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Five tips: Writing a grad school statement of purpose

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Believe it or not, a poor statement of purpose can sometimes disqualify graduate school applicants. Here’s why.

When grad schools ask for a statement of purpose, they want to know why you want to study there, why the program is right for you, and why you’re a good match for the school. Failing at this task could show you’re not a fit for the program. But it’s a very easy mistake to avoid.

Here are five tips for writing a statement of purpose for grad school.

1. Know why you’re a fit

If you’re merely applying to a school because of location or cost and don’t know much else about the program, this lack of knowledge will be revealed in your statement of purpose. Make sure you go to the school’s website and research the faculty (and their research interests) and the program’s curriculum. Know how earning that degree can benefit your future, and why this school specifically is the one for you.

If after doing this you’re still a fit for the school, then you should be able to convey why in this statement of purpose.

2. Plan it

Like all essays, you need a plan and a thesis statement, according to founder Linda Abraham.

“Before you begin writing, choose what you want to discuss and the order in which you want to discuss it,” Abraham wrote in an article on the website. “Unite your essay and give it direction with a theme or thesis.”

Once you have a thesis statement that states where the paper is headed, planning out the rest of the paper shouldn’t be too difficult. Perhaps create an outline, listing which points you want in which paragraph. This could make it easier once it’s time to write your essay.

3. Be specific

Whatever you do, don’t make the classic “jack of all trades” mistake in your grad school statement of purpose. That’s not what this paper’s about, according to the Princeton Review article “Writing the Statement of Purpose.”

“Grad school applicants commonly make the error of including a paragraph about how well-rounded they are: They’re avid ultimate-frisbee players, they write short stories or they love to cook,” according to the article. “Colleges are interested in this stuff; graduate schools are not. Grad schools are looking for great minds who will achieve mastery of a specific subject area. They don’t care that you make a great chicken casserole or play intramural bocce ball.”

The grad school is looking for clear, well-defined research interests that you have based on experience, according to the Princeton Review, not how overall awesome you may be.

4. Write clearly, concisely and in your own voice

A common mistake people make when writing essays is writing in the voice they think the reader wants, and not their own voice. In statements of purpose they want to hear from you, no one else. Be the most organized, thoughtful version of yourself.

And please, avoid the complex stuff. This isn’t the place for it, according to a University of Southern California blog by Erika Phyall.

“A statement of purpose is not the place to show off your academic writing chops,” wrote Phyall, who’s on staff with USC. “You’re not writing long-winded literary fiction or a new philosophy of being. You’re writing a letter to a stranger. You’re trying to communicate a message, efficiently and effectively.”

Keep it short and simple, realizing they’re looking for a prospective student and not the next great novel writer.

5. Have someone look over it

As with all important pieces of writing, don’t forget to have someone look over it before sending it in — not just for grammatical errors but overall content. Find a tutor, writing professional, or someone reputable whose opinion you trust and hear them out. That second or third pair of eyes could be greatly beneficial.

Though other materials in the grad school admissions process, such as transcripts and test scores, may hold a greater weight in the school’s decision, don’t underestimate the statement of purpose. Remember: If your purpose for going there isn’t compelling, then you’re probably not going to be a compelling enough applicant.


“Writing the Statement of Purpose,” The Princeton Review, 2013,

“10 Tips on How to Write a Statement of Purpose for Graduate School,” USC Rossier Online, May 8, 2013,

“Writing Your Grad School Personal Statement,”, 2013,

About the Author


Jon Fortenbury is an Austin-based freelance writer who specializes in higher education. He’s been published all over the place, ranging from the Huffington Post to USA Today College, and is a featured contributor to Follow him on Twitter (@jonwrites).

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