How to Write a Statement of Purpose for Grad Programs

“Ugh. I hate writing about myself.”  Girl, if you’re letting a statement of purpose stump you, you might have to reconsider graduate school.  Grad school is all about you. It’s about how you read, how you write, how you interpret information, and how you create new knowledge. How do you expect to get through an MA thesis or a dissertation if you can’t write a two-page personal statement? And no, this isn’t about length; this about the fact that an MA thesis or a PhD dissertation are still about you! They are your thoughts and you have to know how to sell them to your reader. Two pages or three hundred pages – you still have to know how to do it.

I have read through hundreds (and I mean hundreds!) of statements. This guide will make it easier for you to write your own statement, and I have provided two samples at the end of this document (one to follow and one to avoid). 

This is a generic outline of the statement I wrote for my PhD applications in 2012. You have to pack a lot of information into 2 pages, so get rid of all extraneous information. AND cut down your sentences. The more concise (and precise) you can be, the better.

Paragraph 1: describe how my background led to my research inquiries; what activities increased and informed my knowledge of my proposed area of research

Paragraph 2: discuss my path to MA program; explain briefly my thesis and theoretical approach for my MA thesis

Paragraph 3: explain how my travels through Russia and Central Asia have helped form my opinions on my research; my contacts have helped provide indispensable sources

Paragraph 4 and 5: what I am proposing to do as a doctoral student; my theoretical approaches; current scholarship on the subject and the gap my research will fill; why my research will be important

Paragraph 6: “history lesson” (remember, there are people on the acceptance committees who know nothing about your proposed area of research, so it is important to provide a brief “lesson”); after providing three of four concise sentences about your focus, tie it to your research; how and where will your research add to what we know

Paragraph 7 and 8: discuss the professors you intend on working with at the institution (mention you have met them); explain that your language skills will help in working with sources; make clear that this institution is essential for you to continue your research because of the professors and the resources at the institution.

Two Examples: What to do and what not to do

Below is an annotated example of what not to write (download). I wrote this statement as an undergraduate in 2010, and it reads like an undergraduate’s attempt at being intelligent. It’s generic. It provides no explanation of why UT Austin would be a good fit for me. It provides no explanation of why I would be a good fit for UT Austin.

Below is an annotated example of a statement that *might* help you get into a PhD program (download). I used this statement for most of my PhD applications, and it follows the generic paragraph breakdown from above.

Now that you’ve written your own statement, let me edit it for you through The Shop.

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