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How to write your statement of purpose, personal statement and essay for American graduate programs

Whether you are applying for an LLM, MBA, PhD, Masters, MSc, or any other graduate degree, and whether this is to Harvard, Stanford, Cornell, University of Florida, New School or any other School for that matter, you are most likely asked to submit a document that shows that you are the perfect candidate for their program. In Law School, this document is typically called a “Personal Statement”. In business school, this is the “MBA Essay”. In Engineering, Education, Social sciences, and the Sciences, the relevant term is “Statement of Purpose”. The name is, of course, not the only difference. Each school, program, and degree requires what THEY think is relevant. The common feature of all, though, is the need to show that you and the program are a perfect match. Some general tips to achieve this goal can thus be highly relevant. So let’s get started:

1. Use the guidelines that the program provides. In order to write an effective Statement, you must know what the Admissions Committee wants to read. Most – if not all – programs, have detailed guidelines for the Statement on their website. Read them. They will tell you if you are expected to discuss a research question (quite likely for a PhD application), or to focus on your personal and professional development path (the typical MBA Essay). Follow the instructions. Stick to the page or word limit they set. In some countries, word limits are just recommended. In America they are actually enforced. Schools also ask you to write your Statement yourself, alone. Please follow this rule. Some schools have recently started to send all Statements to an external company to check the originality of Statements. An unoriginal Statement will disqualify you. This would be embarrassing. Please be careful about it. You will thank us.


2. Do your homework. In order to show that you are the right fit for the school and program, do some research. Learn what the main focus of the program is, who the leading scholars are and how it may fit your background and goals. You can find this information by searching through the program’s website and faculty directory. Look at the course names and publication lists of the professors and seek out fields that interest you and are aligned with your goals. Mention these points in a clear manner in your statement.




3. What should the Statement entail? Again, your Statement should explain why you and the program are a perfect match. Except when a program’s guidelines suggest otherwise, in the Committee’s eyes, this depends on things like: why you chose the degree and the specific program, and most importantly, what you plan to do after graduation. If you can convince the Committee that you have a clear vision of the contribution of this program to your future career, a more advanced degree or your life trajectory, you are likely to get their attention. Try to be specific. You may discuss a specific research project or an idea you intend to develop during your studies. This will help you stand out from the crowd and will give the committee a feeling that they know you and your abilities.


4. What there should be less of. One common mistake by applicants is to write little of what was stated in the above point, and more on previous achievements. While you may want to briefly state past academic and non-academic achievements, too much of that would make your Statement look like a long version of your CV. When you do state your past achievements, try to point out how you will build on these past experiences to excel in the program you are applying for and for your future career development. Try not to repeat things that come up in your CV, transcript or letters of recommendation. Think of specific points that you want them to know, but are not reflected elsewhere in your application package.


5. Be positive. In general, you should only say positive things about yourself in your Statement (but hey – don’t brag!). If you are like most of our readers, you have very high self-standards. This may make you want to discuss and try to explain points that you see as weak. But this is almost always a mistake. The committee itself might have not even noticed this point or might have not interpreted it negatively at all (until you brought it up). There is also some psychology at play here: if you say bad things about yourself, the committee may conclude things are even worse, because their assumption is that all candidates are trying to portray themselves in the best possible way. So try to avoid it. If there are exceptional cases where you are absolutely confident that you need to explain some failures, try to present those in as positive a light as possible (for example: I managed to average B+ in my second year, despite a disease my brother had, which compelled me to divide my focus, and help my family as much as I could. My family was thankful for my help, and I got back to my A average in the next semester). Oh, and one more thing. It goes without saying - you should also only say good things about others, such as former professors and colleagues – if you mention them at all. Your Statement is not the right forum for settling personal accounts, and you do not want to come across as unpleasant or tactless. We recently wrote a whole blog post about this subject


6. Language and culture. Your Statement is tested not only on its content, but also on its style, structure and language proficiency. Don’t use words you don’t know. Don’t assume you’ll be forgiven as a foreigner. You need to assure the committee that you will fit the program. And the program, after all, will probably be held in English. If you are struggling with the language, make sure you have a native English speaker who can read over your letter and correct grammar and phrasing. You may also ask the person if the content of what you are writing is culturally appropriate. There may be things that are commonly stated in one culture, but not in others, and you want to make sure you are culturally appropriate.


7. Fit the narrative of your application. As we have mentioned in past blogs, your application package should present you in a consistent (though well-rounded) way. The Committee should get the impression that they know you, and be confident that they would like to see you on their campus.


The Statement is probably the most difficult part of the application process for any student. Yet, for international students it is particularly difficult, because of language barriers, cultural differences and lack of a personal network that can help and guide them. But the journey is worth it. Oh, yes. It is. Use these tips and do your research to make sure that you position yourself in the best possible way.


We hope these tips help you in the application process. Feel free to write below any question you might have, or visit us at www.gradtrain.com. Good luck!


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