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Writing Statements of Purpose and Other Application Essayssop

As noted in the application qualifications and admissions criteria section of this website, the statement of purpose (in other words, the primary application essay; sometimes also called personal statement, background statement, and other names) can play a major role in determining whether an applicant is invited to interview and in final selection decisions.  Specifically, the statement can be used to assess the applicant’s fit with the program, match with faculty members, writing ability, and more.  Thus, spending the time to craft a well-written statement of purpose or other types of application essays is necessary in order for your application to have a chance of succeeding.  To help with this process, here we provide an overview of the process of writing such statements and other application essays. 

Types of Statements of Purpose and Other Application Essays

Depending on the program, you may be required to provide a statement of purpose, application essay, autobiographical essay, personal statement, career goal statement, background statement, or other similarly named piece of writing.  Each of these commonly is your opportunity to provide information about yourself beyond that communicated in the rest of your application materials.  You may also be asked to provide supplementary essays such as a diversity statement. 

Typically, graduate applications provide an essay prompt which includes specific questions or themes that you should address in the essay.  Common themes include:1,2

  • Your long-term career plans
  • Your research interests or areas of interest in psychology
  • Your reasons for choosing the program that you are applying to
  • Your prior research experiences
  • Your academic background or objectives
  • Your motivation for pursuing your field of study

It is common for programs to specify how the essay should be formatted, or at a minimum, its maximum length.  For instance, an application essay may be stated to be “no longer than 2 double-spaced pages” or no more than 500 words.  It is important to follow all directions and not exceed that limit.

Using the same exact essay for each application is not advised.1,3  Each program typically has specific information that they are seeking, and if you do not directly address those details in your essay, your application will suffer.  You may be able to reuse different parts of your application essays, but you should expect to have to write new material for each application.

Are there example statements of purpose that I should examine?  A variety of online sources do contain example statements, and you can find links to example statements at the bottom of this page.  However, application essays in general are unique to each individual – each person has a different set of experiences and different aspects that they may wish to emphasize.  Moreover, writing an application essay that resembles someone else’s can result in that essay appearing derivative – and given the highly competitive application process, that is something you should avoid.  Thus, examples are for reference only.


How to Write a Statement of Purpose and Other Application Essays

When writing an application essay, it can be helpful to rely on the following steps.  Please note that these procedures represent a common approach for writing application essays; you may wish to adapt some of the steps, or use/add others, for best results.1,3

1. Brainstorming/clustering

At this first stage, jot down your thoughts as you think of answers to the essay prompt.  Try to think of themes that you wish to emphasize, as well as concrete examples that you may wish to describe in the essay.  You can organize them into clusters (for example, write ideas in circles and draw connecting lines).  Remember that the overall goal of the essay is to convince the admissions committee that you are an attractive candidate and a good fit for their program.

2. Outlining

This is an optional step.  Take your brainstorming/clustering notes and organize them into an outline of how the essay will be structured.  You might have a chronological structure that begins with your earlier experiences and advances towards your more recent activities.  Alternatively, you may organize your essay around themes (for example, research topics).  A common outline involves an opening paragraph, then discussion of academic accomplishments, research experience, other experiences, future plans and suitability for the program of interest, and a concluding paragraph.4

3. Freewriting/initial draft

Often one of the biggest hurdles is just getting words on the page.  The key here is to not worry about having your words sound perfectly the first time around.  Try drafting several sentences, a paragraph or two, and see whether your thoughts translate well into prose.  It is common at this stage to discard whole sections of text in favor of new material.  At this conclusion of this process, you should aim to have a completed first draft.

4. Revising

It is easy to get burned out on writing, so after you have completed that first draft, set it aside for a while.  Then, return with fresh eyes and read through it carefully.  You are likely to find areas that need improvement – be sure to take notes or highlight them.  It can help to read the essay out loud; a general rule is that if it sounds unusual when spoken aloud, it should be rewritten.  Then, revise the essay.

5. Solicit feedback

Have another individual or individuals read your essays critically and provide feedback.  Your mentor can be an ideal person to provide that feedback; alternatively, you might try a university writing center or your peers. 

6. Revise and finalize your essay

Using the feedback and your own thoughts while reading the essay, edit it further until it is a polished product.  Be sure to proofread, check formatting, and make sure that all aspects of the essay prompt are clearly and thoroughly addressed.


Statement of Purpose Do’s and Don’ts

Here are some recommended elements to include, strategies to try, and recommended elements or strategies to avoid.1,3

Do’s

  • Do emphasize your individual strengths
  • Do customize each statement to the program that you are submitting it to
  • Do provide specific examples of relevant experiences (such as research, coursework, etc.)
  • Do thoroughly address all aspects of the essay prompt
  • Do use clear topic sentences, connective words or phrases, and paragraph transitions (for more information, please see the improving scientific writing section of this website)
  • Do consider emphasizing your fit to the program that you are applying to
  • Do consider discussing faculty mentors of interest

Dont’s

  • Don’t use jokes, humor, or try to be funny
  • Don’t excessively self-disclose personal problems
  • Don’t be very general or vague in your research interests
  • Don’t include complaints and criticisms
  • Don’t use clichés such as “since my childhood I have always been interested in” or “I just want to help everyone”, unless you can genuinely and convincingly use them

Financial Aid, Fellowships, and Scholarship Application Essays

As you complete your graduate applications, you might also consider applying for financial aid or some sort of graduate research fellowship such as the Ford Foundation Fellowship or the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.  Such fellowships typically require a background statement that is similar in some aspects to the statement of purpose. 


Workshops and Downloadable Resources

Workshops

  • For in-person discussion of the process of applying to graduate programs in psychology, neuroscience, and related fields, please consider attending this department’s “Paths to PhDs” workshop and other related events (for dates and times, please check the undergraduate workshops calendar).

Downloads

  • Tips for Applying to Graduate Programs in Psychology (a brief summary) [PDF]

Further Resources

How-To Videos     

Recommended Reading

Example Statements of Purpose

Further Resources

APA Videos on Graduate Applications

UCSD


References

 
American Psychological Association (2007).  Getting in: a step-by-step plan for gaining admission to graduate school in psychology
Norcross, J. C., & Hogan, T. P. (2016).  Preparing and applying for graduate school in psychology: 12 modules. American Psychological Association [video workshop].
Keith-Spiegel, P., & Wiederman, M. W. (2000). The complete guide to graduate school admission: psychology, counseling, and related professions. Psychology Press.
Rutgers University Camden College of Arts and Sciences.  Writing a personal statement.
 
Prepared by S. C. Pan for UCSD Psychology
Graphic adapted with permission from Leoncastro under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.