How to Write the Psychology Statement of Purpose: Sample + Guide

TABLE OF CONTENTS

  1. Strategy #1: The A+ Psychology Statement of Purpose
  2. Strategy #2: The “Back Door” to Graduate School
  3. Sample SOP

Whenever students ask for help with their Psychology statement of purpose, I always have to respond with a question: what kind of psychology are we talking about?!

Developmental psych? Social psych? PsyD programs? Experimental psychopathology? Or maybe one of the endless applied programs in criminal forensics, advertising, or educational technology?

Seriously, undergrad psych students pursue a wild variety of careers. But here’s some good news: no matter which program you’re applying to, the strategy you use in your psychology statement of purpose should be exactly the same.

Case in point:

The student you’ll meet below, May, transitioned from Behavioral Economics to Social Psych, and then again to a master’s program in Education Design and Development. Yet, the SOP strategy she used is the exact same one my students have employed to earn admission to PsyD, PhD, and MS programs in all kinds of subfields, at all kinds of fancy-pants schools.

The results? Along with a half dozen other schools, May was admitted to her #1 choice, a university that’s…well, everyone’s #1 choice!

But…there’s a catch. In combination with her brilliant SOP, May employed a secret “back door” that made her chances of admission skyrocket. It’s a method I’ve been begging students on Reddit to consider for years, and honestly, I still don’t know why more people don’t use it. Blows my mind!

Either way, let’s read on to learn these fascinating strategies May used to all but guarantee her admission to competitive psychology programs.

Strategy #1: The A+ Psychology Statement of Purpose — Which Problem Will You Solve?

The SOP Starter Kit (for both master’s and PhD applicants) teaches us that the very best statements of purpose all follow the same 4-part structure:

  1. Frame Narrative Introduction (the story of how I found my purpose)
  2. Why This Program (is the right place to pursue my purpose)
  3. Why I’m Qualified (to pursue this purpose)
  4. Frame Narrative Conclusion (how I’ll achieve this purpose at your school)

Why is this structure so powerful? Because unlike conventional SOPs where students ramble on and on about their boringly similar backgrounds, this structure keeps the focus on what’s most important:

The specific problems you’ll solve in the future.

This is why you’re studying Psychology, right? You want to be a mental health counselor specializing in Autism Spectrum Disorder, or maybe a cognitive neuroscientist developing diagnostic tools for Alzheimer’s. Whatever it is, you want to make people’s lives better. You want to solve problems. You want to have a real impact on the world.

An excellent SOP, however, doesn’t speak about your goals in a general way. It’s not a sentimental, Common App essay describing how you’ve always wanted to help others and “contribute to society.” In fact some schools explicitly tell you NOT to write like this!

For example, in their SOP prompt, the University of Denver’s PsyD Clinical Psychology program says:

“Avoid writing about the wish to help others or about how you want to contribute to society.”

What does this tell us?

Literally every single applicant wants to help others and contribute to society. The admissions committee knows this already! If you didn’t want to help others, you wouldn’t be applying to a clinical psychology program. Instead, the committee wants to know what very specific subniche problems you aim to address in your career.

How do you frame those subniche problems in a brilliant psychology statement of purpose? Easy.

But…what does this have to do with May?

Well, as you read the sample SOP below, ask yourself:

  • What specific problem does May want to solve?
  • Why does she NEED this graduate education?
  • How will she SPECIFICALLY help others and contribute to society in her career?
  • What steps will May take to learn how to solve this problem in the future?

Strategy #2: The “Back Door” to Graduate School

If you’ve read my guide to getting into grad school with a low GPA, you’ll recognize this method! I first discovered it when a former student was admitted to a top-5 biochemistry PhD program, despite having a 2.9 undergrad GPA.

How’d she do it?

When she applied, she’d already been working as a research assistant in the lab for 3 years! In fact, she wasn’t even sold on the idea of getting a PhD, but her PI in the lab kept encouraging her. So, she applied, and…boom. She was admitted over who-knows-how-many rock stars with 4.0 GPAs.

If you’re aiming for a research career in psychology, this is definitely worth considering! A quick search on Indeed.com for “Psychology Research Assistant” shows dozens of available RA gigs at schools like Columbia, Rutgers, Yale, Chicago, and more. You can also find killer advice on these Reddit threads:

But what if you’re not in a research field? What if you want to go into counseling, PsyD programs, or educational development (like May)? Good news: there are opportunities for you too!

Many universities offer “Non-Degree Graduate Enrollment.” NYU and Penn are great examples. Both have formal programs for taking grad psychology classes. Other schools, like Stanford and Berkeley, don’t have formal programs like this, but still offer the option in special cases. (Reach out to the Psych Department directly and ask if they’ll give you a shot.)

Why is this helpful? If it isn’t obvious, it gives you the chance to make straight As in the same classes master’s students take. And if you’ve already proven you can thrive in this coursework…well, that’s a phenomenal boost to your applications.

Don’t believe me? Well, that’s exactly what May did, and it worked like a charm! By taking multiple non-degree classes at her #1 target university (at a couple universities, in fact), she not only focused her interests and developed amazing material for her SOP, but she also generated research opportunities that she otherwise never could have gotten. Thus, by the time she applied, she was an absolute shoe-in for admission.

Let’s take a look at her SOP so you can see for yourself how truly powerful this “back door” to grad school can be. Also, as you read May’s SOP below, don’t forget to ask the questions I presented earlier:

  • What specific problem does May want to solve?
  • Why does she NEED this graduate education?
  • How will she SPECIFICALLY help others and contribute to society in her career?
  • What steps will May take to learn how to solve this problem in the future?

A Brilliant Psychology Statement of Purpose

When studying in Professor Lucius Fox’s social psychology course at Gotham this fall, I realized how powerful the effects of cognitive dissonance can truly be. It reminded me of high school in China, when for various reasons I performed poorly in class, and teachers labeled me a “troubled student.” I knew this was not true; there were real human reasons for my struggles at the time, particularly my transition from international schooling in the US to the rigid classrooms of my home country. Many years passed before I successfully eliminated this label from my consciousness, eventually graduating from UC-Coastal City, and subsequently becoming a straight-A non-degree student in the Gotham Psychology Department this year.

Today, I am deeply fascinated by how people navigate inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes by adjusting one to fit the other, and am almost intimidated by the potential of this process if engineered with direction. The same phenomenon used to praise people and lead them to success can also convince others to consolidate poor performance as part of their self-identity. The prevalence of ability-grouping in Chinese high schools often leads to discouraging feedback for lower-ranking students, creating the false belief that they are “troubled.” I believe this public-ranking system is deeply flawed, that I myself was an “exception to the rule,” and that many low-ranking students lose motivation to pursue their academic potential.

My curiosity regarding the potential for cognitive dissonance to be engineered in academic interventions has shaped my goal of pursuing an Ed.M. in Education and Human Development at Gotham University. I hope to contribute to the Chinese education system by researching cognitive frameworks that promote positive thoughts, beliefs, and actions, and ultimately help “troubled students” break free from self-limiting labels. By studying developmental and educational psychology, motivation, and cognitive dissonance at GGSE, I aim to prepare for future doctoral research in adolescent development, and its context in maladaptive classroom settings, and ultimately engineer interventions that allow students to systematically shift their thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors in positive directions.

I am fortunate to have already begun this journey as a GSAS non-degree student throughout the past year. Currently, in Professor Dick Grayson’s graduate course on developmental psychology, I am studying fundamental concepts in early-childhood development, and have elevated my critical thinking skills, especially in lectures where Professor Grayson challenges classic experiments. Furthermore, I am excited to soon study motivation in educational settings from Professor Edward Nygma in his J-term educational psychology course. Grounding myself in the theoretical and empirical literature of classroom motivation will be a crucial preparation for developing my own research questions as an aspiring graduate student.

After officially beginning the Ed.M. program, courses like Innovation Design: Educational Technology, led by Professor Viktor Fries, will help me cultivate interventions that move from theory into technologically driven application. With modest experience in technical development, I look forward to prototyping and testing interventions that allow students to resolve cognitive dissonance by systematically shifting their attitudes and behaviors towards a positive direction — or, to be bold, intentionally introducing cognitive dissonance with a strong force of appraisal that leans towards desired positive outcomes. Considering my own unique (and self-driven) educational experiences, I am deeply attracted to the learning philosophy of trial and error, and believe such courses will be an integral step toward achieving my goals.

I also cherish GGSE’s option to cross-register. I hope to take seminars with Professor Selina Kyle from the Gotham School of Business, as her research into the dysfunctional consequences of disconfirming high-performance expectations aligns perfectly with my goals in China. If students struggle academically due to cognitive dissonance from unmet expectations, can interpretation of these expectations change through intervention or appraisal? Dr. Kyle’s work, as described in Rebel Genius, provides a unique foundation for my quest to develop intellectual tools that shift resolution of cognitive dissonance in a positive way. By translating her work from organizational to classroom settings, I hope to study how “troubled students” can reframe into radiant “rebels” who change the world for the better through their unconventional outlooks.

My preparation for these goals began with my undergraduate Economics studies at UC-Coastal City, which provided a solid quantitative background and a lens to view problems through behavioral-economics models. After graduating, I took both undergraduate- and graduate-level psychology courses at Metropolis University and Gotham respectively, acquiring fundamental knowledge of general, personality, social, cognitive, and developmental psychology. Elective courses further equipped me with strong skills in psychology-oriented programming using Python, PsychoPy, R, and Stata.

As my cross-cultural research will aid in the translation of knowledge, skillsets, and interventions from GGSE to high schools in China, I have recently begun working with GGSE PhD Jiaqi Zhang as co-author of a study on how Chinese Immigrant and European-American parents and children use questions during free play. We are investigating questioning styles from a descriptive, cross-cultural, and intra-cultural perspective. I am currently responsible for categorizing and coding parents’ and children’s questions from videos of interactions through the software Datavyu, and creating the literature review. I look forward to taking on more responsibility and writing the paper with the goal of publishing in 2022/23.

I have also worked as a Research Assistant in Dr. Jonathan Crane’s laboratory since spring 2020. During this time, Professor Crane has inspired me to question where knowledge comes from, and ignited my desire to produce new knowledge. Working closely with his PhD student Barbara Gordon has enhanced my practical communication skills, as well as my technical skills in analyzing data through Python and R, and designing and translating surveys through online platforms.

Furthermore, after graduating college, I worked in the lab of Professor Haixian Li at Tsinghua University during the Spring 2021 semester. There, via Zoom, I delivered bi-monthly (and bilingual) lectures in Social Psychology for international students in the psychology graduate program. I believe this atypical teaching experience — combining a humor-based teaching style with the professionalism of my own favorite professors at Coastal City, Metropolis, and Gotham — will be a benefit as I begin the Ed.M. program.

Now, having broken free from the “troubled student” label and discovered my own academic passion, I am determined to develop intellectual tools to help similar students in Chinese high schools through methodologies based on cognitive dissonance. I aim to accomplish this goal through intensive study of developmental psychology and motivation, and hopefully by working closely with professors Edward Nygma, Selina Kyle, and Viktor Fries. My broad academic and research background in economics and psychology ensure my compatibility with the Human Development and Education program, and I believe that pursuing an Ed.M. at Gotham will fully prepare me to effect real change for students in China and beyond.

Conclusion

I’m incredibly grateful to May for allowing me to republish her psychology statement of purpose. Not only is it a brilliant implementation of our SOP system, but it shows what it truly takes to succeed at the most competitive grad schools.

As you start crafting your SOP for MS, PsyD, or any other type of psychology program, use the same strategies May did:

  1. Work hard to define the very specific problems you hope to solve in the future. If you’re a master’s or PsyD applicant, focus on your Career Goals Statement and the unique people you hope to help through your work. If you’re a PhD applicant, focus on writing smart research questions. In either case, use our free SOP Starter Kits (for both master’s and PhD applicants) to get started on the right foot!
  2. Consider walking in through the back door! There’s no need to rush into your career. If you have the chance, a paid RA gig or a handful of non-degree graduate courses can go a LONG way toward convincing admissions committees that you’re going to be an A+ rock star in their program.

Whatever strategies you use, I hope May’s example inspires you. With a little patience, forethought, and planning, I’m 100% certain you too can write a brilliant SOP, and watch the front doors of all kinds programs swing wide open for you.

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Want to follow the exact same writing strategy May used her in her SOP?

TRY OUT THE MASTER’S SOP FORMULA ONLINE COURSE

A complete A-Z blueprint for writing brilliant statements of purpose that fill you with confidence, flood your inbox with admission offers, and launch your career as a high-achieving graduate student. As one alumnus said: “It was so detailed with all the supporting material it felt like I was working with a real coach!” Learn more here.

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The SOP Starter Kits

These FREE (and highly insightful) guides will tell you exactly what to write, step-by-step, and leave you feeling super-confident and ready to hit “submit.”