How To Write A Statement of Purpose: An Expert Guide




If you’re applying for grad school, college or university, you’ve likely been asked to write a statement of purpose. This critical part of the application process is often one of the most demanding, and it’s easy to feel unsure about what to write.

Don’t worry! I’ll walk you through the complete process and give you the tools and techniques you need to ace your application in this post.

So, how do you write a statement of purpose?

A statement of purpose should be written in three phases. Firstly, you must gather as much research and contextual information as possible to support your application. Then you should structure your material in an order that conveys your academic journey before editing and proofreading in depth.

Before you get started on your statement of purpose (sometimes called a letter of intent), you also need to understand what it is and what it’s for. Here’s a brief overview, in case you’re not sure…

What is a Statement of Purpose and why is it Important?

A statement of purpose is usually between 500-1000 words. It should outline your interest in a specific graduate program and illustrate your academic and professional suitability. It should clarify your past and future research interests and evidence the value you will bring to an institution.

It’s important because often, a statement of purpose is the only opportunity an applicant has to engage directly with an admissions committee and highlight their suitability. It’s your chance to celebrate previous academic achievements, clarify your skills and interests and outline your professional ambitions.

In contrast with many undergraduate admissions platforms, a statement of purpose focuses on your academic career and your research potential. It’s less about your personality, hobbies or life experiences.

When faced with several similarly qualified and experienced applicants, a grad school will often use a statement of purpose as the deciding factor in making an offer. According to the admissions team at Cornell University:

The Academic Statement of Purpose is one of the most essential pieces of your graduate school application because it gives the reviewers an understanding of your academic background and interests and helps them determine if you are a good match for the program to which you are applying.

So, how do you start the process of writing a statement of purpose?

Begin by taking some simple, actionable steps to lead you to a larger goal. That way, it won’t feel like such a mountain to climb. You’ll also give yourself time to get your statement written to a high standard.

Here are the steps to take, in the order you need to take them.

1 Research Your Subject & Grad School Options

When preparing your statement of purpose, the first thing to do is carefully research the courses, subjects and grad school options available to you.

Institutions like Stanford, Yale and Duke offer a wide range of course information online. You should also ensure that you use research tools such as usnews.com and gradschoolhub.com, as they give valuable insight from a student perspective.

Advice for Grad School Students

Grab a large folder or create a document on your laptop and make some notes under the following headings:

What Subject Best Suits my Research Goals?

As a grad student, you’re likely to have a field of expertise you want to explore. Nonetheless, taking the time to sift through the related options thoroughly can be enlightening.

Majoring in Biochemistry as an undergraduate doesn’t mean that’s the right subject for grad school. You might want to study Structural Biology, Molecular Biophysics, Chemical Engineering or Computational Genetics.

Ensure that you extend your subject search beyond the obvious and widen your options by talking with peers and advisors.  Contact practitioners in the industries you’re interested in pursuing and establish the most appropriate routes forward.

Which Course Offers me the Right Content?

Don’t just look at the subject. It would help if you thought about how a complete course is structured as well. The way a subject is taught, and the opportunities it presents, can be as impactful as the subject itself.

Here’s a quick checklist for graduate study programs:

  • Do you know what each course module covers?
  • Do you know which modules are core and which are optional?
  • Have you checked that all modules are accessible through a range of pathways?
  • What is the tutor system like?
  • What is the balance of practical work to live lectures and independent research?
  • How will you be supported as a learner?
  • How are units or modules assessed and awarded?
  • What are the numbers of students in each cohort?
  • What connections can be made with industry?
  • Who are tenured and visiting teaching staff?
  • What are the opportunities for internships, placements or years abroad?
  • How flexible is the course structure?
  • How does the course rank for results and student satisfaction?
  • What relevant outcomes are achieved by grad school alumni?

Once you’ve answered these questions for every course you’re interested in, you’ll be well-placed to make the right decision. If you can’t find the answers, contact the institution directly, and ask for clarification.

If they can’t give it, perhaps it’s not the right course for you?

Which Institution Best Meets my Needs?

Lastly, you need to research each institution’s broader potential. After all, you’re going to spend a significant amount of time and money in one place. It’s sensible to find out if your personal needs will be met, as well as your academic ones.

Use the following prompts to help your notetaking:

How effective and reliable are travel links to and from this place?What is the physical architecture on the campus?Is accommodation available, and if so, what quality is it?What amenities, facilities and resources are available?
What is the cost of living in this area, and are jobs available?What level of student support is available through this institution?What resources are available to enhance learning in the faculty?What grants, scholarships and financial packages are available?
What to Look for in a University or College

If you can, you should pay an in-person visit to your grad school shortlist. Talk to current staff and students and spend some time on campus. That’s the only way to really know if it’s for you!

2 Summarise Your Previous Academic Achievements

Lists of your formal qualifications and academic experiences will doubtless appear elsewhere in your application. There is no need to repeat them in the body of your statement of purpose.

However, you should take the opportunity to summarise key academic achievements, especially if they support your application directly. Use these suggestions as prompts for developing a detailed list of accomplishments:

  • Have you received accreditation, membership or recognition from relevant bodies or organisations?
  • Have you participated in exclusive workshops, lectures or invitation-only events?
  • Has your work been published or been seen outside academia?
  • Have you developed networks or contacts of value to your continued study?
  • Have you established businesses or shown entrepreneurial spirit within your discipline?

It would help if you also considered the following in more depth…

Previous or Ongoing Original Research

If you have authored established or ongoing original research, you should ensure that you include details of this in your statement of purpose. In the planning stages, make a note of the nature and scope of the research and summarise your findings.

As you develop your statement of purpose, you should also indicate how your ongoing and future research goals connect to your grad school application.

How has your research qualified you to pursue this field of study?

Placements and Academic Exchanges

Significant achievements that applicants often neglect to include are previous placements within a relevant industry and cultural/educational exchanges. Make a note of the placements you have undertaken, voluntary or paid. Consider the roles you undertook and the relevant skills you developed. You should also note how the placement has enhanced your suitability for the course.

Similarly, if you’ve completed an academic exchange or spent a year abroad, then make sure you outline the skills you developed. You should also consider the value of a culturally diverse experience and the benefit of broad perspectives on your continued study and research.

Don’t worry if you seem to be writing lots of notes; you’ll edit them down later on.

Awards and Significant Accomplishments

I don’t mean qualifications here. Instead, what prizes, awards or accolades have you accomplished? Don’t be modest about listing them in your notes. This is also the place to consider successful dissertation topics, essay competitions and publications.

You might also want to reflect on how higher-level qualifications, such as undergraduate degrees, have prepared you for grad school study. Don’t simply list results, but consider how the processes and techniques of advanced study have equipped you with specific, relevant skills. When you begin to collate this information, you should remember that admissions teams look for success and potential.

Your statement of purpose should evidence your successful academic career and illustrate your continued academic potential.

3 Outline Your Relevant Professional Experiences

A statement of purpose should clearly outline your relevant professional experiences. By clarifying the value of your career in relation to your academic achievements, you will evidence your suitability for graduate study and reinforce your potential value.

Be Specific About Your Professional Successes

If you have achievements or accomplishments in the professional sphere, you should outline them in your statement of purpose. As well as the academic success I’ve already mentioned, you should include any of the following professional achievements:

  • Mentoring of peers, students or employees
  • Successful implementation of systems, processes or technology
  • Promotions or positions of responsibility
  • Increases in pay, awards received, or grants obtained
  • Presentations given or resources created
  • Additional professional qualifications earned
  • Courses taken or facilitated
  • Valuable client networks
  • Appraisals or reviews

Depending on your areas of research and employment, you may have other elements to add. Just ensure you note any professional accomplishments that will lend authority to your application.

Outline the Value of Previous Accomplishments

It’s not enough to make lists of accomplishments, however. A list without context doesn’t offer much meaning to the reader.

Once you’ve got a list of your professional achievements written, you should make some further notes about the value of each one.

Use your statement of purpose to show an admissions committee that you are aware of the value of your achievements. It suggests that you also understand the value of your prospective course of study.

Examples of Value Include:

ExampleValueExampleValue
Mentored new employees in the departmentEmbraced new perspectives and developed a greater understanding of the industryGained a promotion within the facultyWas able to contribute more fully to the creation of teaching materials, gaining expertise
Developed new research tools to track customer engagementSoftware and coding skills, and a greater understanding of client behaviour and requirementsReceived a positive and constructive appraisalDeveloped self-reflection by gaining insight into strengths and areas for development
The Value of Previous Accomplishments Examples

Show How Your Research Matches Your Application

Once you’ve established your achievements and the value gained from them, you should link the outcomes to the course requirements.

The most effective way to do this is to go through the course descriptor, highlighting the essential skills, attributes or requirements needed for entry. Then, cross-reference this list with the outcomes you’ve already identified.

When you find matches, you’ll know which elements to highlight in your statement of purpose.

Here’s the whole process:

4 Prove Your Connection to the Discipline

When writing a statement of purpose, it is essential to demonstrate a proven connection to your discipline. Admissions committees want to see evidence of the logically structured development of your engagement over a reasonable period. This should link to the relevancy of the application.

What’s the best way to write this?

Use the following checklist to help you make a list of the different ways in which your previous experiences demonstrate a commitment to your field:

Write Your Experiences in Chronological Order

Once you’ve made some notes under as many of these headings as you can (and have identified some headings pertinent to you), then you should write them up in chronological order, ensuring that you keep your ABCs clear…

In doing so, you’ll convey a compelling and relevant history that clearly outlines your commitment to your field.

If you’re interested in discovering more about online courses that add value to your applicaiton, then check out the MOOC information here. And if it all seems too much, you might enjoy my post on stress-free statement writing here.

5 Link Academic Ambitions with Course Content

This is an excellent opportunity to use your statement of purpose to look to your future success. Identify your academic and professional ambitions and link them with what the course offers. In doing so, you’ll reassure admissions teams that you’re a good fit.

A statement of purpose should outline your goals clearly and indicate the steps you have already taken towards achieving them. Most importantly, it should clarify how the successful completion of the course will enable these goals to be met.

Start Practicing Self-Reflection and Goal Setting

The College for Adult Learning features a great post on setting academic goals, but in the first instance, you should reflect on what it is you want from your graduate degree and how it might advance your research opportunities.

To get started, note down some answers to questions like these:

  • How will this degree advance my understanding of my subject area?
  • How will this degree help me develop a broader or deeper range of specific skills?
  • Which modules or opportunities do I find most engaging or essential?
  • Which grad school facilities are vital to my ongoing research?
  • How will this degree enable my career within a specific sector?
  • What are my academic aims for this degree?
  • What are my personal aims for this degree?
  • How can I contribute to the learning community and my wider field of study?
  • Which faculty staff members are inspirational, and why is learning from them essential?
  • Does the degree offer links to industries that are relevant to my goals?
  • Why is the degree course a logical next step for me?
  • What has been achieved by course alumni, and how does that relate to my ambitions?

Perhaps the most critical question you can ask is:

How does what is on offer enable me to fully engage in specific areas of research with the depth and scope I require?

Note down your answers to these questions.

Once you’ve developed two or three key ambitions that link your application with your long-term goals, you can use these examples in your statement of purpose.

6 Define the Value of Your Transferable Skills

Transferable skills are a valuable component in a statement of purpose. Examples include qualities such as resilience, organisation and empathy. By including them, you establish your flexibility, depth of character and suitability for study at a high level within a learning community.

Academic history, qualifications and professional experience are central to a strong grad school statement of purpose. However, transferable skills can also play a role in evidencing your suitability and compelling the reader to make you an offer.

Transferable skills are the personal qualities you possess that enable you to function successfully in life and in more general academic situations. You may have a growth mindset and view challenges as positive opportunities. Perhaps you are a successful independent learner? Maybe you practice active listening or have developed stamina through regular participation in sports.

Don’t Ignore Your Transferable Skills

Don’t ignore the value that these kinds of qualities can add to your resume. Institutions are looking for academically gifted individuals. They’re also looking for students who will survive and thrive in their community.

If an admissions committee can see that you have a wide range of well-rounded capabilities that enhance your academic ambitions, your application will be far more successful. I’ve got a great post here, all about transferable skills. Check it out and use the suggestions to help you identify your own.

7 Recognise What Makes you a Unique Candidate

In business terms, we’re talking about your unique selling point. What is it about you, your achievements and ambitions that make you stand out positively? Everyone is unique, but the important thing is to highlight that uniqueness relevantly.

For a statement of purpose, that uniqueness should be defined by your depth of knowledge and potential.

It is not relevant that you got a prize in a judo contest or play in a rock band in your spare time. What is important is proving that your unique blend of achievements, experiences, skills and ambition make you an ideal candidate.

What Makes You Unique?

What Makes you Uniquely Qualified?

  • Have you a proven track record of success in your field?
  • Have you built up a network or following that facilitates your research?
  • Have you been awarded previous grants, bursaries or scholarships?
  • Will your proposed research enhance the grad school’s reputation?
  • Do your qualifications exactly match the course criteria?
  • Have you already developed working relationships with members of the community?
  • Do you bring existing sponsorship or financial security with you?
  • Are your ambitions likely to affect real change in your field?
  • Do you bring additional expertise or strengths not present in the faculty?

Once you’ve identified your strongest USP, you need to hone it into a compelling short paragraph. Use the three-part model below to make sure you include each necessary element.

Done your research, made all your notes and crafted short responses? You’re ready to write the first draft of your statement of purpose.

8 Develop a First Draft Outline

If you’ve followed the steps in this post, then writing the first draft of your statement of purpose shouldn’t be too daunting.

Using the guidance I’ve already given you for identifying which elements to include, go through each heading in your notes and extract the relevant content. You should structure your writing in a specific order.

It’s the order in which you’ve worked through this post:

  • The central inspiration or motivation behind your application
  • The reasons why a particular institution is a suitable choice for you
  • A summary of your previous academic achievements, reinforcing your suitability for the course
  • Your relevant professional experience and its relevancy to your application
  • Your expertise in the field, subject, discipline or specialism
  • Your ambitions, how you’ve pursued them and why grad school is the next step
  • Your transferable skills and how they will help you
  • Your unique qualities and value to the institution or community to which you are applying

Tell Your Story in Chronological Order

You’ll notice that broadly speaking, this takes you through a past-present-future structure. That’s a good way to think of it, too. A statement of purpose gives you the opportunity to put your educative journey into context. Presenting it in a chronological way is ideal.

If you’d like a clear template, with all the key elements in one place, you can download my free statement of purpose template here or hit the banner below.

9 Evidence the Quality of Your Writing

In addition to outlining your academic capabilities, your statement of purpose must evidence the quality of your academic writing. By doing so, you’ll demonstrate that you have the literary skills necessary to flourish in a graduate program.

From using the correct sentence starters to making sure that quotes are included correctly, there are several ways to impress with your writing. You should aim to use a formal, concise tone that avoids slang, conversational language or specific dialects. Keeping your writing on-point and compelling is the key.

The Right Vocabulary for Your Statement of Purpose

Aim to include a balance of subject-specific vocabulary in your statement of purpose. You should use the opportunity to reinforce your academic credentials by using the appropriate language in the right context.

Remember that members of the admissions committee are likely to be aware of your field but may not be experts. Try to strike a balance between evidencing your depth of knowledge but not alienating the reader. Keep in mind that a statement of purpose should be about you, not an academic essay.

There are some great tips about writing style in my post on what not to include in a personal statement.

Check Your Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar

It’s critical to ensure that your statement of purpose is free from errors. Grad school programs inevitably require a high level of academic writing. If your application is full of errors, readers will assume that your graduate work will be of a similarly poor standard.

I recommend Grammarly to lots of the applicants I work with. It’s the ideal tool for ensuring your statement of purpose is accurate and concise. What’s more, you can use it to sharpen all your academic writing once you achieve your place on the course.

Pick up the free version here, or hit the banner below for more information.

You can use the free resources in my post on what to check in a personal statement to make sure you’ve got all the bases covered.

10 Share your Drafts with the Right People

With your first draft completed, you should share your statement of purpose with a limited number of readers prior to submission. The aim of sharing your in-progress application is to gather constructive feedback from people who are suitably informed about both your achievements and your potential.

You should make sure that they have access to your complete application, as well as the course outline and requirements.

It’s essential that you pick a limited number of well-qualified readers, as too many will result in an overwhelming number of contrary notes. You might consider the following individuals:

  • Colleagues, peers or professional counterparts
  • Mentors, counsellors or coaches
  • Contacts in academia
  • Supervisors or employers
  • Professional service providers
  • Informed friends and family

Regardless of where you get your feedback, you should ask your readers to comment under the following headings:  

Proofreading for errors in punctuation, spelling and grammarFeedback on the quality of your content and relevancy to your applicationSuggestions for additional content relating more closely to the demands of the courseTechniques for further academic research and additional research opportunities
Collaborative rewriting of content to better express your ambitions and experienceRestructuring of your content to develop its compelling qualityFeedback on professional qualifications and achievements compared to the course requirementsChecking of your application for inaccuracies and final edits for word count and formatting
Types of Feedback for Statements of Purpose

Once you’ve received their feedback, take the time to identify common responses and themes before developing your final draft. When you’re happy with the outcome and have developed an outstanding application, it’s time to submit your statement of purpose and wait for the offers!

Tips Before Submitting a Statement of Purpose

I’m often asked the same questions about statements of purpose, so if you’re wondering the same things, here are some quick tips. Before you hit ‘send’, check out the following…  

How do you Start a Statement of Purpose?

Starting a statement of purpose can often be the hardest challenge that candidates face. The prospect of starting with a blank page can be daunting, and it can often lead to delays in submitting an application.

Do not write the first draft of a statement of purpose from scratch or try to write the opening paragraph first. Instead, gather key information and make comprehensive notes before creating the content.

Don’t forget to download my structure template for more free advice, or check out my post on how to start a personal statement here.

What’s the Difference Between a Personal Statement and a Statement of Purpose?

A statement of purpose should be focused on your professional experience, research achievements and academic potential. By contrast, a personal statement should emphasise your interest and suitability for undergraduate study and your supporting personal skills.

The two might seem quite similar. However, a statement of purpose is usually written by an applicant who is at a more advanced academic level than an undergraduate. Accordingly, it should reflect a greater degree of educational depth.

If you’d like some more advice on academic writing, you’ll find some excellent resources at the CEU’s Centre for Academic Writing.  Alternatively, you can find some great ideas in my post on outstanding personal statement examples.


Good luck with your statement of purpose, and don’t forget to contact me if you’d like some 1-1 support. You’ve got this! D

Research and content verified by Personal Statement Planet.

David Hallen

I've worked in the Further Education and University Admissions sector for nearly 20 years as a teacher, department head, Head of Sixth Form, UCAS Admissions Advisor, UK Centre Lead and freelance personal statement advisor, editor and writer. And now I'm here for you...

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