Christopher T. Hank
Today, the process of admissions for graduate programs is
highly competitive. In addition to the quantitative data (tests
scores and academic transcripts) and other materials that
you will be asked to submit to a school's admissions committee,
a piece of writing -- variously called a "statement of
purpose," "personal essay," or "statement
of background and goals" -- will probably be required
The overall application package will represent who "you"
are to people whom you will most likely not know personally.
The written expression of your qualities as an applicant will
often be a very important way for committee members to get
to know why you are an acceptable candidate for their program.
Thus, it is essential to take great care in preparing this
part of your application. Because graduate schools make important
selection decisions that are partly based on what you say
in this essay, the writing of it can be an intimidating prospect.
Start Early! Be Thorough!
If you have begun your application process early, take the
time to investigate thoroughly each institution to which you
- Go to the library and locate/browse-through/read texts
or abstracts by the school's faculty members who work in
your field or area of interest.
- Study and re-study the application materials sent to you
very carefully; in particular, read through the school catalog
and required course offerings.
- Find out if the school and program have web sites where
you can learn more about them.
Taking these steps will familiarize you with the department,
and allow you to weigh its specific strengths and weaknesses
in comparison to those of other schools. While conducting
your inquiry, take notes so that you will have something to
base your essay on. Additionally, if you happen to know anyone
-- a friend, family member, colleague, or teacher -- who has
graduated from a school that you are considering, ask her
or him for information as well. Although such people may be
very helpful, be careful not to let their advice sway you
too much, unless you are quite sure that they are particularly
familiar with the department in question, and that their knowledge
of it is up to date.
What to Include
The piece of writing that each school requests may be very different
from that of others; some programs may even ask for more than
one essay. Before you begin to write, study very carefully the
essay directions on the application materials sent to you by
the school and by the specific department to which you are applying.
While some programs leave the content of the essay fairly "open,"
others may place explicit content and length restrictions on
it. Try to make sure that you have a good idea of what you are
being asked to write about.
Whatever the particular form of the essay asked of you, there
are a number of basic areas committees are interested in.
When evaluating your application, each reader will ultimately
have this question in mind: "Why should we let you into
our school?" In order to answer this question, try to
do the following:
- Clearly state your short and long term goals; tell how
university "X" can help you meet them.
- Describe your areas of research and professional interest.
You might indicate how your proposed studies are located
within a broad field. For example, someone applying to a
composition and rhetoric program might say, "I hope
to examine the relationship between rhetorical invention
strategies and demonstrated ability to write for members
of diverse discourse communities." Or, someone applying
to an engineering program might say, "My particular
interests are in optical communications, networks, and signal
processing. As an undergraduate research assistant, I studied
the principles of wavelet transforms, one of the most recent
signal processing techniques, and I developed software models
using Matlab to simulate the transform process. Currently
I am investigating new applications of wavelet transforms.
University X's program in electrical engineering provides
the direction and environment in which I can pursue my work
in optimal communications networks and signal processing."
- Give specific reasons why you are interested in a particular
field, as well as why you have chosen this particular school
to apply to.
- Refer to past experiences, both academic and "real
world," that are relevant to graduate study.
- Articulate what is particularly valuable about the perspective
that you will bring to the prospective field of study and
the specific department.
- Demonstrate your ability to think and express ideas clearly
- Show motivation and capacity to succeed in graduate education.
- Write concisely and try to keep your readers interested.
Remember that they are reading many application essays and
therefore, you need to be considerate of their needs.
- Offer other information that demonstrates your need and
desire to be accepted by the program.
Why this School?
Once you have developed a sense of the faculty's interests
and the department's special features, you can make it clear
in your application exactly why you want to attend that particular
school. What is it about the department's curriculum structure
or general approach to the field that makes you interested
in being a student there? Don't waste your valuable essay
space, or your reader's valuable time, telling the reader
how wonderful or prestigious their institution is; people
on the admissions committee already know this. They want to
know about you.
Nonetheless, if there are special programs or institutes
at the school that seem appealing to you, briefly mention
that you are interested in becoming part of them. For example,
state that you "want to be a member of the XYZ Group
for Blank and Blank Studies because . . .", but don't
tell them how great, well respected, and world-renowned this
part of the school is.
If, during your research on the department's faculty, a faculty
member strikes you as someone whom you might be interested in
working with, indicate this in your essay; be concise and specific
about why you want to work with this person in particular. A
word of caution here: Do not try to use this as a way to "butter
up" the admissions committee, because if there is any reason
to believe that you are not sincere, your application may be
adversely affected. Again, mention the person and how their
work relates to your interest, but don't load this statement
with what might be interpreted as false or superfluous praise.
Some applications may ask you to give a personal history, telling
about experiences that you have undergone which have led you
to decide to pursue graduate education in a certain field of
study. (If personal information of this sort is not required,
then you are under no obligation to provide it.)
The information that could be included in a personal-type
statement is limited only by your own imagination and life
history, but you should be highly selective about what you
include. There are two things to watch out for: (1) saying
too much and/or (2) not saying enough.
Some applicants may ramble on about themselves in a manner
that may appear self-indulgent and not very appealing to the
committee. Remember, this is an application essay, not an
autobiography. Conversely, some applicants tend to say too
little, perhaps hesitating to promote themselves too explicitly
or not knowing what about about themselves would be interesting
to people whom they don't know. In such cases, perhaps focusing
more on what you want to do than on what you have already
done (let your record speak for itself), may help in getting
Generally, keep in mind that the points about your life that
you highlight should be somehow relevant to both your own
interest in the field of study, as well as to the concerns
of the admissions committee. In judging what information to
include or exclude from your essay, try to balance academic,
work-related, and personal information in a manner appropriate
to your situation, goals, and the application requirements.
If you have additional, relevant information about yourself
that does not easily fit into the essay, or into any other
section of the university's application, you may want to include
a condensed resume or curriculum vitae with your application
package. This is especially applicable to those who have worked
professionally since having graduated from school. Relevant
items here might include work experience, publications, and
presentations, as well as language and computer skills.
Also, if you have experienced times of great hardship or
extenuating circumstances that have negatively affected your
academic performance at any time, provide a short explanatory
statement. This is another one of those places where caution
should be exercised: you want to explain the cause of your
poor grades, etc. without alienating the reader by overdoing
it. Once again, be specific and concise.
Although some people may be able to write an essay from start
to finish in one sitting, most would probably not be particularly
satisfied with the results of such an effort. Outlines, including
a list of possible components to include in the essay, are
often a good way to get started on your essay. Some writers
prefer to start writing one paragraph at a time, re-arranging
their ideas for orderly flow later on. Whatever method you
use (only a few out of many have been mentioned here), make
sure to allow time for revision -- don't start your essay
the night before you have to send it out!
Ask others to read your essay and give you honest feedback;
tell them that it is important to know what areas they find
unclear or unnecessary. Don't feel shy about asking for or
receiving criticism; remember, the effectiveness of your essay
depends on your being able to present yourself in a manner
that is attractive to admissions committees. Comments such
as "it's good" are not going to be very helpful
to you because they will not help you to improve your essay.
After considering responses to your work, revise your essay
until you are satisfied with it. (Remember to spell check
the final draft). Also, make sure that your name and possibly
the essay title -- for example: "Personal Statement"
-- is included in a header on the first page, and that your
last name is on a header or footer for each additional, numbered
page (in case the first page gets misplaced).