How to Write a Statement of Purpose

It's college application season. Over the last few weeks, I have offered advice and feedback to a handful of prospective applicants for undergraduate, graduate, and law school programs. I believe the statement of purpose, or personal essay, is one of the most critical pieces of the application; I spent over a year crafting, re-writing, and editing mine. It was the thing that I felt I had the most control over, so I invested a lot of time in it. Below is a formula for writing a statement of purpose (basically, I extracted and generalized the pieces of my statement of purpose). Feel free to use it as a starting point, or as a source of inspiration.

Note: This is based on a statement of purpose for a master's programs in education policy -- obviously, a Ph.D. in biomechanical engineering would require a different approach. Your statement should not just be unique to you, but unique to the program you're applying to.

Think of your personal statement as a narrative of your life. A good statement is somewhere between a manifesto, a mini-memoir, and roadmap for your life. It should weave together your unique identity with what you want to do (your purpose) and describe how that fits into some larger idea, movement, or problem. It should be clear and compelling. It's going to take a lot of time to get it right, so my advice is to start early -- ideally, at least one year before it's due. This will allow it to develop and grow substantially.

Let’s break it down into four key components: identity, purpose, toolbox, and missing piece. Below is an explanation of each part, along with a suggested percentage of your total essay for each section. This is just one model -- be creative and adapt it to your own story. If you have a relatively small word limit, you'll have to get creative. Also, don't feel confined by a particular order; the parts should not be rigidly segmented, they should flow together smoothly and naturally. For example, you may touch on one piece of your identity in your introduction and reference it throughout the rest of your essay, rather than allocating a full paragraph or two to just issues of personal identity.

  1. IDENTITY - 30%. Who are you and what makes you unique?

    1. Use a brief story or snapshot of your life to show who you are. Pick something that makes you genuinely interesting and different from other applicants. Maybe it's your race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. Maybe it's your identity as the son of a schoolteacher. Maybe it's your identity as an Oregonian. The identity itself won't necessarily be unique, but how you write about it should be.

      Don’t: Write: “I am a gay man that has struggled with his identity.”
      Do: Recount a time you were bullied at school, or talk about what it was like coming out.
      Don’t: Write: “Education is important to me and had a major impact on my life.”
      Do: Describe the most honorable or courageous thing a teacher in your family has done and how it’s impacted the way you view education.
  2. PURPOSE/GOALS - 30%. What do you want to accomplish and why? What’s your purpose? What motivates you?

    1. Your statement of purpose is incomplete without fully addressing the “why” question. This doesn’t have to be specific, but even if you’re not 100% sure what you want to do after you graduate, you need a compelling and clear answer. It should be explicitly stated in your essay, and it should be directly connected to your unique identity described in your story. It should also connect you to something larger than yourself -- a movement, an idea, a social problem, etc.

  3. TOOLBOX - 30%. What do you bring to the table? What experiences and skills do you have that will ensure you succeed? What do you have that the school/program would want?

    1. Do not recite all of your jobs and internships and volunteer activities. Pick only what is directly connected to both your identity and purpose, and explain why it’s relevant and what you learned from each experience.

    2. What perspective or expertise did you gain from these experiences that you will bring to the program that other applicants won’t?

  4. MISSING PIECE - 10%. How is the school/program the missing piece that you need to achieve your goals? Why do you want to go there?

    1. Are they known for being the best at something? Do they have professors conducting groundbreaking research? Is their program a perfect fit for addressing the problem you want to solve -- if so, why? Did you visit campus and feel a connection -- if so, why?

    2. Each of your statements of purpose or personal essays should be personalized to the institution you are applying for. Even if the main body of the essay remains the same, there should at least be one section (usually the conclusion) that is unique to the specific school that you are submitting it to. However -- it's important not to force this section. Do not just quickly Google a professor's name and toss it in your conclusion, saying you want to learn from them. This is a tricky section, but if it's not genuine, it could hurt your chances. 

That's it. That's the formula. 

One important question to ask yourself when you think you’re done writing is this: could my essay have been written by another applicant to your school? If yes, start over. Seriously, it's that important. This is especially critical if you’re applying to prestigious or selective schools -- they literally sort through thousands of applications and pick only a small percentage of applicants. If your essay is generic, or boring, or formulaic, or predictable, start over. Most factors of your application (GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, etc.) have to meet a certain basic threshold for you to be considered -- but certain aspects, like your letters of recommendation and statement of purpose, can really make the difference and separate you from equally qualified students who don't get in. Your statement is the piece you control completely. Take it seriously and write something that you're proud of.

Good luck!