How to Write an Effective Statement of Purpose
How to Write an Effective Statement of Purpose
Kendra Redmond, Editor (as the interviewer)
Q&A with J. Ritchie Patterson from Cornell University
Ritchie Patterson is a professor in the Department of Physics at Cornell University. She has been the director of graduate studies, chaired the Graduate Admissions Committee, and advised students at and beyond Cornell on applying to graduate school.
Question: What do you look for in a personal statement/statement of purpose?
A personal statement is a narrative that pulls together information that's not in your transcript or letters of recommendation. It is the main place to describe any research you’ve conducted. We’re interested not just in your research title or who you worked for, but how you talk about your research. What were the big picture goals? What did the research group hope to learn about nature? What did you work on? Be very specific about your particular tasks, for example, "I tested hundreds of readout boards,” or “I wrote a LabVIEW program that provided data on new samples.”
We also want to hear about research obstacles and how you overcame them. As you were testing all those boards, maybe you learned that the solder joints were weak and suggested a new test process. Be as specific as you can about what you did, the obstacles you encountered, and how you showed initiative to overcome them—whether that meant reaching out to an expert, reviewing the literature, or even asking your research supervisor for advice. Science never works the first time.
And finally, tell us about the lasting impact or an outcome of your work. Maybe you presented your work at a conference, or people are still using the software you wrote, or you studied an effect and showed that it was so tiny it didn’t need to be considered. Then relate that outcome back to the big picture. If you made one tiny cog in a detector, what were people able to learn about nature thanks to the fact that your tiny cog was there?
Sometimes students worry because they want to do one kind of research in graduate school but did a different kind as an undergraduate. Don’t worry about that. We know that students knock on dozens of doors and write multiple applications to get a research position. The research that you end up doing as an undergraduate can be a crapshoot. We don't expect a coherent evolution from one project to another, so don't set that bar for yourself. Just write about what you’ve done.
If you’ve had an extraordinary hardship, tell us that in your statement too. If you had to work full time on the family business and couldn’t fit in research, let us know. Maybe you have a strong academic record in general but tanked one semester. If there’s a reason—you had mono, there was an upset in your family, or you were working from home during the pandemic and had to share a computer with siblings—let us know. Don’t go into a long story, just address it with a couple of sentences. To some extent, the statement of purpose is an opportunity to provide connective tissue, the explanation that underlies your transcript and experiences.
Question: What if a student hasn't done any research?
Most students manage to do research at their school or in one of many programs such as Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) or Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI). If not, maybe you’ve taken a lab course or done a class project or independent study that you can discuss in the same way. What was the overall goal? What were you hoping to discover about nature? Why was the topic scientifically interesting? What specifically did you do? And then talk about some kind of outcome, like writing up a report or giving a presentation.
You can also talk about projects that are not science related, but where you showed initiative or determination to get something done. Show the committee that you see the big picture and convey your contribution.
Question: What kind of structure do you recommend for a statement of purpose?
I expect an opening paragraph, which can be brief, and then one to two paragraphs for each research project or independent study you’ve done. Then you can add a paragraph on your outreach activities, if the program seems interested in that. And finally, a paragraph that identifies the area or areas that you’d like to pursue in grad school and explains how the university is a good fit.
The last paragraph should be different for each application. You'll want to learn what individual faculty members are doing at each school and name several whose research interests you. It's okay if you don't know exactly what you want to do, but if you don't see anyone whose research interests you, that may be a sign that you should apply elsewhere. Every now and then we get an application from somebody who's absolutely determined to work in a niche in physics that we don't offer at our university. And that’s the end of that application—the student should go somewhere else.
Sometimes students think it's impressive to say they want to do theory. The reality is that universities often have more openings in experiment than theory, so anyone who limits themself to theory has extra tough competition. Flexibility in your interests is not a bad thing, and it may mean there are more opportunities for you. So narrow it down a little, but not too much.
Question: Is there room for creativity, or do you recommend sticking to the structure you outlined?
It’s usually best to stick to the template, but I do remember reading an application from a world-class rock climber. Someone with that background has determination and the ability to overcome challenges, which are characteristics needed in grad school, so telling us about it in the statement worked in their favor. It would be a mistake to replace the other things I mentioned with a discussion of rock climbing, but you can include things that reveal your relevant skills and traits.
Question: Do you have any tips on writing style?
Some students worry about bragging, but bragging isn’t needed if you instead focus on the science: “My job was to test hundreds of electronics boards. The boards allowed us to read out detectors that measured the energy of photons produced in collisions at the Large Hadron Collider. That's important because the Higgs boson decays into photons, so the boards enable detection of the Higgs.” All of a sudden your work is sounding pretty great, even though you didn’t talk about yourself.
Framing the sentences around the science also avoids the pitfall of using many “I” sentences, such as “I did …” or “I was excited to do…”
Sometimes students think that we want to know their personal story from childhood; others think we are looking for a set of skills such as multiple programming languages. We’re not looking for either of those things. We want to know that you have the traits to learn, persist, and succeed in graduate school. Talk about the science and we’ll learn that you’re passionate about it; describe your innovations and we’ll learn that you’re creative; mention the obstacles and we’ll learn that you’re persistent.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.