Stating your purpose: A six-step guide by an aspiring doctoral student

The statement of purpose, a universally dreaded element for prospective college and graduate students.  What is more daunting than writing an essay in which you’re expected to justify all your significant life choices and synthesize them into a cohesive narrative for an unknown audience?  And did I mention that you have one thousand words or less?

While far from expert in this art form, I have amassed a few tips and cautions through my adventures in self-articulation.  

For anyone considering a similar (masochistic) future as a doctoral student, I offer my humble insights to make the process (hopefully) a little less painful:

1) State the why you, why here, why now.  A simple rehashing of your resume does little to inspire.  Your statement should communicate why you are a compelling candidate and a good match for program X, with a sense of urgency and determination.

2) Be authentic. Take it from me, assembling a complete application for graduate school takes a great deal of strategy. But the worst place to be strategic is with descriptions of yourself.  If you’re stretching your experiences or interests to fit into an imagined box, it will show. Don’t be afraid to admit mistakes, waywardness, or challenges.  It will endear you as a human being to other human beings.

3) Do your research. Show that you know more about a school than its ranking.  An indescribable amount of effort goes into the hiring of faculty, selection of courses, development of research foci, and construction of curriculum at a university. Make sure you know and can speak to these things in your essay.  And while some may argue against this, I think it’s important to highlight the faculty members with whom you hope to work. Ultimately, these are the people who will frame your grad school experience, so use the statement as an opportunity to present yourself as a potential mentee.

4) Don’t forget the narrative.  The statement of purpose may be the only chance that faculty members have to learn about what makes you, you. Don’t loseWeight Exercise youself in the descriptions of your ambitions, experiences or accomplishments. Ultimately, you are being evaluated on your qualities and potential as a person; make sure that reviewers know who you are by the end of your essay.

5) Be reflective.  Don’t just tell readers that you wrote a paper for a conference, received an award, or TA’d an undergraduate class.  Explain why you did these things.  If you can’t take the time to reflect on why an experience was meaningful for you, then it shouldn’t take up precious characters in your statement.

6) Actions speak louder than words.  Don’t proclaim interests or ambitions. Demonstrate with examples. Much like constructing arguments in a scholarly paper, consider evidence to support your statements (and do it… with purpose). Show the admissions committee the person who you say you are.

And with that, I’m off to take my own advice.  Good luck to all my fellow writers!  Coffee and couch, here I come…

Lauren Alfrey

Lauren worked as the Managing Editor of gnovis in 2009 and graduated with an MA in Communication, Culture and Technology from Georgetown University in 2010. Lauren is currently a doctoral student in the Sociology Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Lauren joined gnovis and CCT after working for three years as an online fundraising and advocacy consultant for progressive nonprofits in the San Francisco Bay Area. Prior to her professional work, Lauren graduated with honors from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where she majored in Communication and minored in Art History with a focus on women's representation in print advertising and high art.