Statement of Purpose (NOT Personal Statement)

By: Robyn Morse


Your statement of purpose is perhaps the most important part of your application materials because you can convey a message directly to the application committee. Your resume, writing sample, transcripts, and/or research statements tell the reviewer information about you without context. The statement of purpose gives you the ability to fill in the gaps that other parts of your application present and add more details to your story. A general outline can be used for both PhD, Masters, and internship applications, usually, but of course, there are specifics for PhD and Masters applications that don’t appear for an internship.

With an internship statement of purpose, there is more flexibility and variety that changes from one internship sponsor to another. We recommend that you reach out to a colleague or advisor who knows more about the specific expectations of a certain internship application. Luckily, some internships also provide a detailed overview of their expectations and important points they want you to highlight. If they ask a specific question(s) then make sure to model your statement structure off the points emphasized in the prompt.

While all parts of a PhD/Masters application are important, none will get the same level of scrutiny as the statement of purpose. Admissions committee members and potential supervisors will pore over the statement, analyze it, and use it as they make their case for or against your application. More than any other document in the application, the statement can make or break an application, but it is also the one you have the most control over. Here are some things to keep in mind: 

  • You need to be confident in your accomplishments and experiences. Most writing doesn’t ask us to brag about ourselves, but statements of purpose require it. The reviewers want to see you present your accomplishments and experiences with greater context and acknowledgement of what you can provide the school/internship.
  • In that regard, make sure that you aren’t just selling yourself, but you are also marketing you to them. The school/internship does want to know how awesome you are, but they also want to see how they will benefit from you being at their institution. For each institution you apply, a particular statement of purpose should be tailored to them. Your important skills and experiences won’t change, but your personal marketing strategy will highlight the faculty, researchers, and programs of a specific institution and your desire to work with and alongside them. For this, make sure you mention specific names, fields, and details.
  • Take care to target your language to highlight your skills that you previously learned and how you want to apply that to the next stage of your education/career at their institution.
  • Most statements of purpose, unlike the personal statement, are communication at its most basic. Avoid story-telling and wandering sentences, instead focus on direct language that doesn’t hide your intentions. You want to do X at Y so that you can accomplish Z.
  • For PhD, Masters, and research internships, you need to demonstrate a clear research focus and the skills that support such research. If you don’t have all the skills, then emphasize that the institution you are applying to will give you the other skills needed.
  • After you have written the statement, have someone else look at it. Either the Writing Center or a friend can help you confirm if you have used strong transitions, clear language, and have no grammatical errors. Unfortunately, because this is such an important part of the application, mistakes have the ability to really hurt your standing.

Outline

Paragraph 1: This brief paragraph serves to set the stage and give the reader all the pertinent information before you dive deeper into your skills and research. Something along the lines of: “I am applying to the PhD/Masters program in X at Y in order to do Z. My aim is to obtain the skills necessary to undertake a dissertation that explores XYZ.”

Note: an internship statement of purpose will start differently, but will contain the same brief, direct structure about what you are applying to and why.

Paragraph 2: Position your master’s thesis/ undergrad thesis as a project that represents your goals in the future and in the institution. Use this paragraph to detail your process, sources, and other necessary information about your skills as a researcher that developed over the course of your Masters/undergrad experience.

Paragraph 3: Discuss your Master’s/undergrad program to demonstrate how classes and campus experiences gave you skills. This is when you can mention language training, teaching or leadership experience, any grants/fellowships/awards, previous internships, and conference presentations.

Paragraph 4: Proposal of PhD/Masters/internship research. You can present a stronger ability to accomplish your desired research if you tie it into previous research and experiences. Don’t be too general as they want to know if you have an important, new idea. Give some details but don’t stress if you don’t know everything because it should only fill one paragraph. Remember, you mentioned your research in the first paragraph and your other experiences should build towards your project, so keep your focus in this paragraph on the proposed project.

Paragraph 5: This is the paragraph that you want to tailor to each school. The majority of the statement can be kept the same for each application, but this paragraph should demonstrate the desire to join this institution and benefits of doing so. Talk about faculty members, project managers, or programs you want to learn from and join.  

Paragraph 6: End with couple of sentences tying you to the institution and your excitement to join a prestigious group.

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