The Ultimate Guide to Writing Your Graduate School Statement of Purpose

Timeless Strategies to Conquer Your Essay, Stand Out, and Get Into Your Dream Doctorate or Master's Program

Graduate School Statement of Purpose Shemmassian Academic Consulting.jpg

----

Part 1: Introduction

You know you’re cut out for grad school. You’ve likely spent countless hours in lab trying to get your experiments to work or given up weekends and fun with friends to dig through archives for your thesis project. You may have even presented your work at conferences and left feeling more excited than ever about your work.

Your graduate education will serve as the next step toward your dream career, regardless of whether your goal is to become a professor, get a fancy position in industry, or work for the government.

Unfortunately, applying to graduate school can be a daunting task. Whether you’re still in school, working, or both, it’s hard to muster the time and focus to sit down and get started on your applications. And even when you do get around to it, you might not know where to start. How do you actually translate years of education and hard work in a field into a standout application? What accomplishments do you choose to highlight in your statement of purpose? How do you write the kind of statement of purpose that will get you into your dream school?

----

Part 2: What is a Statement of Purpose?

A statement of purpose is an essay that summarizes your past work and preparation for graduate studies. It lays out your most important experiences (e.g., jobs, internships, apprenticeships, teaching) and accomplishments (e.g., publications, presentations, grants, exhibitions, speaking engagements) with the goal of getting you into your first-choice graduate program.

Whereas strong grades and test scores are the foundation of your application and are necessary to be considered at top programs, your experiences are what set you apart. Therefore, the goal with your statement of purpose is to organize and present your academic journey in a way that convinces the top institutions’ admissions committees that you are perfect for their program.

Regardless of the specific statement of purpose prompts you encounter, the central question is the same: Why you for our graduate program in this field?

To expand, your statement of purpose should argue the following:

  • Why you want to go to graduate school
  • How you’ve prepared for graduate studies
  • What field and specific area you intend to study and why (e.g., Ph.D. in History with a focus on the American Revolution)
  • Why you’ve chosen University of X for your studies (e.g., specific offerings, resources, faculty)

How is a personal statement different from a statement of purpose?

Although most graduate programs require a statement of purpose, a few will ask for a personal statement instead, yet some schools will request both.

A statement of purpose places a narrative to your achievements to demonstrate that you have prepared for success in your graduate studies. On the other hand, a personal statement draws from your personal and professional experiences to explain how you have come to the decision to pursue a graduate education in your field of interest. In addition, your personal statement can be used to give admissions committees a sense of who you are as a person, including any obstacles you’ve had to overcome, explanations of your less-than-ideal academic record, and contributions you’ve made to your community.

If you are asked for a statement of purpose and personal statement, you should reserve information about your personal journey and hardships for your personal statement and discuss career-related experiences and academic accomplishments in your statement of purpose.

(Note: If you’ve written a statement of purpose, you can easily modify it into a personal statement for programs and fellowships that ask for one and not the other. This modification process is covered in a special section, below.)

What is the admissions committee looking for in a potential graduate student?

Before we get into our step-by-step approach to writing a standout graduate school statement of purpose, let’s discuss what admissions committees are looking for so that you’ll have an easier time writing a compelling essay.

Graduate schools want to admit students who have exhibited a history of determination, self-motivation and passion for their intended field of study. Sound like you? Thought so.

The key word here is exhibited. In other words, you’ll want to draw from your experiences and accomplishments to highlight the aforementioned attributes through your essay.

Here’s a quick cheat-sheet on how to demonstrate the qualities graduate programs are looking for:

  • History of determination: Experiences in your field that have lasted 1+ year(s)
  • Self-motivation: Internships, funding, and presentations that you independently and successfully pursued
  • Passion: A discussion of how you decided on your field of interest (in your intro) and the specific area you’d like to study during your graduate career (in the conclusion)

In addition, below is a summary of what you’ll be critiqued for:

  • How clearly you present your experiences and accomplishments to display your fitness for their program
  • Whether your statement of purpose makes a coherent and concise argument that you are the kind of graduate student they are looking for
  • Your writing skills (i.e., formal and respectful in tone, proper grammar and punctuation, and easy-to-follow argument presented through your experiences on how you arrived at the decision to pursue graduate studies in your field of interest)

The role of your statement of purpose in your overall application

Your statement of purpose offers a unique opportunity to develop a narrative to your experiences and make a compelling case for your admission to various programs. Therefore, make sure to highlight only your most important achievements, insights, and mentors to present yourself as a cohesive package to admissions committees.

What do we mean by a cohesive package? If you’ve had a standout experience (e.g., you’ve worked in a great scientist’s laboratory, you’ve worked for the Gates Foundation, or you’ve taught in an inner-city school), then aside from mentioning it in your statement of purpose, you should have a letter of recommendation for that experience and it should be mentioned in your CV. By making connections across the various components of your application, you’ll reinforce the meaningfulness and importance of your experiences. Moreover, overtly repeating your qualities and achievements throughout your application will influence how your admissions reviewer will think about and remember you.

Therefore, the unique role of your statement of purpose is to draw from the experiences you mention in other parts of your application (e.g., your CV) and use these experiences to provide key insights about you. For example, say you were a botany major who spent 3 years conducting research in the same laboratory, 4 years volunteering at the local botanical garden, and consulting for the Sierra Club on and off since obtaining your undergraduate degree 2 years ago. On paper, you seem like a dedicated applicant with all those years of hard work at the same three places. How do you humbly reinforce your dedication in your statement of purpose using all three of these experiences?

First, be sure to mention the number of years you devoted to each experience and mention any accomplishments within the experience (e.g., presentations you gave, funding goals you reached, events you organized). Next, obtain a letter of recommendation from your supervisor or mentor for each experience, and be sure they explicitly highlight your dedication and the accomplishments you mention in your statement of purpose. Lastly, be sure to quantify your accomplishments whenever possible within your statement of purpose and on your CV (e.g., Botanical garden volunteer: Fundraised over $3,000 for garden outreach program; Organized K-12 field-trip event).

Your goal in developing a cohesive application is simple: Make it easy for the admissions committee reviewer to notice important achievements across your statement of purpose, CV and recommendation letters. By reinforcing your dedication through your experiences and accomplishments, you’ll give the admissions committee reviewer confidence that you will thrive in their graduate program.

----

----

Part 3: Preparing to Write

(Note: We strongly encourage you to update your CV before you begin writing to ensure that the dates and details you discuss in your statement of purpose are sorted out.)

A little bit of preparation before you write will make the drafting process a lot easier. Recall that the statement of purpose should put a narrative to the accomplishments on your CV that supports your decision to pursue graduate studies.

To best prepare, first jot down dates and details of each activity (e.g., research apprenticeship, job) along with associated accomplishments (e.g., publication, presentation), and figure out which qualities of the ideal graduate student are exhibited through your various experiences.

Here are some qualities to consider demonstrating:

  • Dedicated
  • Perseverant
  • Collaborative
  • Good mentor
  • Independent
  • Self-motivated
  • Audacious
  • Creative
  • Strong interpersonal skills
  • Clearly communicates complex material

Often, not all experiences or details will make it into your statement of purpose (more on which experiences to include in a moment), but having it all in one place can really help you get your brain juices flowing.

Alternatively, you can simply take a red pen to your CV and write down some comments next to each accomplishment by answering the following questions:

  • What did you learn from this experience?
  • Did you get to apply yourself in this opportunity to go above and beyond? If so, how?
  • Did you get to make a presentation, publish, or obtain funding through this experience?
  • Did this experience contribute to your decision to go to graduate school? If so, how?
  • What does this experience say about who you are? Is this something you want to share with the admissions committee?

What should you use from your CV in your statement of purpose?

Simply put, you want to choose experiences and accomplishments that display you are a determined, self-motivated individual with a passion for their field of interest.

Experiences to consider including:

  • Research assistantships
  • Jobs
  • Volunteering
  • Internships

(Note: The earliest experiences should be from when you were an undergraduate and onward to the present day. You can include pivotal experiences from before college on your CV, but unless they have been incredibly influential (e.g., high school internship at a university laboratory), save the space for more recent experiences.)

Accomplishments to consider including:

  • Publications
  • Presentations
  • Funding (fellowship, grants, travel grants, scholarships)
  • Exhibitions
  • Fundraising
  • Invited speaker or panelist

Ideally, your listed experiences should be multi-year and within your field of interest. Still, you can boost the importance of shorter experiences like a summer internship by discussing achievements you made during that short period of time, such as particularly strong results, a resulting presentation, or pitching a novel idea that was used by the institution/company.

For each experience you include in your statement of purpose, you’ll have to discuss the following:

  • A short description of what you did
  • How long you did it
  • Why you did it (not always necessary but can be used as a transition in between experiences)
  • What you learned from it
  • Any accomplishments that came out of it, such as results, publications, exhibitions, grants, presentations, fundraising, etc.

The accomplishments you present within each experience will not only validate your experience and make it seem more impressive, but can also be used to display your fit for graduate studies. For instance, let’s say you’re applying to a graduate program in Environmental Ecology and you’ve spent the majority of your undergraduate years working on a thesis project investigating the effects of DTT contamination on bird populations in California’s Sierra Mountains. During this time you presented your work at two local conferences and one national conference. You also co-authored a study, mentored a student over the summer, and received the Dean’s award for your thesis project. You definitely want to mention all of that! (We’ll be reviewing examples of strong experience descriptions in Part 4: Writing Your Statement of Purpose, below.)

What shouldn’t you include in your statement of purpose?

1. Unnecessary personal details

What do we mean by personal? Don’t share that you’ve been interested in history since your parents took you to see some Greek ruins as a child and now you want to study European History. Moreover, you should probably exclude sharing an overwhelming hardship that led you to want to pursue graduate studies in, for example, Chemical Biology. These details would be more appropriate for a personal statement, and are neither professional enough nor necessary for a statement of purpose.

There is, however, one exception: If you have changed careers to pursue your field of interest, you should discuss this. For example, let’s say your first undergraduate degree is in Education, and you discovered your interest in science while working as a teacher. Hence, you went back to school for a second undergraduate degree in Physics. This is a personal detail you’ll want to include because the admissions committee will wonder why you have two undergraduate degrees. You can do so subtly by explaining what you learned from your previous degree and how you’ve applied it to your current work.

(Note: some schools will offer an additional section to explain personal circumstances. If you’re given the opportunity to discuss personal details elsewhere, use it, making sure to focus your statement of purpose on why you want to go to graduate school.)

2. Hobbies and inapplicable extracurricular activities

Your hobbies (e.g., art, cooking, skiing, biking) should most certainly not be included in your statement of purpose. A few schools ask additional questions regarding your hobbies on the application. Feel free to include them there.

On the other hand, extracurricular activities such as volunteering or mentoring can be included if they are associated with your field of interest. For example, if you’re applying to a Ph.D. program in Education and you’ve volunteered in a classroom or served as a mentor for a high school student, then definitely include that, especially if you’ve been doing it for a while and it has contributed to your decision to pursue graduate studies. If a school is asking for both a personal statement and a statement of purpose, then such an experience can be included in either.

The ultimate outline for your statement of purpose

Once you’ve gone over your CV and picked out the experiences and accomplishments to highlight, the most tedious part is done. The one final step to complete before you begin writing is putting together an outline.

The skeleton of a strong statement of purpose is straightforward, as follows:

  1. Introduction: State intention to pursue graduate education
  2. The undergraduate experience that initially sparked your interest in the field and how you got into conducting research, creating, etc.
  3. Experience 1: Include description, mention accomplishments A, B, and C, and any insights or lessons learned
  4. Experience 2: Include description, mention accomplishments D and E, and any insights or lessons learned
  5. Experience 3: Include description, mention accomplishments F, G, H, and I, and any insights or lessons learned
  6. Mention area within field of interest you will focus on during graduate school. Why University of X? What programs and which faculty’s mentorship interests you?
  7. What will you do with your graduate degree?

Once you build more detail into this skeleton, your outline should resemble something like this example:

  1. Introduction: I want to study basic biology with an emphasis on pharmacology because understanding the mechanisms of interaction between small molecules/chemicals and proteins fascinates me.
  2. Mention the class that introduced me to pharmacology and microbiology, what about it interested me, and how I approached the graduate student teaching the lab section for a research opportunity.
  3. Undergraduate research opportunity 1 (3 years)
    1. Describe the research question, technique, and any findings
    2. Mention presentation at annual meeting
    3. Mention publication
    4. Any insights or lessons learned (e.g., Enjoyed independence in designing my own experiments)
    5. Transition: curiosity in experiencing a different research environment
  4. Summer Internship at (Amgen)
    1. Description of the project I contributed to
    2. Got me interested in application of basic biology to drug development
    3. Transition: wanted to further explore research environment and interest in pharmacology, but this time apply it to a new organism
  5. Research Position at Harvard after college (2 years)
    1. Describe the research question, technique, and any findings
    2. Mention that I worked on multiple projects along with my own independent project
    3. Mention I presented my work at multiple meetings (local and national)
    4. Mention publications
    5. Transition: Work proved my passion for pharmacology and microbiology
  6. What will my Ph.D. be in?
    1. Begin with: “After working on therapeutic applications of microbial biology, I have decided to pursue the field from a basic science standpoint.”
    2. Ph.D. program in basic biology and pharmacology
    3. Customized bit on professors I’m interested in working with at specific school
    4. Conclude with the future!
    5. I’d like to attend graduate school so I can become a great scientist and continue conducting excellent scientific research in academia

----

----

Part 4: Writing Your Statement of Purpose

Once you have an outline containing all the details you want to include in your statement of purpose, it’s time to write everything out.

The Introduction

Your statement of purpose should initially introduce a theme or reason that will tie your separate accomplishments together and present a logical argument for why you have decided to attend graduate school. A theme could be an academic interest that ties your experiences together (e.g., Russian history, particle physics, microbiology), or a general concept you’re interested in (e.g., size scales, human interaction, efficiency). It is best to keep this short and to the point. Simply state what you’re interested in and what made you want to go to graduate school. To reiterate, you want to keep this discussion formal and not get overly personal.

Example (Continued from outline):

I am fascinated with understanding the molecular mechanisms of disease and with exploring interactions between chemicals and proteins in the cell. My past experiences exploring basic biology in microorganisms have helped me gain an appreciation for applying basic science to disease research. My ambition to continue learning new skills, exploring the scientific method, and learning more about the molecular world has resulted in my decision to pursue a doctorate in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program with an emphasis in Pharmacology at Harvard University.

Backing up your introduction with your experiences and accomplishments

Now for the meat of your statement of purpose: the experiences that led you to graduate studies. This section needs to make a logical argument as to why you are a good fit for the graduate program, as well as apply a clear and seamless narrative to your accomplishments.

How do you make a logical argument for graduate studies? Let’s say that you mention wanting to study X in your introduction. When presenting each experience, you note how it has prepared you to study X by helping you experience one of the attributes of an exemplary graduate student: determination, competence, self-motivation, passion, independence, etc.

But rather than simply stating your independence, for example, you should note any accomplishments that display your independence. For instance, if you funded your own research through a grant or fellowship, make sure to weave that detail into your experience discussion.

Example:

In order to support the expenses associated with my research, I applied for and was awarded a small grant from the California History Museum.

This one short sentence shows the reader that you are independent enough to seek your own funding and that you have experience writing grants and securing funding (very useful in graduate school and beyond). Who wouldn’t want to admit a student like that?

To demonstrate passion for your field, be sure to note how your interest developed and how you will use each university’s unique opportunities to pursue it. For example:

After working on therapeutic applications of microbial biology, I have decided to pursue the field from a basic science standpoint. As a Ph.D. student, I aim to study the molecular mechanisms that are involved in disease states of microorganisms. I am particularly excited by Dr. Dale Heart’s work on the mechanism of the switch made by Histoplasma capsulatum from the filamentous soil form to the pathogenic yeast form.

Although there are multiple ways to demonstrate passion throughout your statement of purpose, it helps to always take an enthusiastic tone when writing about your experiences. Don’t mention anything negative in your statement of purpose, such as a poor mentor, a graduate student who mistreated you, or a nasty grant application reviewer. In addition, don’t badmouth any collaborators, as it reflects poorly on you and the collaborator may even have a relationship with the individuals reviewing your application. You also shouldn’t complain about applying a faulty method to your experiments or creations. And of course, you don’t want to complain about difficulties with your work that might show you are not committed and easily give up. Just stay positive and share your excitement for the journey that led you to graduate school.

How do you apply a narrative to your statement of purpose?

This is a slightly more difficult task for a statement of purpose vs. a personal statement.

Narrative in a statement of purpose is achieved by incorporating reflections on your accomplishments and using clear transitions to logically string together the various experiences listed on your CV. 

For example, if you apply a narrative structure to paragraph 4 from the outline above—“Summer internship at Amgen”—you could end up with the following paragraph:

In order to experience applied research, I held a summer internship at Amgen, where I worked on a protein involved in cancer metastasis. Through this experience, I learned the process by which basic science is used to understand the molecular biology of cancer and, along with chemistry and pharmacology, how this knowledge can be applied to create a drug. At the end of my internship, I presented my findings to the Amgen scientists. I enjoyed studying the basic biology involved in early-phase drug discovery and the application of chemistry and pharmacology to translating basic science into a pharmaceutical application. Thus, I decided to further explore this strategy after college and learn more about infectious diseases in an academic setting, which led to my current position in Dr. Anna Smith’s Lab at Harvard University as a Research Associate.

In this example, the student was able to support their passion for their field of interest and display independence by noting a presentation at the end of the internship. Moreover, by explaining her reasoning for moving from one experience to the next, the applicant developed a narrative that connected her summer internship at Amgen with her research associate position at Harvard, which she’ll transition to discussing in the following paragraph.

(A quick note on industry experience: Most of the time, you are bound by contract to not disclose detailed information about your project. If this is the case, still provide a description of the project without mentioning important details. Most industry mentors will help you come up with a general description of your work that doesn’t give away any secrets. Note how blanket terms were used in the previous example to ensure that no actual drug names or molecular targets were mentioned. Yet, the reader can understand the work’s general goal.)

The ending: What are your academic interests?  What will you do in the future with a Ph.D.?

By the time you get to the end of your statement of purpose, you will have reasoned that you are a capable and driven person who is ready to pursue graduate studies. Now it’s time to convince the admissions committee to accept you into their specific program.

The conclusion of your statement of purpose should contain two paragraphs:

  1. A discussion of your academic interests and specific professors and programs that draw you to a particular institution
  2. A discussion of what you intend to do beyond graduate school

The second-to-last paragraph should specifically state what you are interested in working on during your graduate studies. You’ll need to do some research about departmental or program-associated professors at a given university with whom you’d like to work, as well as mention some areas the program excels in and how those fit with your educational goals.

To make things easier when applying to multiple schools, you can keep the general field of interest (e.g., Colonial History, Microbiology, American Literature, etc.) the same across all of your statements and customize the professors and the specific topics (e.g., Colonial History of Haiti during a certain period, Microbiology of Histoplasma, American Literature during the Gilded Age) for each school.

The second-to-last paragraph should answer the following questions:

  • What are your academic interests?
    • This should be more specific than what you stated in your introduction. For example, instead of merely stating that you have an interest in history, explicitly mention which era of history in which specific country or region.
  • How will you explore your interests at the school you are applying to?
    • For example, the school may offer the best education in an important technique in your field (e.g., leading experts in CRISPR, on-site cyclotron, etc.).
  • Are there any specific professors whose work you are interested in? What about their work interests you/applies to your academic interest?
    • Name names and keep it short. For example: I am intrigued by the work of Dr. Mark Zane on excited state dynamics of biological molecules.

In the very last paragraph, you can get a bit cheesy. You’ll want to state what you intend do beyond graduate school, make a broad statement about your reasons for attending, and reiterate your passion for your field of interest. If you chose a theme in your intro, end with that. It doesn’t have to be long, but it should leave the reader with a personal connection to you regarding your shared field of interest.

(A note on mentioning future endeavors: Unfortunately, there exists a general bias within academia when it comes to the future endeavors of graduate students. Most of the time, the people reviewing your application are academics and want to train future academics. If you want to apply your Ph.D. to a career in academia, then state so. If you want to apply your degree to industry and you’re applying to a school that reveres academia (you can usually tell by just asking around), then keep your career aspirations more general. For example, if you’re applying to a science-based graduate program, say you’ll apply your degree toward becoming a better scientist, and be sure to go along with this during your interview.)

In either of these two paragraphs, you should mention the name of the school you are applying to. And remember to change the institution’s name for each application! Moreover, you want to “show” the school that you’ve put some thought into why you are applying to spend 4-7+ years at their institution. Here’s an example of personalization in the second-to-last paragraph:

As a graduate student in Berkeley’s History Department, I would be interested in working with Dr. Dana Sil to explore peace and conflict in the Middle East.

And here’s an example of personalization in the very last paragraph:

A well-rounded program such as the Molecular Cell Biology Program at Harvard University would be the ideal place for me to train and continue my exploration into the molecular world.

A full-length sample statement of purpose

Below is an example of a full-length statement of purpose based on the outline presented earlier.

I am fascinated with understanding the molecular mechanisms of disease and with exploring interactions between chemicals and proteins in the cell. My past experiences exploring basic biology in microorganisms have helped me gain an appreciation for applying basic science to disease research. My ambition to continue learning new skills, exploring the scientific method, and learning more about the molecular world has resulted in my decision to pursue a doctorate in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program with an emphasis in Pharmacology at Harvard University.

While at the University of California, San Diego, I completed a double major in Molecular Cellular Biology (MCB) and Pharmacology. With Pharmacology, I sought a molecular explanation for the chemical and disease interface, while with MCB I delved deeper into understanding the basic biology that supports life. I first considered academic research after taking a class with Dr. Ray Goodman on Microbiology because I enjoyed the laboratory portion of the class and working with various organisms. After the class ended, I asked Dr. Goodman’s graduate student, Lana Garcia, for an opportunity to work with her on the molecular mechanism of biofilm formation in Streptococcus pneumoniae.

S. pneumonia is a Gram positive, facultative anaerobic bacterium that grows in biofilms and can lead to deadly infections in children and the elderly. For three years, I worked with Lana to uncover the key molecular players that regulate S. pneumonia biofilm formation using genetic knockouts and a novel biofilm formation assay that I helped design. Our work resulted in the identification of Hdp1, a protein found in the cell wall, as a key component of biofilm formation. The work was published in the September 2014 issue of Cell. I had the opportunity to present findings at the American Society for Microbiology’s (ASM) Annual Meeting in 2014 and at a few local conferences. In order to support the expenses associated with my research, I applied for and was awarded ASM’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship along with several travel grants. I enjoyed the independence I was given to conduct research and design experiments, but I was curious about the application of basic science findings to drug design in a corporate setting.

In order to experience applied research, I held a summer internship at Amgen, where I worked on a protein involved in cancer metastasis. Through this experience, I learned the process by which basic science is used to understand the molecular biology of cancer and, along with chemistry and pharmacology, how this knowledge can be applied to create a drug. At the end of my internship, I presented my findings to the Amgen scientists. I enjoyed studying the basic biology involved in early-phase drug discovery and the application of chemistry and pharmacology to translating basic science into a pharmaceutical application. Thus, I decided to further explore this strategy after college and learn more about infectious diseases in an academic setting, which led to my current position in Dr. Anna Smith’s Lab at Harvard University as a Research Associate.

For the past two years, I have been working on an independent research project in Dr. Smith’s lab where I am applying high-throughput drug screens to identify new drugs for Coccidioides immitis, the fungus that causes Valley fever. My efforts have resulted in the identification of a new drug, and with the application of genetic and biochemical methods, I have identified the biofilm-inducing gene Xdt3 as the drug target. I am currently preparing a manuscript for publication. I have also contributed to multiple other projects in the lab involving the basic biology behind C. immitis growth and spore formation. These works have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and mBio. Throughout my time at the Smith lab, I have had opportunities to present my work at several local and national meetings, including ASM’s Annual Meeting in 2017. This experience solidified my passion for pharmacology and microbiology and helped me gain insight into academic life.

After working on therapeutic applications of microbiology for years, I have decided to pursue the field from a basic science standpoint. As a Ph.D. student, I aim to study the molecular mechanisms that are involved in disease states of microorganisms. I am excited by Dr. Dale Heart’s work on the mechanism of the switch made by Histoplasma capsulatum from the filamentous soil form to the pathogenic yeast form. I am also interested in Dr. Pablo Ruiz’s work on the gut microbiome as well as Dr. Tina Johnson’s work on host-pathogen interactions. Working in these three professors’ laboratories and others in your program would be an ideal next step for me to apply my background in microbiology and drug discovery to basic science projects.

Beyond graduate school, I hope to pursue a career in academia studying the molecular mechanism behind disease-causing microorganisms. I highly regard basic science and its application to improve human health.  A well-rounded program such as the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program at Harvard University would be an excellent place for me to train and continue my exploration into the molecular world.

Conclusion:

Our final tip is that once you’ve written your statement of purpose, be sure that things you mention in it come up in your CV, your Letters of Recommendation, and any other part of your application. Remember, you want to submit a cohesive application where each component reinforces the other and important experiences or accomplishments are repeated across multiple components of your application. Doing so will not only help your reviewers walk away remembering key pieces about you, but it will also validate your accomplishments.

----

----

Special Section: How to Transform Your Statement of Purpose Into a Personal Statement

(Note: If a program requests both documents, you should not follow the advice in this question. Instead, you must write two separate essays for that program.).

Let’s start with the introduction. Whereas you wrote your statement of purpose concisely and to the point, your personal statement should have an introduction that will hook the reader while introducing an important aspect of your background or personality.

The most effective and creative way to engage your reader right away is by starting your introduction in media res, which is Latin for “in the middle of things.” You can tell a story about an obstacle you’ve overcome or a moment that highlights why you want to study X. Either of these personal stories can be turned into a theme that ties together experiences you shared in your statement of purpose, as well as extracurricular experiences you’ll be sharing in your personal statement.

Once you have a theme, simply go through your statement of purpose and insert commentary that ties back to the theme or uses it as a transition from one experience or paragraph to the next.

Perhaps you have not had to overcome any major obstacles in your life that have influenced your decision to pursue a graduate degree in your chosen field. In that case, you may highlight other personal experiences, such as something interesting about your family background or efforts to support individuals who are less fortunate than you to develop a theme.

For example, let’s say that during college you were a volunteer psychology tutor for local high school students.  Now, you’re applying to a Ph.D. program in Psychology. Draw from your volunteer experience to connect with the reader and introduce your intentions for graduate studies in Psychology. It can be something as simple as the moment when you explained a difficult concept to a student. Here, your theme will be teaching and/or mentorship. Throughout your personal statement, you can talk about opportunities you’ve had to teach and mentor, as well as the great mentors who have guided you throughout your academic journey.

Alternatively, you can get “personal” by discussing experiences that highlight your reasons for pursuing your field of interest in more depth. However, it’s more difficult to achieve uniqueness with this approach because most graduate students in your field will share similar experiences, rendering your story cliché. Set your story apart from others by being more descriptive, starting in media res, and connecting with the reader through creative writing in your introduction. However, if you’ve had an extraordinary experience like discovering your love for architecture through a relative who took you on tours of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings or a curiosity in environmental biology from a visit to a disaster site caused by Hurricane Katrina, that could serve as the foundation for an engaging personal statement introduction. From there, identify a lesson or theme from your experience that has resonated throughout all of your other experiences, such as triumph, curiosity, determination, etc. 

Whether it’s an obstacle you’ve overcome, a volunteer experience, or a unique circumstance that sparked your passion, the end goal of your personal statement is to tug at the heartstrings of your reader and convince them that you are a great candidate for their graduate program.

A full-length sample personal statement

We’ve taken the statement of purpose example from above and modified it into a personal statement. The theme is a scientific interest in microbiology and biofilms (a phenomenon in microbiology where single-celled organisms work together to create an impenetrable multicellular complex) sparked by a family tragedy (modified text in bold).

Crouched over in the only chair in my father’s room at the Intensive Care Unit of St. Mary’s Hospital, all I could think about was how a common fungus could cause so much harm. My father had recently undergone a simple procedure that required the use of a central venous catheter to deliver medication. Without our knowledge, this catheter was the perfect site for the common yeast Candida albicans to transform and build a biofilm, which in turn caused my father to have a systemic fungal infection. How could a single cellular organism switch and create a multicellular complex? How is it that modern medicine does not have apt tools and techniques for detecting and treating such infections? After watching my father survive this ordeal, I went back to college with my view of single-celled organisms, microbiology, and medicine forever changed.

I am fascinated with understanding the molecular mechanisms of biofilm formation, its role in disease, and the translation of such science to drug development. While at the University of California, San Diego, I completed a double major in Molecular Cellular Biology (MCB) and Pharmacology. With Pharmacology, I sought a molecular explanation for the chemical and disease interface, while with MCB I delved deeper into understanding the basic biology that supports life. I first considered academic research after taking a class with Dr. Ray Goodman on Microbiology because I enjoyed the laboratory portion of the class and working with various organisms. After the class ended, I asked Dr. Goodman’s graduate student, Lana Garcia, for an opportunity to work with her on the molecular mechanism of biofilm formation in Streptococcus pneumoniae.

S. pneumonia is a Gram positive, facultative anaerobic bacterium that grows in biofilms and can lead to deadly infections in children and the elderly. For three years, I worked with Lana to uncover the key molecular players that regulate S. pneumonia biofilm formation using genetic knockouts and a novel biofilm formation assay that I helped design. Our work resulted in the identification of Hdp1, a protein found in the cell wall, as a key component of biofilm formation. The work was published in the September 2014 issue of Cell. I had the opportunity to present findings at the American Society for Microbiology’s (ASM) Annual Meeting in 2014 and at a few local conferences. In order to support the expenses associated with my research, I applied for and was awarded ASM’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship along with several travel grants. I enjoyed the independence I was given to conduct research and design experiments.

Aside from my work in the laboratory, I spent two years of my undergraduate career starting the Bench to Bedside Education Initiative (BBEI). BBEI brings together nurses and doctors from our local hospital as well as scientists of all levels to an annual symposium to exchange information on procedures and scientific findings with the goal of helping each party walk away having learned something they can take back to their daily work. I started BBEI because I felt there was knowledge about biofilm formation that I was learning in the laboratory that could be translated to procedural changes at local hospitals in an effort to prevent systemic fungal infections. I have fundraised over $20,000 for BBEI and launched a website with resources and example lessons that BBEI symposium attendees have learned from each other. My work with BBEI sparked my interest in human biology and the pharmaceutical industry, which prompted me to explore cancer biology and drug development in a corporate setting.  

In order to experience applied research, I held a summer internship at Amgen, where I worked on a protein involved in cancer metastasis. Through this experience, I learned the process by which basic science is used to understand the molecular biology of cancer and, along with chemistry and pharmacology, how this knowledge can be applied to create a drug. At the end of my internship, I presented my findings to the Amgen scientists. I enjoyed studying the basic biology involved in early-phase drug discovery and the application of chemistry and pharmacology to translating basic science into a pharmaceutical application.  However, I wanted to continue pursuing my passion for biofilm-based diseases. Thus, I decided to further explore this strategy after college and learn more about infectious diseases in an academic setting, which led to my current position in Dr. Anna Smith’s Lab at Harvard University as a Research Associate.

For the past two years, I have been working on an independent research project in Dr. Smith’s lab where I am applying high-throughput drug screens to identify new drugs for Coccidioides immitis, a biofilm-forming fungus that causes Valley fever. My efforts have resulted in the identification of a new drug, and with the application of genetic and biochemical methods, I have identified the biofilm-inducing gene Xdt3 as the drug target. I am currently preparing a manuscript for publication. I have also contributed to multiple other projects in the lab involving the basic biology behind C. immitis growth and spore formation. These works have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and mBio. Throughout my time at the Smith lab, I have had opportunities to present my work at several local and national meetings, including ASM’s Annual Meeting in 2017. This experience solidified my passion for pharmacology and microbiology and helped me gain insight into academic life.

After working on therapeutic applications of microbiology for years, I have decided to pursue the field from a basic science standpoint. As a Ph.D. student, I aim to study the molecular mechanisms that are involved in disease states of microorganisms. I am excited by Dr. Dale Heart’s work on the mechanism of the switch made by Histoplasma capsulatum from the filamentous soil form to the pathogenic yeast form. I am also interested in Dr. Pablo Ruiz’s work on the gut microbiome as well as Dr. Tina Johnson’s work on host-pathogen interactions. Working in these three professors’ laboratories and others in your program would be an ideal next step for me to apply my background in microbiology and drug discovery to basic science projects.

The ordeal my family overcame with my father’s two-month battle to survive a systemic fungal infection started by a biofilm sparked my passion for science, and ultimately, it has fueled my academic interest in the basic biology of this mysterious phenomenon in microbiology. Beyond graduate school, I hope to pursue a career in academia studying the molecular mechanism behind disease-causing microorganisms. I highly regard basic science and its application to improve human health. A well-rounded program such as the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program at Harvard University would be an excellent place for me to train and continue my exploration into the molecular world.

----

----

Special Section: Letters of Recommendation

Whom to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

Here’s a simple rule: If you’ve mentioned a certain individual in your statement of purpose, then it’s best to have a letter from them. However, if you can’t get a letter from them directly, then mention the person you are getting a letter from somewhere in your statement of purpose. For instance, if the professor you worked with is too busy and the graduate student you worked with is writing your rec letter, then be sure to mention the graduate student’s name in your statement of purpose. Doing so will serve the following two purposes:

  1. Help the admissions committee connect the letter to your story
  2. Validate the experience you mention in the statement of purpose by having someone back it up with a letter. This repetition of the experience outside of your CV and statement of purpose will help the experience stick with the admissions committee and leave them with a third form of validation to highlight its importance. As mentioned previously, this kind of repetition makes for a cohesive application.

Some professors might ask you to write your own letter of recommendation. If at all possible, avoid this situation. Applicant-written letters can be spotted a mile away and look bad for the applicant. If possible, ask a postdoctoral fellow or a graduate student working with the professor to write the letter for you and ask that the professor co-sign the letter.

How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

Be sure to provide letter writers with a copy of your statement of purpose. If that’s not possible, give your recommenders a quick description of what you’ll be mentioning about them—and your work with them—so they know what to address in their letter. If you want your letter writer to mention something specific, like a publication that is still in the works or an outstanding personal quality, then make sure you explicitly ask them to do so. Most importantly, provide your recommenders with an updated CV. This can serve as a gentle reminder of your accomplishments and gives your recommendation letter writer something to work with.

Request letters of recommendation at least two months in advance in order to give writers plenty of time to produce a great letter. Your initial request should be somewhat formal and include a question to improve your odds of receiving a response.

Here’s an example of an email you could send to request a letter of recommendation:

Dear Dr. Goodman,

I hope all is well with you. On my end, I’ve been keeping busy with senior year courses and my work in the Smith Lab.

After years of research and the experience I gained in your laboratory, I’m confident in my decision to pursue a Ph.D. In fact, I’ll be applying to graduate programs this upcoming December.

As part of my application, I’d like to include a recommendation letter from you because my experience conducting research in your laboratory under your mentorship has thoroughly prepared me for this next step. Would you write a letter of reference highlighting my work in your lab? Letters are due by December 15th.

If so, I’d appreciate it if you would focus on my work with Lana on discovering Hdp1, the resulting publications (published and unpublished), fellowship grant, and talks at conferences.

Of course, I can provide you with my CV, statement of purpose, and more information regarding the schools, programs, etc. upon your agreement.

Thanks for considering to help.

Best,

Dan Nakamura

Note that the student does not give all the information in the initial email. This provides an opportunity for a follow-up email with dates, schools, CV, and a statement of purpose, which buys the student time to get those in order and, more importantly, serves as a reminder for the faculty to write the letter. Also, note the student asks specifically for what he would like mentioned in the letter.

You should send each recommender a reminder one month before the due date as well as two weeks before the due date. If your writers have not submitted their recommendation letter a week before the due date, another reminder should be sent out.

Recommendation letter reminders should be sent via email as a reply to the original email because folks are more likely to read an email if there is a “Re:” in the subject line. For example:

Hi Dr. Goodman

I’m checking in to see whether you’ve had a chance to write my letter of recommendation for graduate school. It’s due in two weeks (December 15) and the application website notes that you have not yet submitted it.

Please let me know if I can provide any additional information.

Thanks again,

Dan

You can also send your recommendation letter writers ultra-gentle reminders by sending them an attachment they didn’t have before (e.g., your updated statement of purpose). For example:

Hi Dr. Goodman

I hope you’re doing well. Just wanted to send along the final version of my statement of purpose so you’re aware of exactly what I mention about my experience in your lab.

Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns.

Best,

Dan

----

----

Special Section: The Graduate School Interview

Whether applying to a program or a specific laboratory, you will most likely have to interview as part of your graduate school admissions process.

You should aim to achieve the following two goals during your interviews:

  1. Getting your interviewers to like you (see our articles on medical school admissions interviews for more information on how to accomplish this: Article 1 & Article 2)
  2. Continue reinforcing the main points from the rest of your application, especially your statement of purpose, to ensure you leave your interviewers with your intended impression (see The Cohesive Application section, above, for more information).

You will receive a call, email, or both inviting you to an interview. Regardless of the medium, be pleasant, convey enthusiasm, and express appreciation. And regardless of how or by whom you’re contacted, accept the interview offer as soon as possible to demonstrate your excitement. This advice applies for your dream schools and backup schools. You want to keep all of your options open.

Preparing for your interview

Before your interview date, practice talking about your past and current work with friends and mentors, and come up with a well-rehearsed sound bite for each experience. The sound bite will come in handy when you’re meeting other interviewees and current graduate students at mixers, as well as when you draw a blank during an interview. Most importantly, when practicing discussing your past and current work, ask your friends and mentors to follow up with questions. This way, you will get an idea of the areas of your work that require further explanation and, more importantly, you’ll get used to answering questions on the fly.

When it comes time for the real interview, how well you explain your past work will be a key factor in whether admissions committees see you as a strong fit at their graduate programs. To do this effectively, you’ll want to set up your experience discussions with background, the problem, the method, your findings, and associated accomplishments. Sound familiar? All of this information is contained in your statement of purpose, so just practice “talking” about what you wrote with another human being who can ask you to elaborate when needed.

For example, if we were to turn the very last experience from the example statement of purpose above into an interview answer, it would go something like this:

“After graduating from undergrad, I spent two years in Dr. Smith’s lab at Harvard applying my expertise in microbiology to Coccidioides immitis. C. immitis is the fungus that causes Valley fever in folks across the United States; however, there are no specific drugs for this fungus. Instead, patients are given general antifungals. In order to create a C. immitis-specific drug, we took advantage of the fungus’s ability to form multicellular biofilms and used genetic knockout libraries of the fungus assayed in our novel assay to identify Xdt3 as a drug target. We then applied high-throughput drug screens to discovery a new drug that targets the C. immitis gene Xdt3 and nothing else. Although I am currently preparing a manuscript for the bulk of this work, I did contribute to multiple other projects involving C. immitis basc biology that have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and mBio.”

Ahead of each school’s interview, review your application and prepare to discuss your research. Don’t waste time skimming over the latest publications so you have something interesting to talk about. Your work is plenty interesting and, as the expert on it, you should have much to discuss about it. Moreover, some schools will hand you a packet containing your interview schedule the night before the big day. Don’t waste your evening reading through every recent article the professor who is interviewing you has published. Instead, quickly skim their lab website so you’re aware enough of their work to ask intelligent questions when they talk about it. This effort should take no more than 30 minutes for each faculty interviewer. Spend the rest of your evening relaxing and resting for the busy day ahead.

Acing your actual interview

During each interview, be polite, open-minded, and–most importantly—be yourself. You are interviewing the program as much as they are interviewing you. Therefore, you want to make sure the graduate students you meet have the types of personalities you like to see in individuals you’re working with and are on similar career trajectories to the ones you’re interested in. In addition, note which professors you get along with naturally during your interview and why. Moreover, be open to learning about areas of work that you aren’t necessarily interested in.

Although schools do their best to match students with interviewers based on shared interests, they may also include interviewers outside of your field of interest. Don’t be intimidated by such “outside interviewers” and feel free to ask them about their research. By doing so, you’ll demonstrate your curiosity and openness to learning about new fields.

Remember also that you are being interviewed throughout the interview day, from the morning breakfast to the evening party with current graduate students. In addition to being polite, make sure to manage your drinking and behavior. This is not the time to share your wild side.

Lastly, you want to come across as a determined, self-motivated, passionate, and interesting potential graduate student who is also easy to talk to. Therefore, feel free to express enthusiasm about your past work when discussing a particular experience. Moreover, when asking your interviewer questions, look and sound interested while listening to their answers (most likely you will be, and fake it if you’re not). You can demonstrate interest in the following ways:

  • Nod as they talk about their work
  • Ask questions about their work. A great starting question to ask, especially if you don’t know what that professor studies, is the following: Would you tell me about an active project or two that you are pursuing?
  • Ask questions about the methods they use in their work. This is a great way to ask questions about a field you’re unfamiliar with but a method you know
  • Ask questions about the field to learn something from your interview experience. However, be sure to mention to the interviewer that you are unfamiliar with the specific field so they can explain it at the appropriate level.
    • For example, if your interest is in physical chemistry and the professor you’re interviewing with focuses on developing battery technology, ask them to explain the challenges with current battery technology and how their work addresses those challenges.
  • Feel free to ask a question at the end of your interview that aims to solicit advice from interviewers with whom you’ve built good rapport.
    • For example, a non-academic question that’s often well-received is, “What have you observed to be a common struggle among first-year graduate students, and how would you advise someone in my position to avoid such issues?”
  • Save more general, program-level questions (e.g., “What do you think are the biggest strengths and weaknesses of this program?”) for current graduate students you speak with during interview day.

It’s easy to notice how well you can demonstrate your enthusiasm, passion, and curiosity with questions. And although you may have never thought about how to ask excellent questions, doing so simply requires practice, like any other skill.

Because you may be rusty for your first interview, do your best to schedule one of your backup schools before heading into your dream school’s interview. That way, you can get some official practice under your belt and boost your odds of getting into your top-choice programs.

How to follow up after your interview

The day after your interview, you should email the professors and graduate students who interviewed you and thank them for their time. If any great academic or program-level questions that you forgot to ask come to mind, ask them at this point. Be sure not to come off like you assume you’re in the program. Exhibit humility and courtesy in your email.

----

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: How long should my statement of purpose be?

Answer: Many schools will provide a specific character or word limit. However, when a program does not specify length, aim to write somewhere between 500 to 1000 words.

It’s generally better to write concisely than in a long-winded way. Moreover, there’s no need to worry if you don’t use the entire allotted space. As long as you have clearly explained your past work and why you want to graduate school, you’re all set.

Question: How should I discuss a challenge I have had to overcome during my undergraduate years that affected my grades or work?

Answer: Some applications extend the opportunity to discuss circumstances that have impacted your academic work. These opportunities typically come in the form of a short write-in answer that is separate from your statement of purpose.

However, if there’s no such “Additional Comments” section in some of your applications, be prepared to concisely mention in your statement of purpose what the obstacle was. More specifically, you can include this information in your second paragraph when you mention how you got started in your field as an undergraduate student.

(Note: Simply achieving lower-than-expected grades at some point in college does not justify you discussing your challenges. Most students in this position want to “explain” away poor grades and/or GRE scores due to poor adjustment to college, inadequate study time, or something else. These types of explanations won’t work in your favor, so you should only discuss your challenges if they were largely outside your control.)

Question: What should I bring with me during my graduate school interviews?

Here’s a short list of must-have items for all of your interviews:

  • Comfortable shoes: You’ll be doing a lot of walking!
  • Notebook and pen: You never know when you’ll need to jot down a note or explain a complex theory or formula by writing it out for your interviewer.
  • Three copies of your CV: Only offer these if your interviewer explicitly asks for it or if they mention that they have not seen your application.
  • Water and snack: Most programs offer coffee and snacks throughout interview day. However, you’ll need to stay hydrated and, if you’re the type of person who gets “hangry,” it helps to have a small snack to get you through your interviews. This final bullet underscores a larger important point: Interview days can be mentally and physically taxing, so make sure to listen to your body and take care of yourself.

----