What’s a Good Statement of Purpose?

Your application to any graduate program at the School of Education requires you to submit a statement of purpose.  We attach great importance to the statement.  A thoughtful and well-written statement often makes the difference between admission and denial.  But applicants frequently fail to do justice to themselves in statements of purpose. Here are a few tips to help you to make your best effort.

      •  Your statement should clearly have the purpose it’s supposed to have
        The statement should be narrowly focused on convincing the intended reader – i.e., a professor who teaches in the program to which you are applying – that you have a serious and well-considered purpose in applying to that program.  A compelling statement will convince the reader  that you are the kind of student likely to thrive in the program to which you are admitted and who would contribute to (and not merely benefit from) our academic community.
      • A statement of purpose is not a narrative of your accomplishments.
        The statement of purpose is usually the only part of the applicant’s file where one can find strong evidence of whether the program will really mesh with the applicant’s interests and ambitions.  If you devote the statement to a list of the things the great things you have done, then you will merely exasperate the reader.
      • Your statement should be the right length.
        Succinctness is a virtue in academic as in other writing.  When your file is being read by members of the faculty, they will be reading it alongside many other files, and they will typically be reading under severe time constraints. We highly recommend sticking to a two page limit.
      • Make absolutely sure that your statement contains no misspellings, grammatical or factual errors, and that your prose is as lucid as you can possibly make it.
        Your readers will reasonably expect that your statement is an example of your writing at its very best. Poor writing and factual errors are very strong evidence that you are not yet ready for graduate school.
      • A statement of purpose for a doctoral program is different than one for a master’s program.
        A master’s program is not inferior to a doctoral program; it is merely different.  Therefore, it would be wrong to infer that standards for a statement of purpose in an application to a doctoral program are higher than the standards applicable to master’s applications.  But the standards are certainly different.An excellent statement of purpose for a master’s program might or might not indicate any particular research topic that the student wishes to pursue in the program.  Being unclear about these matters is not inappropriate when one is applying to a broadly focused master’s program. But being unclear about them would certainly be a liability in a doctoral application.  Academic programs are more intensively specialized at the doctoral level, and a corresponding degree of specialization and precision in the way applicants specify their academic purposes is reasonably expected.  Evidence of your familiarity with the educational research currently under way at the School of Education is probably a good thing to see in any statement of purpose, even at the master’s level.  But in a doctoral application, it is extremely important to show that your interests converge closely with the current research of faculty who work in the program to which you are applying.  Other doctoral applicants will certainly do this, and if you don’t, you will forfeit an important competitive advantage to them.
      • Your statement should be tailored to the particular institution to which you are applying
        A few sentences that address why you are applying to this institution in particular can be very helpful. A student’s application might be quite strong overall without making it clear to the reader why Stanford in particular would be an excellent fit for the student, as opposed to some other institution to which the he or she has applied. A statement of purpose can stand out by addressing that question directly and persuasively.


Adapted from “What’s a Good Statement of Purpose?” by Professor Eamonn Callan, Associate Dean for Academic Services.




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