To apply for admissions and financial aid, or for additional information on admissions requirements for the Ph.D. program in pure mathematics, please go to the appropriate Harvard Kenneth C. Griffin Graduate School of Arts and Sciences website listed below. All other inquiries may be directed to the Graduate Program Administrator of the Mathematics Department.
- Harvard Kenneth C. Griffin Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (Harvard Griffin GSAS)
- Mathematics Graduate Studies
- Financial Support
Graduate Program Administrator
The Department values diversity among its members, is committed to building a diverse intellectual community, and strongly encourages applications from women and minorities.
Preparing the Application The statement of purpose for graduate applications is carefully weighted by the admissions committee. The applicant’s statement should convince the committee that they are able to communicate effectively and with a deep understanding of mathematics. It is not intended to be a biographical sketch or a reflection on one’s decision to enter the field.
Three letters of recommendation are required. Letter writers should be faculty or others qualified to evaluate the applicant’s potential for graduate study in mathematics. The letters must be submitted online and by the application deadline.
Applicants should include any research papers, publications, and other original works they would like to have evaluated by the admissions committee.
The department requests that applicants submit GRE Mathematics Subject Test scores if practical. Applicants should check on the ETS website for test dates in their area to ensure the scores will be submitted before the application deadline. An official score report should be sent to Harvard Kenneth C. Griffin Graduate School of Arts and Sciences using code 3451.
While the admissions committee reviews all applications submitted before the deadline, missing math subject test scores provide one less data point available to evaluate the application. Depending on the strength of the application, the missing subject test scores may put the application at a disadvantage.
Applicants who are non-native English speakers and who do not hold an undergraduate degree from an institution at which English is the primary language of instruction must submit scores from the Internet Based Test (IBT) of the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) Academic test.
Harvard Griffin GSAS requires applicants to upload an electronic copy of undergraduate transcripts. Hard copies of official transcripts are not required at the time of application.
Ph.D. Program in Pure Mathematics The department does not grant a terminal Master’s degree, but the Master’s can be obtained “on the way” to the Ph.D. by fulfilling certain course and language exam requirements.
In general, there is no transfer status application to the Harvard Kenneth C. Griffin Graduate School of Arts and Sciences or to the Department of Mathematics. No formal credit is given for an MSc or MA earned elsewhere. All applicants are considered to be applying as first-year graduate students. The only difference Master’s study may make is to better prepare students for the Qualifying Exam.
All graduate students are admitted to begin their studies in the fall term. The department plans on an entering class of about twelve students. Since the admissions committee receives a few hundred applications, the competition is keen.
Funding Graduate Study Applicants are urged to apply for all funding available to them. If no outside funding is available to the applicant, financial aid in the form of scholarships, research assistantships, and teaching fellowships is available. In general, students who do not have outside support will get scholarship support in their first year, but students are required to act as a teaching fellow for one-half course (i.e. for a one-term course) in their second through fifth years.
The department strongly recommends applicants to seek out and apply for all sources of financing available to them for graduate study. Recommended sources for funding US graduate students are NSF Graduate Fellowships and NDSEG Fellowships . Applicants from the UK are urged to also apply for the Kennedy fellowships and applicants from UK, New Zealand, Canada and Australia for Knox fellowships . International students may apply for the Fullbright IIE or any home country fellowships available for study abroad.
Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences The Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) offers programs for both the Master’s degree and the Ph.D. degree in Applied Mathematics. Please visit the SEAS website for more information on degrees in applied mathematics at www.seas.harvard.edu
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Gre prep online guides and tips, 7 successful statement of purpose examples.
Not sure what graduate schools are looking for in a statement of purpose? Looking at successful graduate school statement of purpose samples can help! In this guide, we’ll orient you to what makes a great statement of purpose or letter of intent for graduate school. Then we’ll provide you with four successful statement of purpose examples from our graduate school experts. We’ll also provide analysis of what makes them successful. Finally, we’ll direct you to even more helpful examples that you can find online!
The Graduate School Statement of Purpose: An Overview
A statement of purpose (also called a letter of intent or a research statement) introduces your interests and experience to the admissions committee. For research-focused programs, like most PhDs and many master’s degrees, your statement of purpose will focus primarily on your past research experience and plans. For more professionally-focused graduate programs, your statement of purpose will primarily discuss how your pursuit of this professional program relates to your past experiences, and how you will use the skills from the program in your future career.
A statement of purpose for grad school is also where you sell the admissions committee on why you belong in their program specifically. Why do you fit there, and how does what they offer fit your interests?
What’s in a Great Grad School Statement of Purpose?
Here are the essential elements of a strong graduate school statement of purpose:
Clear Articulation of Goals and Interests
A strong statement of purpose will clearly and specifically lay out your goals in undertaking the program and what you hope to accomplish with the degree. Again, for a research-focused program, this will focus primarily on the research project(s) you want to undertake while you are there. For a more professional program, discuss what interests you within the professional field and what skills/knowledge you hope to gain through the program.
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You should be as specific as possible in discussing what interests you. Use examples of particular phenomena, tools, or situations that you find exciting. If you are vague or say that everything in the field interests you, you run the risk of seeming unfocused or not actually that passionate.
Don’t worry that being too specific will box you into a particular research area or subfield during your entire tenure in graduate school. Your program understands that interests change—they won’t be pulling out your research statement to cross-reference with your dissertation proposal!
Evidence of Past Experience and Success
A great graduate school statement of purpose will also show programs that you have already been successful. They want applicants that will be able to follow through on their research/professional plans!
To this end, you’ll need to provide evidence of how your background qualifies you to pursue this program and your specific interests in the field. You’ll probably discuss your undergraduate studies and any professional experience you have. But be sure to draw on specific, vivid examples. You might draw on your thesis, major projects you’ve worked on, papers you have written/published, presentations you’ve given, mentors you’ve worked with, and so on. This gives admissions committees concrete evidence that you are qualified to undertake graduate study!
Interest and Fit With the Program
The third essential ingredient to a great statement of purpose is to clearly lay out why you and the program are a good fit. You should be able to identify both specific reasons why your work fits with the program and why the program suits your work/interests! Are there particular professors you’d like to work with? Does the department have a strong tradition in a certain methodology or theory you’re interested in? Is there a particular facet to the curriculum that you’d like to experience?
Showing that you and the program are a match shows that you chose the program thoughtfully and have genuine interest in it. Programs want to admit students who aren’t just passionate about the field. They want students who are genuinely enthused about their specific program and positioned to get the most out of what they have to offer.
The final essential piece of a strong statement of purpose or letter of intent is strong writing. Writing skills are important for all graduate programs. You’ll need to demonstrate that you can clearly and effectively communicate your ideas in a way that flows logically. Additionally, you should show that you know how to write in a way that is descriptive but concise. A statement of purpose shouldn’t ever be longer than two pages, even without a hard word limit.
Admissions committees for humanities programs may be a little more focused on writing style than admissions officers for STEM programs. But even in quantitative and science-focused fields, written communication skills are an essential part of graduate school. So a strong statement of purpose will always be effectively written. You’ll see this in our statement of purpose for graduate school samples.
Real, Successful Statement of Purpose Samples
In this section, we’ll present four successful graduate school statement of purpose examples from our graduate school experts, along with a brief commentary on each statement. These statements come from a diverse selection of program types to show you how the core essentials of a statement of purpose can be implemented differently for different fields.
Note: identifying information for these statements have been changed—except for example four, which is my statement.
- Statement of Purpose Sample One: Japanese Studies MA
This statement of purpose is notable for its great use of space and its vivid descriptions. The author is able to cram a lot into about a page. She discusses how she came to her two primary research interests (and how they are connected). She integrates this discussion of her interests with information on her past experiences and qualifications for pursuing the course of study. Finally, she includes details on her goals in pursuing the program and components of the program that interest her. Her examples are specific and fleshed-out. There’s a lot very cleverly included in a small amount of page space!
Additionally, the language is very vivid. Phrases like “evocative and visceral” and “steadily unraveling,” are eye-catching and intriguing. They demonstrate that she has the writing skills necessary to pursue both graduate study and her interest in translation.
- Statement of Purpose Sample Two: Music MM
This sample is fairly long, although at 12 point Times New Roman it’s under two pages single-spaced. The length of this statement is partially due to the somewhat expansive nature of the prompt, which asks what role music has played in the applicant’s life “to date.” This invites applicants to speak more about experiences further in the past (in the childhood and teen years) than is typical for a statement of purpose. Given that this is for a master’s degree in music, this is logical; musical study is typically something that is undertaken at a fairly young age.
This statement does an excellent job describing the student’s past experiences with music in great detail. The descriptions of the student’s past compositions and experiences performing new music are particularly vivid and intriguing.
This statement also lays out and elaborates on specific goals the student hopes to pursue through the program, as well as features particular to the program that interest the student (like particular professors).
- Statement of Purpose Sample Three: Economics PhD
One of the first things you’ll likely notice about this statement is that it’s a little on the longer side. However, at 12 point Times New Roman font and single-spaced, it still comes in under 2 pages (excluding references). It makes sense for a PhD statement of purpose sample to be longer than a master’s degree statement of purpose—there’s more to lay out in terms of research interests!
The writing style is fairly straightforward—there’s definitely a stronger focus on delivering content than flashy writing style. As Economics is a more quantitative-focused field, this is fine. But the writing is still well-organized, clear, and error-free.
The writer also gives numerous examples of their past work and experience, and shows off their knowledge of the field through references, which is a nice touch.
- Statement of Purpose Sample Four: History of the Book MA
This is actually my statement of purpose. It was for a program that I got accepted to but did not end up attending, for a Master’s in the History of the Book. You’ll notice that the two essay prompts essentially asked us to split our statement of purpose into two parts: the first prompt asked about our research interests and goals, and the second prompt asked about our relevant experience and qualifications.
I’ll keep my comments on this graduate school statement of purpose sample brief because I’ll do a deep dive on it in the next section. But looking back at my statement of purpose, I do a good job outlining what within the field interests me and clearly laying out how my past experiences have qualified me for the program.
Obviously this statement did its job, since I was accepted to the program. However, if I were to improve this statement, I’d change the cliche beginning (“since I was a child”) and provide more specificity in what about the program interested me.
Deep Dive Analysis of a Sample Statement of Purpose for Graduate School
Next, we’ll do a paragraph by paragraph analysis of my statement, statement of purpose sample four. I’ll analyze its strengths and suggest ways I could shore up any weaknesses to make it even stronger.
Essay 1: Academic Interests
To refresh, here’s the first prompt: Please give a short statement that describes your academic interests, purpose, objectives and motivation in undertaking this postgraduate study. (max 3500 chars – approx. 500 words)
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Since I was a child, my favorite thing has always been a book. Not just for the stories and information they contain, although that is a large part of it. Mostly, I have been fascinated by the concept of book as object—a tangible item whose purpose is to relate intangible ideas and images. Bookbindings and jackets, different editions, the marginalia in a used book—all of these things become part of the individual book and its significance, and are worth study and consideration. Books and their equivalent forms—perfect bound, scrolled, stone tablets, papyrus—have long been an essential part of material culture and are also one of our most significant sources of information about the human historical past. Through both the literal object of the book, the words contained thereon, and its relationship to other books—forms of context, text and intertext—we are able to learn and hopefully manage layers of information with which we would otherwise have no familiarity.
First, the good: this paragraph does a good job introducing my academic interest in the book-as-object, and shows off pre-existing knowledge both of the study of material culture and literary theory. Additionally, the language is engaging: the juxtaposition of “tangible” and “intangible” in the beginning and phrases like “perfect bound, scrolled, stone tablets, papyrus” lend life to the writing and keep the reader engaged.
If I were to go back and improve this paragraph, first, I would absolutely change the first sentence to something less cliche than talking about my childhood. I might try something like “My love of books is a multifaceted thing. I don’t only love them for the stories and….” Second, I would chill out on the em dashes a little bit. Three sets in one paragraph is a little excessive. Finally, I might actually cut this paragraph down slightly to make more room word-wise later in the statement to discuss what specific things about the program interest me.
Furthermore, blogs, webcomics, digital archives, e-readers, and even social media sites like tumblr and Facebook have revolutionized the concept of the book by changing how we share and transmit ideas and information, just as the Gutenberg printing press revolutionized the book all those years ago in the fifteenth century. Once again there has been an explosion both in who can send out information and who can receive it.
This paragraph briefly and effectively introduces my other main academic interest: how new technology has changed the concept of the book-as-object. The tie-back to the printing press is a nice touch; it’s a vivid example that shows that I’m aware of important historical moments in book history.
I am deeply interested in the preservation of the physical book, as I think it is an important part of human history (not to mention a satisfying sensory experience for the reader). However I am also very concerned with the digitization and organization of information for the modern world such that the book, in all of its forms, stays relevant and easy to access and use. Collections of books, archives, and information as stored in the world’s servers, libraries and museums are essential resources that need to be properly organized and administered to be fully taken advantage of by their audiences. My purpose in applying to the University of Edinburgh’s Material Culture and History of the Book is to gain the skills necessary to keep all forms of the book relevant and functional in an age when information can move more radically than ever before.
This paragraph actually has a focus problem. Since it covers two topics, I should split it into two paragraphs: one on the integration of my two interests, and one on my goals and interests in the program. I could also stand to expand on what features the program has that interest me: professors I’d like to work with, particular aspects of the curriculum, etc.
In spite of these things, however, this paragraph does a good job clearly integrating the two academic interests related to the book I introduced in the first two paragraphs. And the language is still strong —“satisfying sensory experience” is a great phrase. However, I’ve been using the word “information,” a lot; I might try to replace with appropriate synonyms (like “knowledge”) in a couple of places.
Additionally, I intend on pursuing a PhD in Library and Information Sciences upon completion of my master’s and I feel that this program while make me uniquely suited to approach library science from a highly academic and interdisciplinary perspective.
This final paragraph offers just quick touch on my future goals beyond the program. It’s typically fine for this to be relatively brief, as it is here, just so long as you can clearly identify some future goals.
Essay 2: Relevant Experience
The second prompt just asked me to describe my relevant knowledge, training, and skills.
As a folklore and mythology student, I have gained a robust understanding of material culture and how it relates to culture as a whole. I have also learned about the transmission of ideas, information, stories and pieces of lore among and between populations, which is an important component of book history. Folklore is also deeply concerned with questions of the literary vs. oral lore and the tendency for text to “canonize” folklore, and yet text can also question or invert canonized versions; along with this my studies in my focus field of religion and storytelling have been deeply concerned with intertextuality. One of my courses was specifically concerned with the Heian-period Japanese novel The Tale of Genji and questions of translation and representation in post-Heian picture scrolls and also modern translations and manga. In addition to broader cultural questions concerned with gender and spirituality both in historical Japan and now, we considered the relationships between different Genji texts and images.
This is a strong, focused paragraph. I relate my academic background in Folklore and Mythology to my interests in studying the book, as well as showing off some of my knowledge in the area. I also chose and elaborated on a strong example (my class on the Tale of Genji ) of my relevant coursework.
I also have work experience that lends itself to the study of the book. After my freshman year of college I interned at the Chicago History Museum. Though I was in the visitor services department I was exposed to the preservation and archival departments of the museum and worked closely with the education department, which sparked my interest in archival collections and how museums present collection information to the public. After my sophomore year of college and into my junior year, I worked at Harvard’s rare books library, Houghton. At Houghton I prepared curated collections for archival storage. These collections were mostly comprised of the personal papers of noteworthy individuals, categorized into alphabetical folders. This experience made me very process-oriented and helped me to understand how collections come together on a holistic basis.
This paragraph also has a clear focus: my past, relevant work experience. Discussing archival collections and presenting information to the public links the interests discussed in my first statement with my qualifications in my second statement. However, if I were to revise this paragraph, I would add some specific examples of the amazing things I worked on and handled at Houghton Library. In that job, I got to touch Oliver Cromwell’s death mask! An interesting example would make this paragraph really pop even more.
Finally, in my current capacity as an education mentor in Allston, a suburb of Boston, I have learned the value of book history and material culture from an educational perspective. As a mentor who designs curriculum for individual students and small groups, I have learned to highly value clearly organized and useful educational resources such as websites, iPad apps, and books as tools for learning. By managing and organizing collections in a way that makes sense we are making information accessible to those who need it.
This final paragraph discusses my current (at the time) work experience in education and how that ties into my interest in the history of the book. It’s an intriguing connection and also harkens back to my discussion of information availability in the paragraph three of the first statement. Again, if I were to amp up this statement even more, I might include a specific example of a book-based (or book technology-based) project I did with one of my students. I worked on things like bookbinding and making “illuminated manuscripts” with some of my students; those would be interesting examples here.
This statement is split into two parts by virtue of the two-prompt format. However, if I were to integrate all of this information into one unified statement of purpose, I would probably briefly introduce my research interests, go in-depth on my background, then circle back around to speak more about my personal interests and goals and what intrigues me about the program. There’s not really one correct way to structure a statement of purpose just so long as it flows well and paragraphs are structured in a logical way: one topic per paragraph, with a clear topic and concluding sentence.
More Statement of Purpose Examples
We’ve provided you with four great graduate school statement of purpose examples from our graduate school experts. However, if you’re looking for more, there are other sample letters of intent and statements of purpose for graduate school online. We’ve rounded up the best ones here, along with some strengths and weaknesses about each example.
Majortests Statement of Purpose Sample
This is a fairly straightforward, clearly written statement of purpose sample for a biology program. It includes useful commentary after each paragraph about what this statement of purpose is accomplishing.
- This statement of purpose sample is well-organized, with clear topic sentences and points made in each paragraph.
- The student clearly identifies what interests her about the program.
- The student proactively addresses questions about why she hasn’t gone directly to graduate school, and frames her professional research experience as a positive thing.
- She gives a tiny bit of color about her personality in a relevant way by discussing her involvement with the Natural History Society.
- In general, discussing high school interests is too far back in time unless the anecdote is very interesting or unusual. The detail about The Theory of Evolution is intriguing; the information about the high school teacher seems irrelevant. The student should have condensed this paragraph into a sentence or two.
- While this statement is cogently written and makes the candidate sound competent and well-qualified, it’s not exactly the most scintillating piece of writing out there. Some of the constructions are a little awkward or cliche. For example, the “many people have asked me” sentence followed by “the answer is” is a little bit clunky. This is probably fine for a STEM program. But just be aware that this statement is not a paragon of writing style.
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UC Berkeley History Statement of Purpose Sample
This is a graduate school statement of purpose example from the UC Berkeley History department’s PhD program, with annotations from a professor as to why it’s a successful statement.
- The author is able to very clearly and articulately lay out her research interests and link them to past work she has successfully completed, namely, her thesis.
- She is able to identify several things about the program and Berkeley that indicate why it is a good fit for her research interests.
- She addresses the time she spent away from school and frames it as a positive, emphasizing that her use of time was well-considered and productive.
- Her writing is very vivid, with excellent word choice and great imagery.
While very well-written and engaging, this sample statement of purpose for graduate school is a little bit on the long side! It’s a little over two single-spaced pages, which is definitely pushing the limits of acceptable length. Try to keep yours at 2 pages or less. Some of the information on the thesis (which comprises over half of the statement of purpose) could be condensed to bring it down to two pages.
Pharmacy Residency Letter of Intent Sample
This is not technically a sample letter of intent for graduate school because it’s actually for a pharmacy residency program. However, this example still provides illumination as to what makes a decent graduate school letter of intent sample.
- This is a serviceable letter of intent: the writer clearly lays out their own goals within the field of pharmacy, what qualifications they have and how they’ve arrived at their interests, and how the program fits their needs.
- The writing is clearly structured and well-organized.
- The main weakness is that some of the writer’s statements come across as fairly generic. For example, “The PGY-1 Residency Program at UO Hospitals will provide me with the opportunity to further develop my clinical knowledge, critical thinking, teaching, research, and leadership skills” is a generic statement that could apply to any residency program. A punchier, more program-specific conclusion would have amped up this letter.
- While the writer does a decent job providing examples of their activities, like working as a tutor and attending the APhA conference, more specificity and detail in these examples would make the statement more memorable.
- There’s a typo in the last paragraph —a “to” that doesn’t belong! This is an unprofessional blip in an otherwise solid letter. Read you own letter of intent aloud to avoid this!
NIU Bad Statement of Purpose Example
This is an ineffective graduate school statement of purpose example, with annotations on why it doesn’t work.
As you might imagine, the main strength in this document is as an example of what not to do. Otherwise, there is little to recommend it.
- The annotations quite clearly detail the weaknesses of this statement. So I won’t address them exhaustively except to point out that this statement of purpose fails at both content and style. The author includes irrelevant anecdotes and lists without offering a decisive picture of interests or any particular insight into the field. Additionally, the statement is riddled with grammatical mistakes, awkward sentence structures, and strange acronyms.
- You’ll note that the commentary advises you to “never start with a quote.” I agree that you should never start with a freestanding quote as in this example. However, I do think starting with a quote is acceptable in cases like the Berkeley history example above, where the quote is brief and then directly linked to the research interest.
Graduate School Statement of Purpose Examples: 4 Key Points
Graduate programs ask for statement of purpose to hear about your interests and goals and why you think you and the program would be a good fit.
There are four key elements to a successful statement of purpose:
- A clear articulation of your goals and interests
- Evidence of past experiences and success
- Interest and fit with the program
- Strong writing
We’ve provided you with four successful statement of purpose samples from our graduate school experts!
We also provided additional statement of purpose samples (and a sample letter of intent) for graduate school from other sources on the internet. Now you have all kinds of guidance!
If you’re looking for more information on graduate school , see our guide to what makes a good GPA for grad school .
Not sure if you need to take the GRE ? See if you can get into graduate school without GRE scores .
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Author: Ellen McCammon
Ellen is a public health graduate student and education expert. She has extensive experience mentoring students of all ages to reach their goals and in-depth knowledge on a variety of health topics. View all posts by Ellen McCammon
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Writing the Statement of Purpose
The statement of purpose should convince the admissions committee that your achievements show promise for your success in graduate study. Think of the statement of purpose as a composition with four different parts.
Make sure to check on the appropriate departmental website to find out if your statement should include additional or specific information.
Part 1: Introduce yourself, your interests and motivations
Tell them what you’re interested in, and perhaps, what sparked your desire for graduate study. This should be short and to the point; don’t spend a great deal of time on autobiography.
Part 2: Summarize your undergraduate and previous graduate career
a) Research you conducted. Indicate with whom, the title of the project, what your responsibilities were, and the outcome. Write technically, or in the style of your discipline. Faculty are the people who read these statements.
b) Important paper or thesis project you completed, as well as anything scholarly beyond your curricular requirements.
c) Work experience, especially if you had any kind of responsibility for testing, designing, researching or interning in an area similar to what you wish to study in graduate school.
Part 3: Discuss the relevance of your recent and current activities
If you graduated and worked prior to returning to graduate school, indicate what you’ve been doing: company or non-profit, your work/design team, responsibilities, what you learned. You can also indicate here how this helped you focus your graduate studies.
Part 4: Elaborate on your academic interests
Here you indicate what you would like to study in graduate school in enough detail to convince the faculty that you understand the scope of research in their discipline, and are engaged with current research themes.
a) Indicate the area of your interests. Ideally, pose a question, define a problem, or indicate a theme that you would like to address, and questions that arise from contemporary research. This should be an ample paragraph!
b) Look on the web for information about departments you’re interested in, including professors and their research. Are there professors whose research interests parallel yours? If so, indicate this. Check the specific program; many may require you to name a professor or professors with whom you might work.
c) End your statement in a positive manner, indicating your excitement and readiness for the challenges ahead of you.
1. What the admissions committee will read between the lines: self-motivation, competence, potential as a graduate student.
2. Emphasize everything from a positive perspective and write in an active, not a passive voice.
3. Demonstrate everything by example; don’t say directly that you’re a persistent person, show it.
4. If there is something important that happened to you that affected your grades, such as poverty, illness, or excessive work, state it. Write it affirmatively, showing your perseverance despite obstacles. You can elaborate more in your personal statement.
5. Make sure everything is linked with continuity and focus.
6. Unless the specific program says otherwise, be concise; an ideal essay should say everything it needs to with brevity. Approximately 500 to 1000 well-selected words (1-2 single space pages in 12 point font) is better than more words with less clarity and poor organization.
Applying to grad school? Here’s what you need to know: Part II
In my last post, I shared my experience with diving into grad school applications, as well as my advice for getting started with the application process. By now, you’ve hopefully decided whether (and why!) you’ll be applying to grad school, and if you are, you’ll have taken the GRE and settled on a few programs that pique your interest. (If not, not to worry – read my previous post on applying to grad school here .) In this post, I’ll share my thoughts on navigating two of the more complex aspects of grad school applications: crafting a statement of purpose (also known as: the longest two pages you’ll ever write) and advocating for yourself throughout the application process (and beyond).
A great statement of purpose will make your application. And while a not-so-great statement of purpose might not break your application, it would be a lost opportunity: the statement of purpose is your chance to convince the admissions committee that you are a good fit for the graduate program they oversee.
The trouble? Writing a convincing statement of purpose is tricky, and it comes naturally to almost no one. When I first tried to write mine, I spent a great deal of time staring at a blank page – writing a few words, only to delete them immediately.
The opening “when I was ten years old…” felt cliché. Plus, my interest in math was less a revelation than it was a snowball effect, made more difficult to ignore with each new, tantalizing piece of information I absorbed (the Fourier transform can decompose sound waves into their constituent parts?!). So pretending that my fifth-grade teacher or a childhood science fair was the singular impetus for my impending commitment to a lifelong career in mathematics seemed dishonest. On the other hand, starting the statement with some variation on “I am excited to apply for the PhD program in math at University X” felt too generic.
In the end, I decided to begin my statement of purpose with, well, a statement of purpose. Without preamble, I laid out my professional goals (they were specific, and somewhat unique) and explained how they had come to be. This opening allowed me to segue into my reasons for applying to each program, and from there, into my research background – two integral components to any statement of purpose.
I say this not to argue that this is the best or only way to structure a statement of purpose – it’s not – but to emphasize the following point: a great essay is always genuine, thoughtful, and specific. Providing unique details about your motivations (think: a story about a memorable encounter with mathematics, rather than a generic “I enjoy problem-solving”) will make for an honest, compelling essay. For more specific advice on crafting a statement of purpose, read this .
If time allows, share your essay with the professors who are writing your recommendation letters – it will allow them to write letters that reflect your strengths as relevant to the programs you’re applying to. And don’t forget to have friends and/or professors edit your essay.
If the prospect of crafting a statement of purpose is overwhelming, remember: at the end of the day, your goal in a grad school application is to communicate that you are prepared, both academically and personally, to do research in the program you’re applying to. That’s it. If you successfully communicate why you’re prepared for a research career in your statement of purpose, you’re well on your way to making a convincing argument for why you should be admitted. And once you are, remember:
You are your own best advocate. You may feel lucky to get into grad school when it happens – and you should! – but remember, too, that whichever graduate program you choose is lucky to have you. Advocate for yourself accordingly, and stick to your boundaries when it comes to work environment, hours, pay, health care, teaching load, and the like. While grad school requires a certain amount of sacrifice and compromise, on the whole, it should support, rather than hinder, your personal life – just like any other job.
Here’s a scenario I hear all the time: “My partner and I applied for all (or many) of the same grad schools, but we were accepted to different ones (on different sides of the country).” Sometimes, I’ll ask whether they communicated this fact to the relevant universities, and more often than not, I get a look of confusion in reply. If you’re accepted to a particular program and your partner isn’t, you can write a polite note to the department informing them of the situation – delicately, of course. Yes, you can – and should!
Graduate school is a significant, long-term commitment that people undertake as fully-fledged adults, often with partners, dependents, and major life considerations (starting a family, caring for parents) in tow. In this respect, it is a far cry from undergrad, and should be approached accordingly. When making the decision about which programs to attend, remember that finding a supportive program and advisor, and communicating your personal and professional goals to them as appropriate, is key. Because ultimately, grad school should be a means to pursuing a fulfilling life and career.
For advice on how to survive – and thrive! – in grad school once you’re in, read my previous post here .
About Susannah Shoemaker
1 response to applying to grad school here’s what you need to know: part ii.
Very nice. When I was in Iran, I used to edit SOP’s for people applying to foreign universities. By far, the main mistake I found in many of them was their “lack of specificity.” Change the candidate’s name and it will just as well be an SOP for anyone else applying to that school! Some more tips on writing an SOP: – Your qualifications are already in your your CV. So, do not include numbers and dates and other details.
– Tell a story rather than having scattered facts. Try to weave all you want to say into a unified piece that has flow. If your paragraphs can be reordered freely, then it is a sign your essay lacks cohesion.
– Decide on an impression you want to make and adjust your language and choice of details accordingly. For instance, you may want to present yourself as an organized and hardworking person than, say, a smart/genius one. Deciding on the personality image you want to convey will really give your essay a soul!
– Include specific details not just about yourself, but also about the department. Let them know that you know them, and that they are not “just another school on your list.”
Good luck 🙂
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Who is Eligible to Apply?
If you have completed your undergraduate degree (bachelor's or equivalent) or will have completed it prior to your intended matriculation date at Yale, you may apply to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS).
A master's degree is not required to apply for a PhD at Yale, although some programs give preference to applicants with post-baccalaureate training. Consult your program of interest directly for information on how it evaluates applications.
We value diversity of all kinds at the Graduate School, and we encourage students from all backgrounds to apply if Yale is a good fit for your intellectual and professional goals. All are welcome to apply, without regard to citizenship or immigration status, socioeconomic level, race, religion, gender identification, sexual orientation, disability, etc.
Requirements for All PhD and Master's Degree Applicants
You will need to provide the following with your application for admission:
- A statement of academic purpose. You will find the prompt for the statement of purpose in our Application Question FAQs .
- A list of all the prior colleges or universities you have attended, accompanied by unofficial transcripts from each school. Unofficial transcripts should be uploaded with your application. Official or paper transcripts are not needed at this time.
- Three letters of recommendation. Enter the names of your recommenders directly in the application, and they will receive a link to upload a letter on your behalf.
- $105 application fee or fee waiver.
- Standardized tests . GRE requirements vary by program. TOEFL or IELTS are necessary for most non-native English speakers.
- Resume/CV .
- Some programs have additional requirements, such as a writing sample . You can find information about any specific requirements on the program's website.
Where Do I Begin?
Decide if you will apply for a PhD or a terminal Master’s (MA, MS) in one of the programs available at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences . (Note that you will earn one or more Master's degrees en route to a PhD) Learn about the program: its faculty, course offerings, and resources. Read the faculty's research publications. If you can identify and articulate why the program is a good fit for you and show how your preparation and interests align well with it, you will have a strong application.
A note to students applying to one of Yale’s professional schools or programs:
- If you are applying for a PhD in Architecture, Environment, Investigative Medicine, Law, Management, Music, Nursing, or Public Health, or for an MS in Public Health, or an MA in Music, be sure to use the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences PhD/Master's application.
- If you are applying for any other degree at one of the University’s professional schools (Art, Architecture, Divinity, Drama, Environment, Global Affairs, Law, Management, Medicine, Music, Nursing, and Public Health), visit that school’s website for further instructions. Those programs have separate admissions policies and processes that are administered by the professional schools, not GSAS.
Application deadlines vary by program, so please see Dates and Deadlines for information about your program of interest.
All new students enroll in the fall, and the admissions process begins nearly a year in advance of matriculation.
Some PhD and Master’s degree programs require Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores. Check your program's standardized testing requirement before you apply.
In addition, applicants whose native language is not English may need to take an English Language test (TOEFL or IELTS).
The application for Fall 2024 entry is now available.
Be sure to complete and submit the application before your program's application deadline.
Your application fee or an approved fee waiver, is due upon submission of your application.
Your letters of recommendation do not need to be received before you will be able to submit your application. However, since programs begin reviewing applications shortly after the respective application deadline, please be sure that your letters of recommendation are submitted promptly.
What Happens After I Submit My Application?
The faculty admissions committee in each department and program begins reviewing applications shortly after their application deadline. Led by the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) or Director of Graduate Admissions (DGA), the committee will recommend students for admission to the Graduate School. Once confirmed by the deans of the Graduate School, the admissions office will release final decisions to applicants.
Unlike undergraduate admissions, the admissions office and staff of the Graduate School maintain the application, the application process, and other administrative transactions, but the admissions staff does not review applications or make admissions decisions. That responsibility is handled by the faculty of each department or program.
Most admissions decisions are provided between February and early March. You will receive an email notification when your admissions decision is available.
If you are accepted for admission, you will need to decide if you wish to accept our offer by April 15. We abide by Council of Graduate School's April 15 Resolution , regarding graduate financial support.
Ready to apply? Begin your application today.
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How to Write a Statement of Purpose for Graduate School
When writing your statement of purpose for graduate school, focus on your specific plans and how the graduate program and its faculty will help you meet these goals. Graduate study is not for slackers. It takes focus and determination to pursue an advanced degree. That's why admissions committees examine your statement of purpose (also called a letter of intent or research statement) very closely—they want to see whether you have the right stuff to succeed in grad school. Follow these tips to write an effective graduate school statement of purpose.
1. Know what grad schools are really asking.
Different grad school programs have different prompts. Nonetheless, they're all asking for the same four pieces of information:
- What you want to study at graduate school?
- Why you want to study it?
- What experience you have in your field?
- What you plan to do with your degree once you have it?
Admissions committees look for candidates with clear, well-defined research interests that arise from experience. With that in mind, your statement of purpose should reveal that you care deeply about your chosen discipline and that you have the background to support your ideas and sentiments. It should also demonstrate that you're a diligent student who will remain committed for the long haul. Always answer the question asked of you. Being substantive and direct is much better than being creative or flashy.
2. Be selective about the details you include.
Grad schools don’t care that you make a great chicken casserole or play intramural bocce ball. They do care about those activities that speak to your suitability for graduate work. As a graduate student, you'll be called upon to do difficult coursework and research. You may have to teach undergraduate classes within your field and conceivably even design a course. And you'll have to get along with a diverse group of colleagues who will sometimes work very closely with you. Any experience in school, work, or your extracurricular life that speaks to those abilities is worth talking about.
Read More: 5 Tips for Choosing a Grad School
3. Make your statement of purpose unique.
While it's important to be focused, there's no need to be boring. To distinguish your essay, add unique (yet relevant) information. One of the best ways to do this is to discuss—briefly—an idea in your field that turns you on intellectually. It's an effective essay-opener, and it lets you write about something besides yourself for a bit.
Remember, the idea you choose to talk about can tell an admissions committee a lot about you. And it demonstrates your interest in your field, rather than just describing it.
4. Ask for feedback.
Be sure to show your statement of purpose to someone you respect, preferably the professors who are writing your recommendations, and get some feedback on the content before you send it in. Have someone else proofread your essay for spelling and grammar. A fresh set of eyes often picks up something you missed.
Finally, don't just reuse the same statement of purpose for each school to which you apply. You can recycle the same information, but make sure you change the presentation to fit each individual program.
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How to Write a Statement of Purpose for Graduate School
Congrats! You’ve chosen a graduate program , read up on tips for applying to grad school , and even wrote a focused grad school resumé . But if you’re like many students, you’ve left the most daunting part of the application process for last—writing a statement of purpose. The good news is, the task doesn’t have to feel so overwhelming, as long as you break the process down into simple, actionable steps. Below, learn how to write a strong, unique statement of purpose that will impress admissions committees and increase your chances of getting into your dream school.
What is a statement of purpose?
A statement of purpose (SOP), sometimes referred to as a personal statement, is a critical piece of a graduate school application that tells admissions committees who you are, what your academic and professional interests are, and how you’ll add value to the graduate program you’re applying to.
Jared Pierce, associate director of enrollment services at Northeastern University, says a strong statement of purpose can be the deciding factor in a graduate student’s admission.
“Your statement of purpose is where you tell your story about who you are and why you deserve to be a part of the [university’s] community. It gives the admissions committee the chance to get to know you and understand how you’ll add value to the classroom,” he says.
How long is a statement of purpose?
“A statement of purpose should be between 500 and 1,000 words,” Pierce says, noting that it should typically not exceed a single page. He advises that students use a traditional font at a readable size (11- or 12-pt) and leave enough whitespace in the margins to make the statement easy-to-read. Make sure to double-space the statement if the university has requested it, he adds.
Interested in learning more about Northeastern’s graduate programs?
Get your questions answered by our enrollment team.
How to Write a Statement of Purpose: A Step-by-Step Guide
Now that you understand how to format a statement of purpose, you can begin drafting your own. Getting started can feel daunting, but Pierce suggests making the process more manageable by breaking down the writing process into four easy steps.
1. Brainstorm your ideas.
First, he says, try to reframe the task at hand and get excited for the opportunity to write your statement of purpose. He explains:
“Throughout the application process, you’re afforded few opportunities to address the committee directly. Here is your chance to truly speak directly to them. Each student arrives at this process with a unique story, including prior jobs, volunteer experience, or undergraduate studies. Think about what makes you you and start outlining.”
When writing your statement of purpose, he suggests asking yourself these key questions:
- Why do I want this degree?
- What are my expectations for this degree?
- What courses or program features excite me the most?
- Where do I want this degree to take me, professionally and personally?
- How will my unique professional and personal experiences add value to the program?
Jot these responses down to get your initial thoughts on paper. This will act as your starting point that you’ll use to create an outline and your first draft.
2. Develop an outline.
Next, you’ll want to take the ideas that you’ve identified during the brainstorming process and plug them into an outline that will guide your writing.
An effective outline for your statement of purpose might look something like this:
- An attention-grabbing hook
- A brief introduction of yourself and your background as it relates to your motivation behind applying to graduate school
- Your professional goals as they relate to the program you’re applying to
- Why you’re interested in the specific school and what you can bring to the table
- A brief summary of the information presented in the body that emphasizes your qualifications and compatibility with the school
An outline like the one above will give you a roadmap to follow so that your statement of purpose is well-organized and concise.
3. Write the first draft.
Your statement of purpose should communicate who you are and why you are interested in a particular program, but it also needs to be positioned in a way that differentiates you from other applicants.
Admissions professionals already have your transcripts, resumé, and test scores; the statement of purpose is your chance to tell your story in your own words.
When you begin drafting content, make sure to:
- Provide insight into what drives you , whether that’s professional advancement, personal growth, or both.
- Demonstrate your interest in the school by addressing the unique features of the program that interest you most. For Northeastern, he says, maybe it’s experiential learning; you’re excited to tackle real-world projects in your desired industry. Or perhaps it’s learning from faculty who are experts in your field of study.
- Be yourself. It helps to keep your audience in mind while writing, but don’t forget to let your personality shine through. It’s important to be authentic when writing your statement to show the admissions committee who you are and why your unique perspective will add value to the program.
4. Edit and refine your work.
Before you submit your statement of purpose:
- Make sure you’ve followed all directions thoroughly , including requirements about margins, spacing, and font size.
- Proofread carefully for grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
- Remember that a statement of purpose should be between 500 and 1,000 words. If you’ve written far more than this, read through your statement again and edit for clarity and conciseness. Less is often more; articulate your main points strongly and get rid of any “clutter.”
- Walk away and come back later with a fresh set of eyes. Sometimes your best ideas come when you’re not sitting and staring at your computer.
- Ask someone you trust to read your statement before you submit it.
Making a Lasting Impression
Your statement of purpose can leave a lasting impression if done well, Pierce says. It provides you with the opportunity to highlight your unique background and skills so that admissions professionals understand why you’re the ideal candidate for the program that you’re applying to. If nothing else, stay focused on what you uniquely bring to the classroom, the program, and the campus community. If you do that, you’ll excel.
To learn more tricks and tips for submitting an impressive graduate school application, explore our related Grad School Success articles .
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in March 2017. It has since been updated for thoroughness and accuracy.
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What is a Statement of Purpose?
The statement of purpose for graduate school should be between 1-2 pages long. Graduate committee members read your statement as part of your overall package. When a graduate committee member reads your statement they also have a copy of your transcript, perhaps your resume, and GRE scores. The statement should be viewed as a way to present some of your experiences that do not appear on your transcripts or to expand on some item on your resume. If you have poor grades in some courses, you could use the statement to explain why this occurred. If there was a gap in your education, this should also be explained. If you have a research and/or teaching experience then you should use the statement of purpose to give some detail about your research experience. This gives you the opportunity to discuss mathematics or statistics so that the reader gets the sense that
- you have some deeper understanding of a topic and
- you can communicate mathematical or statistical ideas.
Your statement of purpose should not rehash items that can be obtained from your transcripts or your resume. The statement of purpose should convince the reader that you are knowledgeable about undergraduate mathematics or statistics and that you have given some thought to your career path towards the doctorate. The statement should also give confidence that you will succeed in a graduate program.
Students will apply to more than one graduate school. Typically students apply to about seven programs. Students should consider writing their statement of purpose and leaving room in the statement to personalize it for each of the institutions where it is to be sent. Students should look up the webpage for the department, look at the research areas and the faculty, and comment on some aspect of that webpage.
In preparation for writing this statement of purpose, students should meet with their advisors and have the advisor look over the statement of purpose before it is sent out.