Applicants to graduate school quickly become familiar with the request to provide a statement of purpose (SOP). The SOP for graduate schools, and especially for STEM programs, usually requests information on the applicant’s motivation and preparation for the graduate program. The SOP question can vary from school to school, but essentially, you’ll be asked to discuss your academic and work experiences to date that demonstrate your interest in and readiness for the program’s graduate curriculum, to explain why you are interested in that particular program, and to share your career goals.
Statement of Purpose versus Personal Statement
Some graduate programs ask for a “personal statement” or “personal history statement” in addition to an SOP. For these essays, the schools would like you to provide a more personal account of your motivations, drives, and values, and to discuss how your unique background will contribute to and enrich their community. Some programs ask you to describe how you have experienced diversity in your life and what you will do in the future to support diversity, equity, and inclusion in the academic environment.
The following are some topics that appear frequently in personal statement prompts.
You might be asked to share who or what has influenced you in your life, who or what has influenced your career path, what values guide your decision-making, and/or how you have demonstrated your values and beliefs.
Some candidates discuss hobbies or interests that broadened their perspective and allowed exploration beyond their comfort zone, such as learning water polo or running a marathon. One Accepted client wrote about how she demonstrated her Chinese heritage through her choice of music for her senior recital. The personal statement is an opportunity to be creative and help the school understand who you are as a whole person, not just what you’ve studied or what you accomplished academically as an undergraduate. It is also important to discuss how you could enrich the academic community you are entering.
With this topic, it is important to write about experiences you have had with people who are different from you – whether racially, ethnically, with respect to gender, or socioeconomically – and how those experiences have influenced your perspective. Have you had to overcome any barriers? Have you been active in any organizations that help promote diversity? What extracurricular activities do you want to get involved in at graduate school that will broaden your outlook or that will promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in your field at the university and beyond.
To write this essay, I suggest thinking about the holistic you – the sum of all parts. What has made you who you are today? I like working with clients on their personal statement because it often reveals such interesting information about their life. These essays allow for much more variation in how you address the prompt, because it is “personal.”
The Most Important Part of Your Application
Many of my clients – and especially those who are applying to graduate programs in STEM fields – ask me, “What is the most important part of my application?” They want to know where they should exert the most effort, and you might be wondering the same thing.
My response is this: all parts of the application are of interest to an admissions committee. However, some elements are concrete facts that you have little control over by the time you are applying. Your GPA is a fact – you cannot change it unless you are still a student and working hard to raise your grades. You can take the GRE or GMAT only so many times, and the score you ultimately submit becomes a fact that you can no longer change. Your resume is a list of experiences, accomplishments, and the value of those results, and because your resume primarily lists information on things you have done in the past, you cannot change those facts, either.
Your letters of recommendation give you some opportunity for control, or at least influence. You can provide detailed information to your references to make it easier for them to write an excellent letter on your behalf. You can give them a list of bullet points highlighting your accomplishments under their guidance – what were your actions and the results? You can also inform them of what your target programs are seeking in candidates and remind them of your skills, offering examples of leadership, team collaboration, initiative, creative thinking, innovation, and so on. But in the end, the information and messages in those letters will be determined by someone other than you.
However, your SOP is the one element of your application that you have total control over, and it really allows you to present who you are to the admissions committee. It is where you can write about your motivations — the “whys” supporting your decision to major in what you did, to focus on the research you conducted, and/or to choose the jobs that comprise your work experience.
In your SOP, you can also distinguish yourself by presenting clear, realistic goals and explaining why this particular program/school is the best fit for you – how it will help you meet your stated objectives. You can discuss which classes you look forward to and which faculty member(s) you would like to learn from or conduct research with. You can reach out to students and recent alumni to learn more about the program. You can mention the insights you’ve gained from these conversations that convince you that the school is the right one for your graduate education. In these ways, you can stand out from other applicants who might not offer as thorough or compelling a narrative.
Although I wouldn’t conclude that any one application element is always the most important, the SOP is where you have the most power to persuade the admissions committee and to provide a complete picture of who you are beyond your grades and standardized scores. Having sat in on admissions committee meetings for years, I can say that the essay was frequently the most memorable and effective part of a candidate’s application – though it was sometimes the element that led to an applicant’s rejection. As an experienced Accepted consultant, I can confidently say that strategizing for and editing an applicant’s essays is where my Accepted colleagues and I add the most value.
With 30 years of career and admissions experience at four universities, including Cornell’s College of Engineering and Johnson Business School, Dr. Karin Ash facilitated students’ entry into the world’s best companies. As an adcom member, she also evaluated applications and therefore knows what schools and employers seek. Want Karin to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!