Does your statement of purpose show any “purpose”? Does it specifically declare your goals for grad school? For your career afterward? If I read your grad school SOP today, will I know exactly what you intend to accomplish in the next few years? Will I know exactly who the heck you are and how you plan to change the world?
I hope so.
Because that’s the secret sauce to the SOP: a single, powerful, focused sentence that “states” your “purpose” and gives ad comms a feeling that you’re a rock star with unconquerable drive.
Read the SOPs of my most successful students, like Martina, who was admitted to 5 top-ranked neuroscience PhD programs, or Pranava, who earned admission to 7 master’s engineering programs, and you’ll notice they all feature this sentence.
For PhD applicants, it’s a summary of their “research proposal.” For master’s applicants, I usually call it an “academic goal.” Technically, it is a kind of “thesis statement,” but whatever we call it, this single sentence, this goal, this purpose, is the axle around which your entire essay revolves.
Let’s call it the “Sentence of Purpose.”
Then, let’s examine how this single sentence can transform your essay from a vague, watery mess, into the rock-solid manifesto of world-class scholar.
Where does the Sentence of Purpose appear?
If you’ve read any of my essay guides, you know that the best SOPs start with a brief story that illustrates your academic curiosities and explains why you’re applying to grad school. It’s not a silly childhood story. It’s not creative writing, and it’s not a gimmick. It’s simply an illustration of how you encountered the problems that you hope to study and solve in grad school. Here’s a great (and wonderfully concise) example from Pranava’s essay linked above:
“A community visit to a slum as part of a group project with my college’s chapter of Enactus made me aware of poverty’s debilitating impact on India’s energy access. A staggering 400 million people still live in the dark. My summer internship at the Amorphous Silicon Solar Cell Plant (ASSCP) of BHEL strengthened my belief that solar photovoltaics could be a game-changer in the hunt for ensuring access to energy in developing countries, owing to its ability to integrate into mini-grids, thereby benefitting people that don’t live near transmission lines. At Gotham University, I intend to study nanotechnology applications in the context of solar cells.”
Notice how this introduction doesn’t beat around the bush? It shows us a real person. It describes two important moments that galvanized her academic goals. It dives right into the problems she believes need to be solved. And it ends by declaring exactly what she intends to do.
This is where the “Sentence of Purpose” appears – at the end of your introduction, right after you describe the problems that you want to study. In this way, it’s exactly like the thesis statements you wrote for every paper in college.
You’ve introduced yourself.
You’ve introduced the problems you want to solve.
You might even have asked some rhetorical questions, like:
- “How do critical or sensitive periods of neuroendocrine development contribute to long-term functioning in animals and humans at the behavioral and cellular levels?”
- “If Brain-Computer Interfaces most improve cognitive processing and decision-making abilities, what would be the best approach to combining AR and BCI?”
Now, by including a Sentence of Purpose, you make your intentions deadly clear and set the stage for the rest of your brilliant SOP.
Pranava’s essay is one of my favorites, because her Sentence of Purpose is so short and focused, it’s almost hilarious. Yours doesn’t have to be so short. Here are some examples from other students who wrote SOPs that earned them multiple admissions.
- “This is why I apply to Gotham University today: to learn to disentangle data, construct valid inferences, and design clinical trials which apply statistical methods for improved cancer-screening tests and treatments.”
- “It is these very questions which prompt me to apply to Gotham University’s graduate program in Animal Welfare and Behavior, so I can gain a better academic understanding of animal husbandry, and contribute to influencing better policy decisions in the future.”
- “At Gotham University, I hope to explore mechanisms for neurodegeneration, and research potential therapeutics for various disorders including the affected JNK signaling pathway in Alzheimer’s disease.”
- “This is why I apply to the College of Fine Art at Gotham University: to study barrier-free visual experiences, to contemplate art in a multicultural and technological world, and to prepare to become a teacher myself.”
- “Now, I believe the Master’s program in Financial Engineering at Gotham University is the perfect stepping stone toward achieving my goal of capturing, processing, and using real-time information (facilitated by Big Data and Machine Learning tools) in an asset-management career.”
- “These questions explain why I am applying to the Master of Health Administration program at Gotham University today: by becoming an administrative leader, I can play a role in improving healthcare access for far more people than I ever could as a doctor.”
- “At GU, I hope to continue elucidating hypothalamic metabolic circuits, and exploring how obesogenic diets affect long-term developmental outcomes in relation to the normal functioning of the satiety hormone leptin.”
Pick any one of these examples and ask yourself: what is this student’s purpose?
100% clear, isn’t it?
We know exactly who they are and what they intend to accomplish, and that’s a very good quality to have when admissions committees decide which applicants are most likely to succeed.
Why is this “Sentence of Purpose” so important?
It’s not simply the “presence” of this sentence that makes it so important. It’s how it weaves into every other part of your grad school SOP.
Imagine you write this Sentence of Purpose:
“I want to play a role in developing the new haptic feedback devices that surgeons will employ in the very near future, and the MSCS program at Gotham will give me that chance.”
Next you’re going to write your “Why This Program” section. As you describe everything that’s awesome about the school, you’ll continually emphasize how each professor, class, or lab will push you one more step on the journey toward building those surgical devices.
Same for your “Why I’m Qualified” section. All of those good grades and research experiences you’ve been so eager to describe? They’re only useful insofar as they prove you’ll succeed in achieving your goal of developing those awesome surgical devices.
All told, this continual emphasis on your personal, unique, uber-specific goal will paint a portrait of who you are, and more importantly, who you’ll be as a part of the graduate community. Few other applicants will express their goals so clearly. They’ll seem vague and wishy-washy compared to you. You’ll be “the haptic feedback surgical device kid,” and the ad comm will know exactly what you bring to the table.
The Lynchpin of Your Grad School SOP
Obviously, I’m a big advocate of the below-listed 4-part structure for all SOPs. Master’s, PhDs, Computer Science, Fine Arts…it’s worked for them all at the most elite schools.
- Frame Narrative Introduction – 1-2 paragraphs
- Why This Program – 1-2 paragraphs
- Why I’m Qualified – 1-2 paragraphs
- Close Frame Narrative – 1 paragraph
However. Now that we’ve integrated our Sentence of Purpose at the end of Section 1, we can see how it becomes the magical thread that weaves through the entire essay and holds it together.
- Frame Narrative Introduction (the story of how we discovered our PURPOSE for graduate study)
- Why This Program (…is the perfect place for me to pursue THIS PURPOSE)
- Why I’m Qualified (…to be a grad student pursuing THIS PURPOSE)
- Close Frame Narrative (…and firmly restate our PURPOSE, with gratitude for the chance to pursue it)
Your goal in writing this application essay isn’t just to get admitted. That’s a lame goal. Your reader thinks it’s lame. Professors think it’s lame. They’re all people with big nerdy dreams, and they’re looking for people just like them who also have big nerdy dreams.
Thus, your goal in writing this essay is to prove that you’re someone with big nerdy dreams. Someone who’ll impact the world, if only in a small way. Someone who has a specific purpose, and who knows what she needs to do to achieve it.
How do we know this is what schools want to see?
Because they ask for it!
In the essay prompt for UCLA’s master’s in Electrical & Computer Engineering (Signals & Systems), the first question they ask is:
- “What is your purpose in applying for graduate study in your specified degree program? Describe your area(s) of interest, including any subfield(s) or interdisciplinary interests.”
To apply for their Master’s in Environmental Science and Management, UCSB says:
- “You should include your specific area of interest, providing an analysis of an environmental issue and how it relates to your ambitions.”
Applying for an English PhD at Harvard?
- “Those who already have a research topic in mind should outline it in detail, giving a sense of how they plan their progress through the program. Those who do not should at least attempt to define the questions and interests they foresee driving their work over the next few years.”
They don’t call it a “Statement of Purpose” for nothing, friend.
Make yours deadly clear.
You can’t write an A+ term paper without a thesis statement. You can’t publish research without an intro that explains the goal of the project. Likewise, if you want a grad school SOP that sets you apart from the competition, you have to write a detailed “Sentence of Purpose.”
It’s not just the lynchpin of your essay. It’s the lynchpin of your entire application. If we delete everything else, in every application, and only look at the Sentences of Purpose from each essay…we could tell right away which students are serious and which are clueless.
Be serious. State your purpose with boldness and clarity. Be the “haptic feedback surgical device guy,” or the “nanotech in solar cells girl,” or the “animal husbandry in public policy dude.”
That way, grad schools will know that you’re someone just like them: a focused scholar with big nerdy dreams…and the motivation to achieve them.
If you want help clarifying your own Statement of Purpose, or your applications in general, we’re here for you!
How will you optimize your grad school SOP to prove you’re a scholar with true intellectual purpose?