Graduate Study in Psychology:

The Statement of Purpose/Letter of Intent/Graduate School Essay

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The Statement of Purpose (also called "Letter of Intent" or "Application Essay" or something like that) is by far one of the most important parts of your application. Often it is the only way the admissions committee can evaluate your writing skills. Many applications will specifically tell you what they want you to address in this essay, but usually the instructions are vague. Here are some tips:
  1. Plan on spending a lot of time on this essay. This will probably be the most difficult 1-2 page essay you've ever written. Most people I know take a month or more to write the essay--writing, rewriting, letting it sit and pondering what's been written, and then returning to it to do more editing, rewriting, tearing-it-up-and-starting-it-over-againing, and writing some more.
  2. Solicit comments from professors and graduate students whom you know well--they can guide you as to what to focus on, what sounds too goofy or cheesy to include, what sounds like immature writing, etc. You can also give it to an english major friend of yours--english, philosophy, and comparative literature majors typically write far better than the average Psychology major and should be able to help you make your language sound smoother.
  3. It is common for students to use the most advanced vocabulary they can muster, but what usually results is some perversion of English worth rolling your eyes at. For example, the very tacky sentence "I endeavor to pursue my doctorate in the field of cognitive psychology because I believe human thought permeates all facets of human behavior--from exam-taking to abhorrent aggression--and I believe that, as a cognitive psychologist, I would find the profession fulfilling to such a degree that I would be ecstatic regarding my chosen profession" would have sounded much better like this: "I want to get my PhD in cognitive psychology because I think it's an intriguing field and I know I'd be happy working in it". Most of us don't write as well as we think we do--so make sure you solicit comments from people whom you know to be better writers than yourself.
  4. Keep it brief. Most applications specify how long the essay should be, but if they don't, stick to 1-2 pages single-spaced. (But double-space it if the instructions tell you to.)
  5. Humor can be dangerous, because most of us aren't very good at making someone laugh whom we've never met before. My advice is to avoid any funny-business unless you're absolutely sure that you can pull it off.
  6. Here is a rough outline you can follow when writing your statement of purpose. But make sure you also follow any instructions on your appliation, and make sure you also follow the advice of your professors.
  7. Obviously, proof-read your essay a zillion times and make sure that there is not a single punctuation or grammatical error in it. Also, I state again, have several good writers (including several who are graduate students or professors) look over your essay for you and offer suggestions.
  8. Above all, keep in mind that the tips on this page are very flexible. You should follow the instructions on your application and the advice of your professors.
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