Personal statement, statement of intent, cover letter. Whatever one calls it, this one-page summary often leads an applicant scratching his/her head. What do I write? How do I write it? And most importantly, how does a statement of purpose vary when applied to a graduate application?
So, to the first question: What do I write?
Instead ask, what do I want the admissions to know that is not covered by the CV? That is the real point of the statement of purpose. This can include details about previous research experience and future academic interests and why it’s good for the department to choose you. Be specific, but having a thesis topic is not necessary at this stage.
Next question: How do I write it?
This depends more on each subject and requires more research on the applicant’s part. The hard sciences tend to want letters that are object specific and to-the-point (“…my involvement with *insert project* gave me experience in *insert subject* due to *insert factor*…”). I cannot say much else for other fields, but fluff should be avoided for a letter limited to one-page. Also, try to make each statement appear unique for each prospective school. Admissions can tell if a letter is a recycled generic letter and may not take said letter as seriously as a letter written specifically for their program.
Third question: How is a graduate statement of purpose different from other statements?
Often, internet searches will give pointers on writing the statement but the information may not apply to graduate applications. Sifting away all the pointers that are not specifically for grad applications can help contend with the confusing and conflicting information out there. I found this site particularly helpful when I wrote mine:
The main difference is that a personal statement for grad school is that grad school is more concerned about content than glamor. This may be reminiscent of Dragnet’s “Just the facts, Ma’am.” Admissions pays attention to the letter of intent because it’s the applicant’s chance to speak with the admissions. The readers are interested in the content that the writer took the time to specify.
Now after all this, another question pops up as an afterthought: When am I done?
Don’t let this happen to you.
I cannot tell you how many drafts to write, but some signs help determine when a draft is finished or at least close enough. Let your advisor, your peers, other researchers, or just someone you know with good grammar look through it and mark it up. Personally, I do not consider someone to have properly reviewed my early drafts unless the reviewer makes the paper ‘bleed’ with ink marks. Take the changes with discretion and have the paper reviewed again. I do this until suggestions from reviewers begin to conflict. At this point, the suggestions are due to stylistic differences, rather than clarity or content. Finally, read the letter out loud. It’s amazing what little details one can find by reading out loud.