What is a Statement of Purpose for Grad School?
The Statement of Purpose (or “SOP letter”) is a key component of your application materials for most graduate schools, MBA programs, and Ph.D. programs in the US, UK, Australia, Canada, and other countries around the world with an English-language curriculum. The most important thing about the statement of purpose (or personal statement) is that it ties together grades, test scores, and application and expands upon it, giving admissions officers a much more expansive window into who you are as a student and a person.
Although the graduate school application and academic CV provide a lot of information about you as a candidate, the letter will tell them “who you are” and “what you want to be” in a much more detailed and personal way than the other components in the application package.
What to Include in a Statement of Purpose
Before entering a graduate program, the graduate faculty need to know why you are interested in coming to this institution or program and how it will help you achieve your larger academic and professional goals in life. They also need to see that you are a person capable of high academic achievement in their given program. This means an extended history of your academic achievements during your undergraduate career (and graduate career if you have attended grad school), as well as the goals and objectives you have set out for yourself.
Ultimately, you need to stand out as a candidate from the field, showing why the admissions officers should accept you over the many other strong graduate candidates. The Statement of Purpose should highlight the reasons why you are more than just your test scores and grades—it could even help you overcome a less-than-perfect score in a class and account for any missing years in education. Therefore, keep in mind that your grad school SOP letter should be honest, candid, and most importantly, complete.
How long should a Statement of Purpose be?
For most grad school programs, your Statement of Purpose should be between 500 and 1,000 words, depending on the level of your program and your academic history and achievements. A grad school SOP usually does not exceed two pages when written in a traditional font at a readable size of 11-point or 12-point. Leave enough whitespace in the margins to make the statement easy for admissions committees to read. Your SOP letter should also be double-spaced and follow standard formatting rules for university essays. Visit your program’s admissions website for specific Statement of Purpose formatting details.
Specific SOP Letter Questions to Answer
The following questions should be clearly answered in your SOP (in relatively this order):
- WHO are you (as a person and a student)?
- HOW did you become interested in this topic/field of study?
- WHAT have you done so far in the field of your choice?
- WHY/HOW do you want to study this field?
- WHY do you want to study at this university/program and WHY are you a good fit?
What style of writing is needed in a Statement of Purpose?
Although the SOP letter is more informal than a research paper, make sure that your language is not only free of grammatical and mechanics errors but that it is of an academic level that reflects your educational level and qualifications. Apply the following standards to the writing and the essay-drafting process:
- Compose using “graduate-level” academic writing.
- Make your language more personal in tone than research writing.
- Use the active voice and first-person point of view more often.
- Write chronologically, starting from your most important actions and achievements during your undergraduate years.
- Use lots of details—list course names, professors, methods, and specific schools and programs.
- Write several drafts of your SOP letter, giving yourself time to edit, revise, and edit again before submitting your essay to the graduate admissions faculty.
Statement of Purpose Organization
A well-structured Statement of Purpose allows readers to see your growth and development as an individual and as a researcher and student. You can think of the SOP letter as a story where all parts are in sequential, chronological order. The following is the most standard structure of a Statement of Purpose. For each “section,” you should write at least one paragraph but no more than two paragraphs, depending on the word-count limit indicated by your graduate program:
- A “hook” that demonstrates your passion for the field
- Segue (transition) to your background in the field
- Description of your academic background in the field
- Specific classes you have taken, given by name
- Specific professors you have had, especially if well-known
- Extracurricular activities in the field
- Publications and other professional accomplishments in the field
- Explanations about problems in your background (if applicable)
- Explanation of why you have chosen the specific grad school
- Mention one or two professors whose work you appreciate
- Specific features of the grad program which attract you
- A brief conclusion repeating your purpose for applying to this program
Statement of Purpose Brainstorming Questions
As we mentioned above, it is critical that you answer all the questions expected in your Statement of Purpose. While graduate programs almost always provide specific prompts and instructions on their university/program website, the list below gives much more in-depth questions that you can answer to ensure impressing the graduate admissions faculty at your program. Use these as prompts to answer and brainstorm your more complete answers in each section (see the examples in the images below).
Academic/Professional Interests and Motivations
- What most interests you about this area of study?
- Why are you interested in this area and topic?
- When did you first start to show an interest? How did you exhibit this interest?
- What majors, classes, or other academic experiences have you had in this field?
- Which of your work, research, and/or extracurricular experiences are related to this field?
- What work have you published or written (thesis, dissertation, etc.) related to this field?
- Which awards have you received that show my ability?
What are your short-term and long-term goals?
- What do you hope to accomplish academically?
- What sort of research or professional work do you want to do in the future with your graduate degree or Ph.D.?
Recent Research/Professional Activities and Preparation
- What work have you been involved in recently that has prepared you for this program?
- What have you been involved in recently to show your interest in this field?
Why are you interested in this university and graduate program?
- What does this university/program offer you that other schools don’t?
- Which courses and professors most interest you?
- What makes you a “good fit” for this institution?
- What will you bring to this program?
What makes you stand out as a graduate school candidate?
- What other information about you should the school know that will attract them to you?
- Do you have any unique abilities or circumstances?
Do you have any weaknesses or missing elements you need to explain?
- Do you have any semesters of low grades that you may need to account for?
- Any inconsistencies or big changes in your academic or professional direction?
Statement of Purpose Structure in Detail
Think of the following questions and their answers as topic sentences or “mini-theses” that will guide the information and details in the rest of the paragraph. Answer each question during the brainstorming process and write it in a simple sentence or two. After answering these important questions, you will have a complete working outline (nearly a first draft!) in which you can later fill in the details, edit, and revise.
|Paragraph 1: Introduction/Hook
|Your first paragraph should clearly state your intentions for applying and capture the reader with a hook.
|Paragraph 2: Background, Interests, and Motivations (“segue”)
|Include a lot of details about your background, including what classes you have taken and what additional related work you have done.
|Paragraph 3: Elaborate on your academic background
|If you do not have many academic experiences to draw on, be more specific about what you learned from these courses/professors. If you have extensive experience, focus on those most relevant to your graduate program.
|Paragraph 4: Extracurricular Activities
|Extracurricular activities not only show dedication to a specific field or interest but also can convey qualities such as leadership and time management.
|Paragraphs 5-6: Publications and More Recent Activity
|If you have been involved in additional research, writing, or any related activities recently, be sure to include these in your SOP letter.
|Paragraph 7: Why are you and the school a good match?
|Many applicants to graduate school overlook the importance of discussing the graduate program to which they are applying itself. Be sure to name the school, program, and some resources it offers.
|Paragraph 8: Conclusion/Commitment Statement
|Include a brief “statement of intent” at the end of the letter to remind the admissions officers that you are intent on entering their program.
Grad School Statement of Purpose Example
University/Program: NYU Anthropology Department
Major: East African Studies
Paragraph 1: Introduction and Intended Program (“hook”)
Paragraph 2: Background, Interests, and Motivations (“segue”)
Paragraph 3: Elaborate on your academic background
Paragraph 4: Extracurricular Activities
Paragraphs 5-6: Publications and More Recent Activity
Paragraph 7: Why are you a good fit for this program and school?
Paragraph 8: SOP Conclusion/Commitment Statement
More Statement of Purpose Samples
Here are several examples of successful graduate school statements of purpose. Both candidates were applying to top-15 graduate and 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 professional editors. Personal info is 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.
Further Tips for Writing the Graduate Statement of Purpose
- Highlight your self-motivation, competence, and potential in this essay
- Emphasize everything from a positive perspective and write in the active voice.
- Demonstrate through examples; don’t just write that you are a “persistent person”—show it!
- Approach every topic with continuity and focus.
- Start at least 2-3 months in advance and write several drafts of your SOP letter before finalizing your essay.
The Final Step: Editing Your SOP Letter
As any good writer knows, it takes more than one draft to create a strong and compelling work of writing. After you have brainstormed for your grad school SOP letter, answered key questions, created a working outline, and written your first draft, there is still a lot of room for revision. Share your work with a friend or peer whose opinion you trust.
Even better, let a professional proofreading service like Wordvice (including personal statement editing and statement of purpose editing services) revise and proofread your essay so that it lives up to its full potential and helps ensure that you will be admitted to the graduate or doctoral program of your choice. Our Essay Editing Services also include recommendation letter editing and cv editing, covering all kinds of application documents for college, university, MBA programs, and other advanced degrees and programs.
For more academic resources on writing the statement of purpose for grad school and editing your essays and academic work, check out the following articles and videos.