One of the most important components of your application packet, when you’re applying to institutes abroad, is your statement of purpose.
The personal statement is also sometimes called the statement of purpose, letter of intent, or admission essay. Its main purposes are to introduce yourself explain your educational, training, and career goals, and present those qualities that make you an excellent candidate for graduate school in general, and for the program you are applying to in particular.
Admissions committees and prospective supervisors look at personal statements to see how you think, and how well you express yourself. It provides them with an opportunity to learn who you are through your eyes. It is the component of the application that shows whether you have the maturity, good judgment, and a clear plan to get from where you are today, to where you want to be ten years from now.
If you are applying to a professional school in medicine, business, or law, or to a highly competitive graduate program in another field, there might be interviews later, but for most graduate programs you should think of your statement of purpose as a substitute for a brief personal interview with the admissions committee or prospective supervisor.
If you think this is a good time to figure out what you want to do, then think again… you should have figured this out already. If your main reason for setting out to decide exactly what you want to do for a career is just so that you can prepare a good personal statement, then you probably need to get more serious about your reasons for wanting to go to graduate school at this time.
The most common mistake that students make is to leave too little time for preparing the personal statement. It requires a great deal of thought and planning to write a good one. You should expect to spend several days or maybe even weeks writing drafts before coming up with a good final product. If you spend only a few hours preparing and writing it, then it is almost certain to be an application killer. And none of the other components of your application will make up for a statement of purpose that leaves any kind of bad impression.
When applying to a graduate program that receives a large number of applicants, success depends not so much on writing an essay that gets you accepted, as on avoiding writing a personal statement that gets you rejected. Keep in mind that your statement will be read by people who are trying to form an impression of who you are and what you are like. If there are a lot of applicants to consider, it may not take a lot of imperfection to get placed into the reject pile.
A generic statement or essay can ruin your application
Do not write a generic statement of purpose for several different applications. You will probably be applying to several programs, and it is important that each personal statement you send reflects that you have done your homework and understand what the program has to offer. Although there will be a great deal of overlap in terms of the content of the statements you send to different programs, the point here is that you should not simply send the same statement to each program.
Some applicants underestimate the number of important differences there are between the various graduate programs to which they apply. Admissions officers know this, and when they detect a generic statement that the applicant probably sent to at least a few different programs, then it suggests that the applicant is ignorant of the unique aspects of their program.
Remember, people do not automatically gain admission to a Masters or Ph.D. program just because they have a bachelor’s degree and excellent undergraduate grades. It may be helpful to think of the personal statement as a sales job — one where you are both the salesperson and the merchandise being marketed. As the salesperson, you should think of your personal statement from the point of view of the potential “buyer” — the prospective supervisor or members of an admissions committee. You need to take this approach, because the process of getting into most graduate programs is a very competitive one, and you are not likely to get in if you are outdone by other applicants.
You want to present a logical rationale for wanting a particular career. This will require that you can explain your future objectives in light of your past. Accordingly, much of the content of your personal statement will be a recounting of select and relevant aspects of your past.
If you are in a discipline in which graduate students spend a lot of time engaged in research activities (a majority of disciplines fit this description), then you must strive to make a convincing case that you are not only interested in the more general field of study, but also more specifically in the area in which your prospective supervisor does research. Even if it is a program in which you would be assigned to a specific supervisor only after some time in the program, or if you will receive periodic supervision by multiple faculty members on a rotational basis, it should be apparent from your statement where you are expecting to fit in with the research interests of the faculty members who are there.
One of the added benefits of preparing your personal statement is that, by the time you are done, you will know how to respond to questions about what you are looking for in a career, how you intend to get there, and how you got to this point in the first place. This is excellent preparation for a pre-selection interview with an admissions committee, or for a face-to-face meeting or telephone interview with a prospective graduate supervisor.
Obvious considerations, but still worth mentioning
You need to be extremely meticulous in proofreading and editing what you write. The people looking at your application will be keenly interested to know about your writing abilities. Even just a few grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, or poorly-worded sentences can leave a very bad impression. Write concisely, and if there is a word limit, be sure not to go beyond it.
If you are required to answer specific questions, make sure you understand what is being asked of you. Think of how it makes you look if you don’t — it raises the question of whether or not you are capable of understanding simple instructions.
There are a lot of different reasons why a statement of purpose can make a bad impression, but generally speaking, a personal statement that makes a good impression will have at least three key features: selectivity, originality, and clarity.
The general idea behind selectivity is that you must include the right kinds of information, and also that you must refrain from including irrelevant information. Your choices will show whether or not you have good judgment. For example, it would normally be a mistake to describe the details of your academic history, unless it is to highlight something that is especially unique. The people reading your personal statement can look at your transcripts if they want to know details about your academic record.
Originality is important because a run-of-the-mill personal statement will not help you stand out from the crowd. You need to grab the readers’ attention at the outset and hold their interest to the end. One of the most difficult things you are likely to face when preparing your statement of purpose is just getting started. Remember, it takes time to be creative, so be patient. Ideas will come, eventually. Do not be afraid to start over if a plan you had no longer seems good, or if you think of something better.
Clarity refers to how well you express your ideas in writing. Your statement should be logical, and it must be written with proper syntax and grammar, and free of spelling mistakes and typos. This is not just because a spelling mistake will make the reader think you cannot spell; a statement that contains these types of errors will make you appear unprofessional and careless.
Proofread, edit, and work on every sentence and passage until you are confident that you are expressing yourself in the most unambiguous and concise manner. People looking at your application want to know about your writing abilities. Even just a single grammatical error, spelling mistake, or poorly worded sentence can leave a bad impression. If there is a word limit, be sure not to go beyond it. Do not try to impress the reader with your vocabulary. Importantly, you must not rely only on the spell-checking function on your computer.
Have a friend read your personal statement and ask for feedback and advice. If possible, ask this same favour of one of your professors, one who knows you well and whom you feel comfortable asking for the extra favour. Ideally, this should be a professor who is also writing a letter of recommendation for you, because he or she may then refer to your personal statement when preparing the letter.
The ideal length of your statement of purpose
Many programs actually specify a limit, which typically is two or three pages. But, even if exact limits are not specified, it is essential that your statement does not ramble about irrelevant things. Remember, your letter will be read by busy people — people who have many other applications to look at, and who will get annoyed if they have to spend more time than they want to read any individual personal statement. A few short paragraphs covering one-and-a-half to two pages is almost always enough unless the instructions in your application package specify that you need to provide particular details that require more space than this.
Do not try to say everything you think might be relevant. Highlight two or three or maybe four important points and keep it at that. Before you start writing, plan the order in which you want to make your points. The people reading it will appreciate a concise and well-organized statement of purpose.
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