Writing a Statement of Purpose

Writing a statement of purpose can be a critical step in the graduate application process. Not all graduate programs require a statement of purpose, but if you are applying to one that does, you are strongly urged to begin the writing process early.

The criteria that make a statement of purpose effective may vary by discipline or program. Thus, knowing what is generally expected within your discipline or program of interest can help in determining how to approach content, structure, and style of writing.

What to Discuss in the Statement of Purpose

One of the primary objectives of the statement of purpose is to demonstrate that you have relevant experience (whether academic or professional) and promise in your chosen field of graduate study. Common topics of discussion include:

  • Your relevant experience and background, which may include coursework, research experience, work experience in your field, and teaching/tutoring experience. 
  • Your research and/or professional interests, for example the sub-field of your discipline that you hope to specialize in.
  • Your reasons for pursuing graduate study.
  • Your “fit” with the particular program. For example, if you are applying to a master's degree in social work with the future goal of serving young adults with substance abuse issues, and many professors in the department you're applying to are experts in substance abuse, then you and the program are a "good fit."
  • Your future professional goals.
  • Your experience working with diverse groups and/or any ways in which you belong to an under-represented or under-served population. This information is useful because most programs strive to admit a diverse class of new students. However, many schools also require a separate "diversity statement" (sometimes called a "personal statement"), in which case you should save this information for the diversity statement. 

As noted above, the exact details of what to include in the statement depend a lot on the particular program and field of study you are applying to. Make sure to check with your mentors and read reputable online sources (e.g., blogs run by prominent professors in your discipline) to learn more about what is expected. 

Resources for Writing Statements of Purpose

  • Webpages: The Graduate Writing Specialist at CSULB maintains an external site on academic writing, which includes helpful pages on (1) applying to grad school, (2) writing admissions essays (including statements of purpose), (3) FAQs about admissions essays, and (4) writing CVs and résumés
  • Sample Statement 1: The following sample statement of purpose helped a student get admitted to several prestigious PhD programs in political science:  Note: Names have been changed for anonymity, and the sample includes commentary notes by the Graduate Writing Specialist.
  • Sample Statements 2: This collection of sample statements maintained by Career Development and Alumni Engagement at CSU Channel Islands provides some helpful models from different disciplines. Note: When using samples, remember that no particular sample is perfect, and even a successful sample may have serious flaws. So, always use your best judgment and the advice of advisors/mentors in your field when crafting your essays. 

  • A "Skeleton" for Your Statement of Purpose: The following document was developed by Graduate Center staff (writing specialist and coordinator) to assist you in structuring your statement of purpose:

    Note: Each discipline/program may have different expectations, so plan accordingly. For example, some programs have very detailed essay prompts with numbered questions. In these cases, follow the prompt rather than the skeleton document. The skeleton document is ideal for "generic" prompts with few details, for example: "Please explain your reasons for applying to this program, your preparations for graduate study, and your future goals."

  • Karen Kelsky's A+ Admissions Essays: Dr. Karen Kelsky, of the Professor Is In blog, offers the following excellent handout on writing admissions essays: 

  • Tip Sheet from Dr. Barri Gold (now at UPenn): This handout (adapted from one by OK-LSAMP) provides a wealth of tips and ideas for crafting effective statements of purpose for grad programs: 

Asking for Feedback

A great statement of purpose is one that is organized, clear, relevant, and speaks to your audience (i.e., the admissions committee). The statement of purpose is your introduction to the committee as a scholar and a potential colleague, and can be a determining factor in admission.

Thus, it is critical for you to receive timely and relevant feedback on your statement of purpose draft. Be sure to have multiple people read and offer comments on your statement of purpose. Share your statement with faculty members, particularly those writing letters of recommendation, and allow yourself ample time to write multiple drafts, keeping in mind that you may need to rewrite portions or entire drafts before it is finalized. 

The Graduate Center is available to provide feedback on your statement of purpose or other essays related to graduate admission by submitting your materials to be reviewed. This service is free and available to everyone. You are also welcome to request an appointment with Graduate Center staff.