Statement of purpose for graduate school

When you apply for graduate programs or scholarships, the admissions committee is looking for more than just a list of grades. The statement of purpose (also known as a statement of intent or motivation letter) is your chance to stand out from the crowd and showcase your motivation, skills and potential. It should:

  • Outline your academic or professional interests and goals
  • Discuss relevant skills, experience and achievements
  • Demonstrate why you’d be a good fit for the program

See an example

Requirements and prompts

The first step is to read the application instructions. These should include the length of the document (usually 1-2 pages), any formatting requirements, and often a question or prompt that indicates what you should focus on.

In some cases, you might also be asked to submit a personal statement. Similar advice applies to both of these documents—both should give a sense of who you are, what you’ve done and what you want to do. But a statement of purpose is often more formal, tightly focused on your academic background and your suitability for the program.

If you are working on multiple applications, don’t try to write a one-size-fits-all texttailor your statement of purpose to each program. Make sure to respond to the prompt and include all the information you’re asked for. A typical statement of purpose prompt looks like this:

Example prompt from Berkeley

Please describe your aptitude and motivation for graduate study in your area of specialization, including your preparation for this field of study, your academic plans or research interests in your chosen area of study, and your future career goals. Please be specific about why UC Berkeley would be a good intellectual fit for you.

Your focus will be slightly different depending on whether you’re applying for research-based academic programs (such as a PhD) or professional qualifications (such as an MBA). But all statements of purpose should contain the following elements.

Personal introduction

This is your chance to introduce yourself to the admissions committee and let them hear your voice. The statement of purpose shouldn’t tell your life story, but it should give a glimpse into who you are.

Academic and personal background

Give an overview of your academic background, and show what drives your interest in this field or profession. You might want to include some personal background tooyour family history, social circumstances, personal relationships and life experiences have all shaped your trajectory and perspective. What unique insights will you bring with you?

Characteristics and personality

Think about aspects of your character that make you well-suited for graduate school. Don’t just list generic adjectivesgive examples that demonstrate your strengths and show why they’re relevant.

  • Are you organized enough to handle a high-pressure workload?
  • Do you have the creativity needed to develop original ideas, or a systematic mindset perfect for problem-solving?
  • Do you have strong leadership skills, or are you great at working collaboratively?

Avoid including irrelevant autobiographical detail in the statement of purpose. Everything you include should be aimed at showing why you’d be a strong candidate for the program.

Experience and achievements

Your experience shows that you have the necessary skills to succeed in graduate school. Don’t just summarize everything you’ve donepick out some highlights to build a clear picture of your strengths and priorities, illustrating how you’ve learned and developed along the way.

Academic experience

If you’re applying for a research-focused program, such as a PhD, show your knowledge of the field and outline your research experience. This might include:

  • A brief summary of your thesis or final project
  • Courses that you found particularly valuable
  • Projects you contributed to
  • Awards
  • Publications
  • Presentations
  • Extracurriculars that gave you relevant skills or experience

Professional experience

If you’re applying for a professional program, such as an MBA, outline your experience so far and show how it relates to your career plans. This might include:

  • Past or current job roles
  • Projects you led or participated in
  • Internships
  • Voluntary work
  • Training courses

In all cases, give specific examples with details of what you worked on, what you achieved, and what you got out of the experience.

Goals and motivations

As well as showing that you’re prepared for the program, explain what you expect to get out of it. What are your motivations for applying? How do you plan to make the most of its opportunities, and how will it help you achieve your goals?

Academic motivations

For academic programs, indicate your research interests, showing how they follow from and build upon what you have studied so far. This might include:

  • A subfield that you want to strengthen your expertise in
  • A specific problem or question that you’d like to address
  • An initial idea for a research project
  • A theoretical or methodological approach that you want to develop

This isn’t the place for an in-depth research plan, but it’s a chance to show your enthusiasm and knowledge of your field.

Professional motivations

For professional programs, outline your career aspirations and show how your experience informs your goals. This might include:

  • The next step you want to take in your career. What position are you aiming for and how will the program help you achieve it?
  • Your motivations for a career change. Can you make a link between your previous experience and your new direction?
  • Your long-term goals. Where do you want to be in five or ten years, and how do you see yourself getting there?

The admissions committee wants to know that you’re genuinely motivated to complete the program, and the clearer your plans, the more convincing your commitment.

Fit with the program

It’s important to show not only why you want to study this subject, but also why you want to do it in this particular institution and department.

  • Do your research, and mention particular classes, specialisms or faculty that attracted you.
  • Show why you’re a good fit. Do your priorities align with the values and culture of the institution? What will you contribute to the department?
  • Discuss the specific skills, knowledge and experience you expect to get from the program.

The statement of purpose isn’t only about selling yourselfit’s about illustrating an ideal match between you and the program.

Tips for an effective statement of purpose

Once you’ve made sure to cover all the key elements, you can work on strengthening and polishing the text. Follow these tips to make your application the best it can be.

Stay focused

It can be tempting to try to cram in everything you’ve done, but a good statement of purpose requires careful selection to craft a focused narrative. One way to do this is by building your text around a central themefor example, a character trait, an intellectual interest, or a career goal.

This strategy helps structure your text and puts your priorities centre stage. Link each paragraph back to the central idea, making it clear how everything fits together.

Think about your structure

The structure of a statement of purpose is somewhat flexible, as long as you include all the relevant information in an order that makes sense.

For example, you might start with a chronological story of where your interests began, or you might open with your goals and then select a series of examples that show your capacity to achieve them. If you’re desperate to study in this specific program, you could lead with a summary of why it’s your ideal choice, and then elaborate on each aspect to show why you’re a perfect fit.

The important thing is that the text showcases your strengths and motivations in a compelling, coherent way. As in any other piece of academic writing, make sure each paragraph communicates one main idea, and that each sentence flows smoothly and logically from the last. Use transition words and topic sentences to move between paragraphs.

Add meaning to your resume

The bare facts of your achievementsgrades, prizes, work experienceare already included in your resume and transcripts. Use the statement of purpose not to repeat yourself, but to add personal meaning and texture to these facts.

If you got top marks for your thesis, describe the research process and demonstrate your enthusiasm for the topic. If you completed an internship or participated in a project, explain what new skills you learned and which aspects you found most valuable. If you already have lots of experience in the field, show how each step developed your skills and shaped your current plans.

Revise, edit, proofread

Your statement of purpose isn’t only about the contentit’s also a chance to show that you can express yourself fluently, confidently and coherently in writing. Spend plenty of time revising, editing and proofreading your text before you submit.

Make sure you stay within the recommended length, and check if there are any specific formatting requirements. If not, use a standard 12pt font, 1-inch margins and 1.5 line spacing.

When you have a final draft, our professional proofreading service can offer an extra pair of eyes to make sure every sentence is perfect.

Proofread my statement of purpose

Successful statement of purpose example

This statement of purpose, for a Classical Archaeology program at an Ivy League university, is tightly focused on the author’s intellectual interests and her academic development. It emphasizes her enduring enthusiasm for the field, and demonstrates her knowledge with detailed examples. Hover over each part to see how it contributes to the overarching story.

The torment of the Founding Fathers is responsible for my interest in Classics.My desire to learn Latin stemmed from reading American Revolutionary-era history during junior high and high school, and particularly from the countless Latin quotations I found in John Adams’ writings. Always eager for a challenge, I was intrigued by the American founders’ accounts of the torture of learning such a difficult language. In my first semester at university, I started learning Latin and thoroughly loved it. As I learned more and more about classical civilization through the language, I realized that I was passionately interested in many aspects of the field of Classics. I have since taken courses on mythology, art and archaeology, and religion, on ancient history, and on the classical tradition. I have also learned Greek, of course, starting with an intensive two-semester course at the university's summer school. My experience studying abroad in Florence and traveling through Italy and Greece intensified my zeal for the field and, in particular, fueled my ambition to specialize in classical archaeology.

My personal philosophy of life is that everything is connected, and this conviction drives my desire to study Classics. The most rewarding moments for me are discovering and investigating connections - both broad ones, between fields and disciplines, and more specific ones, like the relationship between a piece of literature and an object of material culture. My liberal arts education has equipped me with a broad base of knowledge in the sciences, social sciences, humanities, and arts, and in the honors program I pursued independent projects exploring academic and personal connections, including a paper on ancient Mayan astronomy, a self-observation study on the effects of nutrition and hydration on exercise performance, and a paper on the influence of political context on the changing artistic representations of John Adams. By seeking out connections between seemingly unrelated areas of academia, I have acquired a well-rounded outlook which helps me approach new ideas with both a range of prior experiences and a mind always open to different interpretations.

In accordance with my personal philosophy, I have also continued to explore connections within Classics and between Classics and other fields. In 2007, I published an article in my university’s undergraduate humanities journal; inspired by my studies in Florence, I compared representations of the birth of Venus in ancient and Renaissance literature and art. My major academic achievement to date, however, has been my senior honor thesis on John Adams' connection to the Classics. Funded by a Hilldale Research Fellowship, I conducted research in the Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society and in John Adams’ personal library at the Boston Public Library on the influence of the classical tradition on Adams’ worldview and how he consciously modeled himself on classical ideals. It was particularly fulfilling to connect historical and classical research in writing about the figure most responsible for instigating my study of the Classics.

As well as my research skills, I have demonstrated proficiency in the classical languages, winning prizes for both Latin and Greek translation from the Classics Department, as well as receiving an enthusiastic nomination from the department for the Pearson Fellowship from the American Philological Association. I am also the president of the undergraduate Classics Society, which allows me to share my enthusiasm for Classics with other students and the larger community.

One of the most appealing aspects of studying Classics is the vast range of topics encompassed by the field. Because my interests are broad and I value an interdisciplinary approach, I would like to pursue graduate study ultimately leading to a PhD in Classical Archaeology. Archaeology in itself is, of course, a multi-faceted field, requiring knowledge of history, language, anthropology, and various scientific and technological methods. I have already started building my skills in this area: I participated in a microartifact analysis from the excavation of a Maya site in Belize as part of an honors project, and this summer I will take part in two archaeological projects in Turkey after working as a research assistant on related material in the spring semester. This PhD program includes many other opportunities I am eager to explore, such as palaeography and papyrology courses, and especially the variety of fieldwork and museum experiences available.I believe that my strong background in the classical languages and wide range of courses on classical civilization and archaeological methods have prepared me well for this program, and I am convinced that, guided by my philosophy of interconnectedness, I will flourish in this program.

Checklist

Statement of purpose

0 / 10

Well done!

Your statement of purpose is ready to submit. Now you just have to finish the rest of your application - you might also have to write a personal statement.

Learn more about personal statements
Is this article helpful?
Shona McCombes

Shona has a bachelor's and two master's degrees, so she's an expert at writing a great thesis. She has also worked as an editor and teacher, working with students at all different levels to improve their academic writing.

Comment or ask a question.