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8.4: Statements of Purpose

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    What is a Statement of Purpose?

    A statement of purpose is a personal statement that some colleges require as part of their admissions process. You can use your statement of purpose to explain your educational and career goals, your background, and your personality. It is your chance to show off what makes you a unique and valuable candidate for a school. Some schools include focused questions in their applications, and some ask for an open-ended essay. No matter what you are writing about, there are some rules that always apply to personal statements.

    Rule 1: Read the directions and answer the questions completely.

    Always read the directions and the questions for a personal statement thoroughly. Know what you are being asked. College admissions officers are not only looking for how well-written and interesting your essay is, they are looking for whether or not your essay is on-topic. Some applications will ask multi-part questions. You should be sure to answer each question fully. For instance, if an application asks you to explain why you want to go into your selected major and what you plan to do with your degree, don't just write about how you were inspired to become an environmental scientist at a young age. You can tell that story, but also include details about how you want to work to preserve the redwood forests or go on to graduate school after you finish your degree.

    Rule 2: Show something unique about yourself.

    More and more people apply to colleges each year. The goal of your personal statement is to help you stand out from the crowd. Thus, you will want to write an essay that shows who you are. This is often best done with a story (or two stories for a longer essay). It is the use of detailed stories that will make your application interesting to admissions officers. Simply writing that you like science and thus want to be a biologist doesn't show how you are unique. However, if you tell the story of how you discovered your love of plant-life working on your grandfather's farm over a summer during high school, you will stand out to admissions officers. In addition, telling a personal story will make your voice stand out in your essay--writing about a subject that is both important and familiar to you will allow you to let more of who you are come across to your reader.

    Rule 3: Make your stories relevant.

    We've gone over using a story or two to make yourself stand out. However, telling a story to address an application essay prompt also means that you will need to show your readers why that story is relevant. Thus, always connect your story to the prompt. Provide enough detail so that anyone reading your story will understand why it is significant and how it makes you stand out. However, you should also be careful about providing too much detail. Only relate what is significant to your main point and of interest to your reader. The people who review personal statements have to go through thousands of them, so one of the worst things you can do is be redundant.

    For example, if the prompt asks you about an important learning experience in your life, you might want to write about when you volunteered as a reader at your local library. You could describe that before that point you had never considered working with children, but that watching the kids learn to read was an important experience. At this point, you could insert a story about a specific child you worked with, explaining how the two of you made a special connection. After telling this story, you could relate it back to the prompt by explaining that through this experience, you learned you wanted to become a teacher, and are thus applying to college to earn your degree in elementary education.

    Rule 4: Pick an overarching theme.

    If the application essay directions ask for a longer essay, you will likely have to tell two or three stories in your writing in order to provide your reader a broad overview of who you are. However, just because your stories show a big picture of who you are does not mean that they can’t be related—after all, a personal statement should focus on showing your personal growth or achievements. When you include multiple stories, make sure that you connect them with an overarching theme. For instance, you might include a story about your time working at an animal shelter and one about the time you taught your younger brother how to ride a bike. These stories might seem completely unrelated, but you can focus each one on how you are very caring, which is an important personality trait for the pre-nursing program you are applying for.

    Rule 5: Do not exceed the word count.

    If the prompt lists a maximum word count, do not go over it. The word count not only keeps the length of your paper in check, it also shows that you can follow directions. College admission officers have to read through a lot of essays each year, and they sometimes use the word count to eliminate students who do not follow directions. You don't want yours being thrown aside because it went over the word limit.

    Rule 6: Remember what is appropriate in your statement of purpose.

    Finally, you should avoid discussing money as a motivator, complaining about unfortunate circumstances in your life, and preaching to your reader. You should also be careful when writing about your race, religion, sexuality, or class unless you connect these issues to your overarching theme. Although these issues can make for a compelling essay, they can easily shift the reader's focus from you as a person and overshadow the essay. Thus, if you discuss any of these issues, make sure they actively highlight an experience of learning, personal growth, or achievement.

    Sample Statement of Purpose

    Prompt: We have all had heroes in our lives. A hero can be a parent, a teacher, a friend, or anyone who inspired us. In 700 words or less, write about a situation in which you met one of your heroes.

    Last year, I spent two months as a camp counselor at a music summer camp. I worked with many students, most of whom were around nine to twelve years old. However, one boy, Andy, stood out from the rest. From the very first day, I could tell that he would be trouble. I figured he had been sent unwillingly to camp and was just upset he had to spend his summer here instead of watching TV at home. He was pouty, listless, and generally grumpy. Andy did not want to participate in group activities, and during music practices, he failed to pay attention and refused to practice his scales. He may have had a bad attitude, but there was nothing the counselors could do about this, as he had not bothered anyone else with his behavior.

    The situation changed drastically, however, when Andy got into a fight with another boy, Lucas. Lucas was an outgoing eleven-year-old who always greeted everyone with a smile. The other counselors and I were shocked that he had gotten into a fight with another student, and we immediately asked each boy what they were fighting about. I found out from the two that Lucas had just gotten a phone call from his mother. Andy overheard Lucas's conversation and later teased Lucas about being a big baby. Eventually, he provoked Lucas into hitting him. We sent Lucas back to his music rehearsal with a warning about giving into to teasing, and it was left to me as the senior counselor to deal with Andy.

    I started tentatively. “Look Andy, if you don't want to be here, you should talk to one of us. But we can't have you behaving like this. Your attitude has started affecting the other students.”

    He looked up at me, and his lower lip began to quiver. He was about to cry.

    I had never had a student start crying before, and I fumbled for words. “Heeeey, hey. Don't cry now. You can't go around provoking people, and I'm gonna have to call your parents, but it's not the end of the world.”

    “Please don't call my parents,” he whispered hoarsely. “I miss my family, but I don't want to go home. I begged them to let me come to camp, but my mom just said I'd get so homesick I'd be back in two days. This is my first time away from home.”

    It dawned on me that Andy's bad behavior was not because he had been forced to come to summer camp, but because he was homesick. I knew exactly what to say. “Hey, I get homesick too sometimes. But it's fun here, and I love working with you guys. Trust me. Start talking to some of the other students, and you'll make a bunch of new friends and feel better in no time. In fact, the two of us can be friends.”

    I spent the rest of summer camp with Andy, introducing him to the other kids and letting him tell me stories about his family. He tried hard to introduce himself to the other students, and he even apologized to Lucas. They became fast friends. Over the course of a few weeks, Andy made friends with several other campgoers. He also started practicing his music regularly, and by the end of camp he was one of the top students.

    Even though Andy was having a tough time at camp, he managed to overcome his homesickness in order to do what he really wanted--study music. He even made some great friends in the process. Andy is one of my heroes because of his courage. He knew what he wanted to do, and he worked hard to make his summer memorable. I know that I will soon be in a similar situation; college will take me far from my home, my friends, and my family. I will be in an unfamiliar place, but I will work my hardest to make my dreams real. I will make new friends, and I will work hard to improve my musical abilities. If Andy could do it, so can I.

    Review Questions

    1. Now that you've read a sample statement of purpose, do the following.
      • Pick a theme you want to write about. It could be about your heroes, a learning experience you had, or an obstacle you overcame.
      • With this theme in mind, come up with a list of at least three stories you could use to write an essay focused on your theme.
      • For each story, come up with a list of relevant details. They should be interesting to your reader, and they should lead to the main point of your essay.
    2. Now, using a story that you picked for Exercise 1, write a 500-700 word personal statement on your chosen theme.

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