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Questions and Answers for Writing a Statement of Purpose

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What is the function of the statement of purpose?
You must demonstrate to the committee how your goals coincide with what the program has to offer as well as how you will fit in and how your qualifications will benefit the program. It is the personal statement that communicates to the admissions committee what it is about you which makes you stand out from the other applicants. The more competitive the school, the larger the pool of applicants with strong GPAs and GRE scores, the more important the personal statement becomes in the selection process.  Therefore it is important to devote ample time to writing your statement.

How important is the statement of purpose in the application process?
In short, it is a very important piece of application materials. Start working on it at least three weeks before the deadline for you to sent your documents. Even if all the rest of your application is perfect the carelessly written statement can spoil all your efforts. Members of the admission committee will use it to determine what kind of person you are and whether you are capable to be successful in their PhD program, how well you are suited for that, how goal oriented you are and many other things. Well-written statement can greatly help you to get admitted even if you have average test scores.

What information should I include in the statement of purpose?
Discuss your career goals, and how an advanced degree and this program would help you get there. Include relevant experiences such as research you have done and skills you have demonstrated.
Relevance is key, and doing your homework about graduate school programs will help you determine relevancy. Ask some of these questions... what degree programs does this school offer? What areas of emphasis does it offer within that major? What license and certificate preparation does the program provide? What original research is being done by which faculty at this school? The answers to these questions should help you decide to which schools and programs you'll apply. This information should also be incorporated into your statement of purpose. Only include your life story if it's relevant.

How exact should I be about the research field I would like to work in?
People in the admission committee are looking for applicants with determination, for those who know what they want to do in their life and know why this university and this program will enable them to reach their goals. If you have broad interests and experiences you can state that you are still choosing the exact field for your research, usually though  it is better to state the area you are especially interested in (it can be quite a broad area such as experimental condensed matter physics or modeling of cellular processes). Don't narrow you field to much though. Make sure that at least 2-3 faculty members (4-6 is even better) are working in the field you have emphasized. And remember (!!) you can always change your mind after you have been admitted into the program, nobody will force you to stick to the area of research you emphasized in your application materials.

Should I mention the faculty members who I want to work with?
It is highly advisable to mention faculty members who you might be interested to work with. It is especially important if you have already done some work similar to the research some of these professors are now doing. If the professor you have mentioned is in the admission committee this can also help. Also, do not hesitate to contact these (and other) professors personally (via email). Ask questions about their current and prospective research projects, about the possibility to become members of they group if you get admitted, about the department, you might want to attach your statement of purpose and resume to the first letter you send them.

How long should the statement of purpose be?
Your statement of purpose should be about 1 to 1 1/2 pages (500-600 words). Use normal margins and font 11 or 12, refrain from using small fonts since they are hard to read. Generally, a shorter statement of purpose that is clearly written is better than a longer one.

Can I use the same statement of purpose for all universities which I apply to?
Mostly you will see advices that you need to write a separate statement for each program. Ideally this might be the best, but realistically you will not have time to do all the work it requires well. So it is better to spend time writing one really good statement and then for each university changing particular part of the statement which emphasizes some aspects of particular programs and mentions faculty members (usually it is one or two last paragraphs of the statement). Do not sent completely identical statements to all universities, mention the name of the university in the text, it is fine to use "Your University", but you also need to use the name of the university. Finally, make sure you send right statement to the right university ;-).

Who will read my statement of purpose?
Your audience is made up of faculty members who are experts in their field. They want to know that you can think as much as what you think.

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