Do I need to write a Statement of Purpose for each school?
There is a lot of horrible information out there, that goes something like this:
“Most of your statement of purpose will not change because you are who you are and your background doesn’t change depending on the school you are applying to. However, it’s possible that you might want to highlight different aspects of your profile when applying to different schools, so you may end up with more than one version of the statement.”
That right there, is awful advice. It was probably good protocol 10-15 years ago before higher education became so competitive, but these days schools want to know you’re interested enough in their program to tailor your statement of purpose to them. Afterall, your CV, GPA, GRE, personal statement, and any other materials literally can’t change. The Statement of Purpose is the only part of the application (literally) that deals specifically with that school. Essentially they’re asking you to write one page that’s just for them, and you’re trying to cut corners on it. Bad idea.
From a schools perspective, they’re trying to decide if they should spend ~$200,000 in tuition and $120,000 in stipend over the course of four years to fund you as a PhD student. Even without this much funding it still costs hundreds of thousands of hours to train you. If they’re willing to provide all that, the least you can do is come up with 1-2 pages describing why you want to attend their program. Yet every year applicants think it’s ok to submit a letter detailing why they want to go to graduate school, which is not the same thing. The latter gives off the impression that you might just be trying to postpone getting a job a few more years–and this is the last thing you want to convey. Worse yet, they might take it as a “I’m desperate for anyone to take me so I’m applying to 15 schools”.
Why does it matter if schools think you’re head over heels for them? Well for one thing, admissions rates can be tricky. If they don’t think you’ll ever accept an offer, why would they bother sending you one? This is a very common problem with students who have great statistics. Browse through applicant profiles on gradcafe for a few minutes and you’ll see dozens of students whose materials would be competitive at Harvard, yet they got rejected by all their safety/mid-tier programs. Why? Because the schools don’t believe you’ll ever attend. With solid stats, admissions committees know they are probably your safety (or at least mid-level picks), so if you couldn’t even bother feigning interest about why you want to attend, they’ll happily pass on your application for an applicant that seems like they really want to go there, regardless of whether their GRE scores are lower.
This issue scales up the rankings as well. Plenty of imperfect applications get accepted if the applicant convinced the committee that their program was the end all, be all, only place in the world they could accomplish their goals. Arrogant applicants fall into this trap all the time, and are left bitter and resentful, complaining on grad cafe about how ridiculous it is that they were passed up while someone with a 158Q score got into Harvard. But this isn’t rocket science, kids. You have to make a compelling argument for why each program you apply to is the best possible place you could attend. It shows you (1) did your research (Hello, McFly! Kind of an important thing to show the admissions committees) (2) understand what you want out of the degree (3) have clear direction (even if you end up changing it down the line) (4) would actually accept an offer should they give you one and (5) are the best candidate for full (or extra) fellowships because out of all the applicants, you’re the most dedicated to that program.
Have we convinced you that it’s worth the time yet? No? We’ll illustrate with a comparative example. Below are two DRAFT statements of purpose. One for an engineering program, the other for an applied mathematics program. These are not perfect statements of purpose, both have flaws. That said, read through both and see which one seems more convincing to you.
Which letter instilled more confidence? Even with the flaws in Applicant #2’s draft, it’s readily apparent that they really want to attend Brown, whereas the other applicant sounds very passionate about electrical engineering, but not necessarily the specific program that letter is being sent to.
Yes, the statement of purpose should tell the committee something about you, but it should be information in the context of that program. In the second statement, we learned that the applicant went to a conference, has a varied background, is interested in interdisciplinary research, values fundamental research along with application based science–yet all this was packaged in a way that was convincing the Brown admissions committee they were a perfect fit for their program. That draft needed a lot more polishing before it was perfect, but it ultimately got that person an acceptance letter. The first applicant wasn’t as lucky.
Most Common Graduate School Application Mistakes