Note that this post is specifically geared toward the statement of purpose or personal narrative you would be asked to write in order to get into graduate school, but the tips in this post can be applied to cover letters as well as any other type of writing where you have to brag about yourself, something many of us aren’t conditioned to do. Below I’ll share the Do’s and Don’t’s of writing a statement of purpose! If you have questions or other tips to add, please share in the comments!
- Be specific: If you say that you’ve wanted to be in a particular profession for much of your life, be specific about the things you’ve wanted to do, how you found out about this profession, or what experience caused you to want to do this. Also be specific about your experiences. If you say “I helped out at an animal shelter,” that isn’t much compared to “Three times a week for two years, I volunteered at the Humane Society, where my duties were…” Being specific paints a picture for your reader and gives them more information about you. If you don’t give them as much information as you can, you’re only sabotaging yourself, because your readers generally only know what you tell them.
- Focus on the most recent years of your life: “When I was a little girl…” is nice, but if you only talk about the dreams and aspirations you had as a child (or in high school if you’re applying to graduate schools), it might make your reader wonder what happened in between. Did you really have high hopes as a kid but then did really poorly in high school/college? That’s okay! Explain that. Explain how you were able to overcome whatever obstacle that kept you from doing well.
- Take this opportunity to explain any bumps in the road: Did you have a semester where your GPA was really poor? Why? Issues with health, family problems, etc., are all reasonable causes for a poor performance in school, and don’t be afraid to disclose that to your readers.
- Contact your program for specifics: Every program/school/job will want a specific length and it’s up to you to seek out that information. For cover letters, you usually want to stick to one page, but for statements of purpose, that’s a program specific issue. My program wanted no less than 2 pages, but no more than 8. Also, read the website/application packet to get any other specifics regarding the content of the statement.
- Lie: Please just don’t lie. Your readers will likely be able to find out if you’ve lied, especially if it’s about something that will appear on your transcripts, or you’ll be asked to show you can do later down the line. You have the skills and experience to apply to this school/job/etc., so if you’re tempted to lie, it’s because you aren’t utilizing those qualifications. Maybe talk to a friend, coworker, or professor about your skills and qualifications, as others likely have insights that you don’t.
- Offer vague information: Saying “I’m really interested in human rights” is only going to make your reader wonder more, in a space where they likely won’t have the opportunity to ask you about it, so you have to explain that statement to your reader right then and there in your statement.
- Write a sob story: Everyone has a sob story, and unless yours is important to the content of your letter (e.g. why you did terribly one semester), leave it out. Readers want to know how good of a candidate you are, not how good of a sob story you can write.
- Panic: More than likely, the instructions for your statement of purpose will be vague. That’s for a reason. If you at least try to write a good letter–or better yet, reach out for information–that already tells the program something about you. If you panic because you aren’t sure what to write about, that usually means you’ll do the same thing on a big assignment or task. Prove to the readers that you’re capable of being resourceful and writing a good statement of purpose.