filling is chorizo. They care about your preparation in rocket science. Your SOP should follow this principle.

The Central Skill of a Graduate Statement of Purpose

How do you exhibit that you would be a successful student, beyond what’s written on your CV and transcript? You may think these lists of stellar grades and research experiences are enough to show your qualifications. Instead, the SOP is meant to create a unified narrative that connects all these documents into a whole.

What’s the best way to do that? By interpreting experience.

For a statement of purpose for grad school, you will need to interpret your experiences in a way that:

  1. a) unifies all your experiences into a kind of ‘thesis statement’ about who you are (“The student who is passionate about studying PTSD in adolescents with amazing grades who wants more clinical experience.”)
  2. b) organizes your experiences into different paragraphs to show different qualities about you (“My four years of top grades in college don’t just reflect my work ethic, but my evolving passion for clinical psychology.”)
  3. c) interprets individual experiences to show their meaning (instead of “I worked in Professor Kurtz’s lab on adolescent behavioral psychology,” interpret what the experience meant to you: “My time in Professor Kurtz’s lab on adolescent behavioral psychology showed me how fundamental this under-studied life stage is to understanding adult psychology, and ignited my passion for this research focus.”

Interpret experience. If you’re doing this every step of the way, your graduate school statement of purpose is going to have a strong start and require fewer drafts in the future.

Writing A Graduate Statement of Purpose in 12 Simple Steps

Phase 1: Research & Soul Searching

#1: Study your CV and past academic experiences: Pull out a highlighter. Highlight specific moments on your CV/transcript that helped you discover your passion. Then, highlight moments of major growth. Lastly, highlight trends of long-term commitment. Track how your trajectory changed over time. For example: maybe you studied political science in college, but you discovered your obsession with international relations working for the NSA.

#2: Reflect on why you want to go to graduate school: Brainstorm a list of reasons you genuinely want to go to graduate school. Be as specific as possible about why you decided to pursue graduate study in your chosen field at this time in your life. Think about experiences that led you to this decision.

Above all, think about the goals graduate school will help you achieve. If you don’t have any goals, now is the time to dream of them. The higher you aim, the more effective your graduate experience will be.

Statement of Purpose Grad School (Continued)

#3: Analyze yourself from an admissions perspective: Graduate school is intensive. It requires hard work at a high level. It requires independent work, yet strong interpersonal skills. Which experiences show that you’re ready for graduate school? What would you bring to a graduate studies community? And what type of community is that? Is it a small MFA program, where cooperation and community are important? Would you be on a MSci research team that prizes collaboration? Do you need the self-starting nature to do months of research alone, in a lab, or in the field?

#4: Research your program and institution: Knowing the specifics of each program will help you tailor your core essay to match your profile with their needs. Make sure you know the strengths and research areas of each program, the unique mission of each institution, and the faculty. This is also a way of making sure the program is a good fit for you.

Phase 2: Writing the Draft

#5: Read the instructions carefully and directly respond to the question: The first test of the SOP is your ability to follow directions. Make sure you follow the word limit, and the question at hand.

#6: Outline, outline, outline: It is highly likely that your first try at the SOP is not going to be your final version. To save time, it can help to try a few different outlines. Feel free to make up your own outline, as long as it answers the question in an organized way.

The Goal Oriented SOP

P1: Overview of your goals

P2: Why you want to pursue these goals (Experience 1, 2)

P3: How you arrived at these goals (Experience 3, 4)

P4: How these goals link to the field

P5: Why this is the best program for these goals

P6: Short recap

The Who-What-When-Where-Why SOP

P1: Who: Who you are, and a summary of what you’ve done

P2: What: what you want to do, based on concrete examples of what you’ve done

P3: When: why do you want to go to grad school now? (Using examples of what you’ve done)

P4: Why: why you want to go to grad school, what you want to do in the future

P5: Where: why this program?

P6: Conclusion

The Chronological SOP

P1: Overview of who you are and where you want to go

P2: Academic experience

P3: Work experience

P4: Why this research focus now?

P5: Goals for the future

The Thematic SOP

P1: Introduction of different reasons you want to go

P2: Reason 1, as shown through Experiences/Goals 1, 2, 3

P3: Reason 2, as shown through Experiences/Goals 1, 2, 3

P4: Reason 3, as shown through Experiences/Goals 1, 2, 3

P4: Conclusion showing why you want to go to grad school/Discussion of Particular Program

Statement of Purpose Grad School (Continued)

#7: Be specific about details: Let your dork flag fly! The SOP is a great place to get nitty-gritty about what topics or ideas excited you in college/work, and what your research interests are. Instead of copy-pasting experiences from your CV––show us examples of what you did and how you did it. Mentioning times when learning felt electric will show in your writing.

Here’s a quiz about specificity. Which answer is more convincing and memorable?

  1. “I participated in a research lab on primate behavior,”
  2. “As I cradled the baby chimpanzee in my arms, I realized how crucial understanding primates is for the future of our planet.”

#8: Overwrite, and then cut: It’s always better to cut down than have too little. Once you’ve written monster paragraphs filled with examples, select the strongest ones that display your most meaningful and impressive experiences. To fit within the word count, don’t be afraid of lists: “The sculptural influence on my paintings is grounded in extensive experience in the medium: I completed a multi-room solo show, won several competitive undergraduate awards for my work, and received positive critique from renowned sculptors Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse.

Phase 3: Drafts of Glory

#9: Tailor your draft to each program: First of all, do not, and I mean do not, forget to change the name of the school in each draft! Second, make slight changes to your original draft so that it uses your research about each program. Let yourself get passionate and specific. This is a great opportunity to imagine yourself in each program, and think about why you would be a great fit. “I would love to study at X in particular because I would get to do Y.”

#10: Clarity and precision: The SOP is a way for graduate schools to evaluate if you can communicate at a graduate level. In any graduate school situation, you will be practicing communication skills–from writing articles to giving presentations. Make sure the ideas flow clearly and are organized in paragraphs with a specific focus. Make sure you use concise, clear language to express yourself. Avoid fancy words, but do make sure the writing is thoughtful and shows how much you care.

Statement of Purpose Grad School (Continued)

#11: Peer review: Have your recommendation writers comment on your statement. As experts in the field you are entering, they will likely have insightful comments to make your statement even better. Next, have someone who cares about you and knows your CV comment on your statement. Are you selling yourself short? Are you forgetting to highlight something awesome about yourself? Lastly, have a brutal editor comment on your statement. Ask them: What’s unclear? What’s vague?

#12: Spelling and grammar: Grad school is competitive to get into, and very detail-oriented. For these reasons, spelling and grammar errors can be excuses for panels to mark your application down. Don’t let that happen!

The final step is to take a breath of relief! You’ve created a document that will be a touchstone for remembering your goals and motivations. Any self-help guide or tech CEO will tell you that visualizing your goals clearly is the first step to success. And now you’ve taken that step. Good luck with your applications!

Final Thoughts Grad School Statement of Purpose

If you enjoyed our 12-step writing process for the graduate school statement of purpose, you may also find the following relevant resources to be of use: