Formatting a Statement of Purpose For Grad School

Tips, Guidelines, and Expert Advice for formatting a statement of purpose for graduate school

When it comes to applying to graduate school, there are many things students must prepare, including a graduate school recommendation letter and graduate school CV.

However, the most important element in your graduate school admissions package is the statement of purpose, also known at many universities as the “personal statement.”

Wordvice graduate school admissions essay editing has you covered. In this article, you will learn why the statement of purpose is so important for graduate school admissions, how its format differs from college application essay formats, and how to format a successful statement of purpose for graduate school–with examples!

Table of Contents

  • The Statement of Purpose Explained
  • How to Format a Statement of Purpose
  • Statement of Purpose Format and Structure
  • Statement of Purpose Sample Examples

The Statement of Purpose Explained

What is a statement of purpose?

In graduate school applications, a statement of purpose (SOP), or personal statement, is the one part of the application that allows applicants to construct a narrative of their choosing that includes all relevant parts of their academic and personal histories. This includes academic and professional interests and accomplishments, personality, values, and worldview, as well as how both the student and graduate program can add value to each other. 

Difference between the statement of purpose and college admissions essays

At the graduate school level, students often have years of research and academic experience. In the case of MBA programs, applicants also often have years of work experience they can include in their essay. 

This makes graduate school admission essays or personal statements distinct from undergraduate application essays. Graduate school applicants have a significant amount of material and context with which to differentiate themselves and stand apart from other applicants. The scope (how much is covered) and depth (how detailed the experiences are) are both much more complex for a statement of purpose.

Why do graduate programs require a statement of purpose?

Statements of purpose allow applicants to summarize non-quantifiable qualities for consideration by an admissions committee. This may include an applicant’s personal or professional strengths, as well as goals or passion for certain subjects. 

The graduate school application process is often competitive. In addition to being academically qualified, students must demonstrate a commitment to the program. Remember, one concern graduate programs have is that students will drop out and not continue to pay tuition.

Effect of Covid-19 on the statement of purpose

COVID-19 has reduced the feasibility of standardized testing, and there are increased concerns by wider society over the equitable nature of standardized testing in general. 

For example, NYU Stern School of Business on June 15th became the fourth top-25 business school to announce that its full-time MBA program would not consider the GMAT or GRE any longer

Further, Michael Hunt, director of the University of Maryland McNair Scholars Program has gone on record stating that 

“[My] goal is to “remove barriers and not maintain obstacles under the guise of academic freedom or other university policies. I pray that one day, we will not need committees or a pandemic to determine if something is equitable.”

This leaves the statement of purpose, academic background, resume/CV, and letters of recommendation as the primary determinants of graduate admission.

How long should a statement of purpose be?

Generally, a statement of purpose should be between 500 and 1,000 words long and should not exceed a single page. But this can depend on the school or program to which you are applying, as well on on the extent of your academic experience.

How To Format A Statement Of Purpose

We have already covered how to write a statement of purpose for grad school (with examples) as well as 20 tips for writing a strong grad school statement of purpose

Read over these resources and watch our Wordvice Webinar Series for how to write a winning statement of purpose:

Writing a Statement of Purpose and Recommendation Letters:

 Statement of purpose formatting rules

Unlike a college or undergraduate admissions essay format, a grad school statement of purpose is generally not uploaded in a text box or input field in some platform, as the Common Application essay is.

Applying to graduate school means applying directly to the graduate program and its parent department. Graduate programs are separate entities within their universities. Applying to the College of Arts & Sciences is different than applying to a university’s College of Engineering. 

As a result, most graduate school applications are simply uploaded directly to the program. So, you will likely be uploading a Word .doc or Adobe .pdf file.

Microsoft Word (.DOC) format

Typical file types for a statement of purpose are .doc or .docx. There is a downside to Word files being editable, and there are sometimes conflicts among the different Word versions (2010 vs 2016. vs Office365). One benefit of Word files is that anyone can view them.

PDF format

If maintaining the visual aspects of your essay is important, this is the safe choice. PDFs prevent the formatting issues that might arise with older versions of Word documents.

To make the statement easier to read, applicants should follow the following rules:

  • Use 1-inch margins. Microsoft Word uses this setting by default.
  • Use a traditional Serif font. These types of fonts include Times New Roman, Courier, and Garamond and are the “classy” fonts you typically see. They add professionalism to your essay. Avoid minimalist sans Serif fonts.
  • Use a standard 12-font size. 
  • Use 1.5- or double-spacing. Readability is very important for your statement of purpose. Double spaces are not an issue as the essay should already fit on 1 page.
  • Add a Header with your First Name, Last Name, university, and other required information.
  • Clearly separate your paragraphs. By default, just press ‘ENTER’ twice.

Other guidelines for writing a statement of purpose

  • Review and Revise. Make sure your statement of purpose is error-free, including spelling and grammar errors. One great way to prepare your admissions essay is by using a professional editing service.
  • Write clearly and concisely.
  • Avoid clichés and repetitive language.
  • Avoid casual, colloquial, and text message-based formatting. This includes emojis and hashtags!
  • Do not write a wall-of-text. Admissions counselors only skim statements of purpose. Make your writing readable by adding line breaks and separate paragraphs.

How To Format a Statement Of PurposeWhat to Avoid When Formatting a Statement Of Purpose
Take time to look up the graduate program’s guidelines for the statement of purpose. Rewrite each statement of purpose for each program.Do NOT write and submit ONE version of your statement of purpose for all programs.
Check grammar and spelling carefully using a mentor or professional editing service.Do NOT use an online grammar checker only or word processor grammar check.
Watch the word count! Double-check each school’s requirements, but the average word count ranges from roughly 500 to 1000 words. How to shorten word count.Do NOT write a wall of text or novel. You are NOT supposed to write an autobiography cataloging everything in your life.
Keep your tone professional but conversational (that means no contractions, slang terms, or other colloquialisms). Additionally, keep the tone professional but conversational.Do NOT use hashtags, emojis, memes, or other informal language.

Statement of Purpose Format and Structure

One of the most important characteristics of a strong statement of purpose is its structure. Layout the information in such a way that the reader can easily understand it. Well-organized statements keep readers interested.

In general, a statement of purpose should follow the format of an academic essay:

Introduction – State your goals and introduce yourself

The first section of the application should clearly and concisely explain what the student hopes to achieve by completing the program. For a history student, the goal may be to earn a PhD that allows them to take a historian position at a major non-profit institution or museum upon graduation. For a chemistry student, the goal may be to move into a postdoctoral research position at a major university with the hope of becoming a professor later. 

Or perhaps an applicant has goals of going into private industry. Regardless of the field of study, your professional experience, academic history, prior internships or jobs, and goals should be introduced here.

Tips for writing the Introduction for the statement of purpose

  • Grab attention. Your introduction is the first impression you make on your reader.
  • Write a compelling first sentence. Consider using an anecdote, quotation, or gripping personal story.
  • Preview. The second half of your introduction should briefly preview the other sections of your statement of purpose. 

Main Body – Academic and career history

In the first part of the body, you must support the idea of you being a qualified candidate with details about your academic and career history as well as examples of projects, accomplishments, and learning experiences.

Start with a brief history about your undergraduate experience and academic results. Then, move onto extracurricular, professional, and career experiences and achievements. As a graduate studies applicant, professional and career experiences will naturally be more diverse and therefore help you stand out. 

You should of course emphasize your academic experience and grades. Mention how you took advantage of your university’s resources and if you developed any special relationships with professors–that is especially what PhD advisors are looking for!

In the second part of the body, support your assertions with examples.

Tips for writing about academic and career history and goals

  • Interest in program. Why are you interested in this particular graduate program?
  • Academic goals. As a graduate student, you are entering into a research environment. What tangible research goals do you hope to achieve?
  • Career and professional goals. What are your post-graduate plans? Specify if you have academic or private industry goals. 
  • Strengths and weaknesses. Give context to why and how you developed your strengths and weaknesses. Demonstrate self-awareness as to how your behaviors and personality affect others–collaboration and equity are huge concerns!
  • Provide context, not a CV. Fit your achievements and experiences into your compelling narrative, not as standalone. 
  • Give examples. Extend your personal narrative with compelling examples. The more specific you are, the more convincing your narrative becomes. If you are applying to a program in statistics, write about your poker games with your grandpa and the moment you learned the power of weighted expected value.

Main Body – Why you are a perfect fit with the program

Students’ goals and interests must align with the mission and values of a college or university when being considered for admissions. A common tactic is to highlight a few professors in the department, which demonstrates that the applicant has done research, whereas other students discuss the accomplishments of prominent alumni they admire. 

Students can use this space to create an impressive application by creatively demonstrating their knowledge of the school and department while matching it with their goals. 

Tips for writing about fit with the program

  • Align with the program. Use the university’s program description as a guide on how to align your statement of purpose with the graduate degree program. Refer to your experience in the context of the program.
  • Community and culture. Nowadays, universities seek students who can be representatives of and contributors to their community. How does your history and goals fit into that program’s city, university, and culture?
  • Your benefit to the program. You are not giving just your money and time to the graduate program; the admission committee wants to know what benefits you seek to get out of it. This is where you can reference specific departments and professors in the program and any academic contributions of theirs you are familiar with.

Conclusion – Summary

The conclusion must accomplish two goals: package everything together and leave the reader interested in knowing more. If you can accomplish the second part, you will likely get a passing grade on your statement of purpose.

Reflect on what attending the program would mean to you, both professionally and personally, as you give one final thought or insight. Write about both the impact you hope to have on the world and the impact attending the program would have on yourself. 

Tips for writing the statement of purpose conclusion

  • Keep it succinct. This section will usually contain no new information, so don’t repeat any information. 
  • (Re)State your value. You are your own best marketer here. Display confidence not just in your abilities but in your decision to apply and stick with your decision. You also bring a unique profile of academic, career, and personal experiences and goals. You may not gain admission, but make sure it’s because you’re not the right fit, NOT because your value was understated or misunderstood.

Statement of Purpose Sample Examples

Here are several formatting examples of successful graduate school statements of purpose. Both candidates were applying to top-15 MBA programs. Notice how each essay incorporates their personal experience with their future goals, both academic and career.

Note: These are actual sample essays edited by Wordvice professional editorsPersonal info redacted for privacy. This is not a reusable template.

Statement of Purpose Example 1

Computer science (CS) studies require abstract thinking and practical problem-solving skills. Hence, CS students usually need strong theoretical and technical abilities, which I have gained through my undergraduate education. For example, I am well-trained in mathematics, and the courses I have taken in the field have laid a solid theoretical foundation for understanding abstract computational propositions and designing complex algorithms. I am also skilled at computational thinking: I can connect theories with real-life problems and create computer programs to provide innovative solutions. Additionally, I am very passionate about studying CS because I know that CS will significantly impact my career and future life. Therefore, I feel confident that I will succeed in the _________ Program. I am looking forward to studying at ______, where I can learn how to create web scrapers, manage databases, contribute to open-source projects, and research various advanced topics.

The introduction immediately states the academic program and field of study. It adeptly defines what “success” is in the field of CS and connects that with his/her history, skills, and passions.

During my undergraduate career, I took many pure math courses, including Linear Algebra, Probability Theory, and Mathematical Statistics. These courses have prepared me well for studying advanced computer science because a wide range of methods used in modern computational research is based on mathematics. For example, in machine learning, knowledge from linear algebra and mathematical statistics is the basis for two key research methods: algebraic and statistical methods. Thanks to my proficiency in both areas, I will be able to find statistical explanations for the algebraic approach as well as perform algebraic calculations for statistical models. Therefore, I am confident in my ability to solve various theoretical problems during hands-on machine learning research. 

This part talks about academic history and skills. This applicant has the academic background and course history to be prepared for graduate-level study.

Furthermore, the computational thinking skills I gained from my undergraduate education enable me to formulate a problem, express the solution, and evaluate the results. In my Mathematical Modeling class, my professor introduced a mathematical model for describing the stock market. However, I soon realized that the model was too simple to illustrate real scenarios due to the lack of time variables. Therefore, I supplemented his original model with an iterative formula to measure time, programmed equations into a MATLAB editor, and generated solution graphs. I was surprised by the results, which implied a potential contradiction with the professor’s proposed solution. When I explained my findings to the professor, he was very impressed by my work. I plan to continue to capitalize on the strength of my computational thinking skills at Columbia to manage complex databases, practice classic algorithms, and apply my computer science expertise to solve real-life problems.

The applicant moves on to give an academic experience that demonstrates how he/she learns. How does the student handle barriers? How does the student interact with professors and mentors? How did he/she solve a problem? Graduate programs are looking for students who take control of their learning. 

One of the primary reasons that I want to study computer science is my internship experience. During the winter break of my junior year, I worked as an investment research intern at a private equity firm, where I was responsible for collecting financial data and writing industry reports. I enjoyed this work and continued finding methods to improve my efficiency—I wanted to spend more time on data analysis and less on manual data collection. After visiting another private equity firm with my manager, I realized that I needed to learn computer science. At that firm, all of the data collection and analyses were done automatically by its data mining and machine learning system. Using this approach, the firm could spend more time communicating with investors to raise more capital. Although I later switched my career goal to economics research, I am still motivated by what I learned from my internship experience: in the 21st century, computer science will fundamentally change every industry and every one of us. As such, we must embrace computer science to gain advantageous positions for our careers.

The applicant next explains why he/she wants to study at this program. The applicant writes about a professional high-performing experience that informed why studying CS could be beneficial. The applicant only learned this while ‘on the job’.

Outside of the classroom, I enjoy hiking. During my three years in _____, I climbed many mountains in the area. Hiking can be challenging on steep trails because I am sometimes exhausted, only halfway to the top. However, I never give up. In these moments, I will take a rest, have some energy bars, and continue walking until I reach the apex and discover the beautiful scenery there. Studying computer science is similar to hiking in some ways: as a non-CS major, I may find some CS courses challenging. However, with the patience and perseverance I have learned through hiking, I am able to overcome these challenges and master advanced computational techniques. As an international student, I will maintain full-time enrollment at my current university in order to attend the program if I am admitted. I hope to apply the computer science skills I will acquire at Columbia to boost my career development and achieve a better future.

Here, the student shows how well-rounded she/he is. Challenges are to be expected and not avoided. The applicant shows that balance is key to her/his way of learning.

Statement of Purpose Example 2

Life is short, but it is enjoyable to pursue and commit to something you love. My interest in information systems arose from my internship. Previously, I just wanted to start my career as a business analyst, more focused on the business side. But after the internship, this changed. At ____ , I gained exposure to SaaS and FinTech, which piqued my interest in programming, machine learning, and technology. Learning about these two fields afforded me opportunities to research technology and information science methods, and the process of actually handling data for analysis taught me that data is more useful in today’s business world than it was in the past, and I need to improve my data processing and forecasting skills to better serve my data-related work. My current master’s program focuses more on statistics than machine learning and technology, so I am eager to enroll in ____ ’s Master of Science in Information Systems program to follow my passion. I am confident that my strong academic background and relevant experience will allow me to succeed in this program.

The applicant immediately demonstrates his/her professional background. If your professional background is your best selling point, start with it. The applicant is a mature candidate and is applying because she/he knows what they want and what they need from the program.

After my undergraduate study in finance, I wanted to improve my statistical and technical skills along with business knowledge in order to meet my future job needs. In 2019, having achieved outstanding grades, I enrolled in ____ University’s master’s degree program in Applied Statistics and Decision Making. But based on my previous internships and projects, I want to take more courses in information systems and programming. Upon entering my current degree program, I selected courses on statistics, regression analysis and modeling, Python, R, sentiment analysis, and similar topics. These statistical and data science courses resolved some of the challenges I faced during my internship and helped determine my career goal in technology.

The second paragraph most often recalls the candidate’s academic or undergraduate history. The goal is to demonstrate you have taken the proper coursework to be prepared and you are aware of the skills needed.

This past summer, I interned at Visa in financial data analytics, a business-technology combined role. Compared to my previous internship at ____ , I learned more about data and technology foundations by gaining a comprehensive knowledge of the data analysis process. We use customer reporting and company network data to analyze customers’ credit status and make adjustments accordingly. Specifically, I used Python and SQL to conduct EDA and ETL processes. Then, I wrote a filter function to realize data extraction automation. After that, I compared and analyzed the internal business data. I marked the flagging value with the binary standard, using simple classification models, like logistic regression and random forest, to understand changes in the data. Finally, I designed dashboards using Tableau to show the investment and management team the flagging data of customers and their overall credit statuses. Through this internship, I was able to apply my theoretical knowledge to a specific extent, but it was still relatively simple data analysis and machine learning, as I did not optimize my model or made predictions. In order to conduct more in-depth research and make predictions, I decided to learn more about modeling and technical methods.

Next is professional experiences. The applicant details real, professional projects she/he has completed. The applicant shows why and how each tool is important in a business context (this candidate was applying to a top business school in NYC).

Therefore, I have decided to pursue graduate study in information systems at ____ . Several features of your program make it the perfect place for my future studies. First, the opportunity to pursue a summer internship to enhance my future job prospects appeals to me. Second, I am drawn to the comprehensive structure of the curriculum. I will have the chance to study in both the ____ School of Business and Computer Science and conduct an information technology project, which will enable me to achieve my goal of mastering business methods as well as algorithms relevant to technology management. Furthermore, I believe I am a great fit for your program and can both succeed and contribute a unique perspective. I have the requisite knowledge of business, statistics, mathematics, and programming required by the program. My previous internships and projects have provided me with substantial experience in both business and technology, and I have a clear understanding of what I hope to achieve in the program. Ideally, I want to consolidate my prior knowledge, focus on algorithms and systems, and deepen my study of machine learning and algorithms to be able to use various models flexibly and fluently. Finally, because I have studied in _____’s summer program, building a strong network with my professors and classmates, and earned my first graduate degree in New York, there is no question of my being able to adapt and assimilate to a new culture or environment. 

This section explains why the student is applying, what he/she hopes to gain, and what she/he can contribute. They cite the program’s strong network as a selling point.

Within one year of graduation, I hope to find a satisfying job related to technology and business, such as a technology consultant or product manager position in a technology or finance company. In the long run, I am eager to grow my network, make critical contributions to my team at work, and hope to become successful in the field of technology. Continuing my studies in your distinguished program would be a worthwhile journey for me and an integral step to achieving my goals.

Be sure to check out 20 tips for writing a strong grad school statement of purpose.

We also have more templates and examples of personal statements

If you need editing or proofreading, you can start by checking out our professional admissions editing service.