[This is an update of the fifth part of a series published in 2007. For the full series, see here.]
I've never read a first draft of a statement of purpose (also called a personal statement) that was any good. These things are hard to write, so give yourself plenty of time and seek the feedback of at least two of your letter writers. Plan to rewrite from scratch at least once.
It’s hard to know even what a “Statement of Purpose” is. Your plan is to go to graduate school, get a Ph.D., and become a professor. Duh! Are you supposed to try to convince the committee that you want to become a professor more than the next guy? That philosophy is written in your genes? That you have some profound vision for the transformation of philosophy or philosophy education?
Some Things Not to Do
* Don’t wax poetic. Don’t get corny. Avoid purple prose. “Ever since I was eight, I've pondered the deep questions of life.” Nope. “Philosophy is the queen of disciplines, delving to the heart of all.” Nope. “The Owl of Minerva has sung to me and the sage of Königsberg whispers in my sleep: Not to philosophize is to die.” If you are tempted to write sentences like that last one, please do so in longhand, with golden ink, on expensive stationery which you then burn without telling anyone.
* Don’t turn your statement into a sales pitch. Ignore all advice from friends and acquaintances in the business world. Don’t sell yourself. You don’t want to seem arrogant or grandiose or like a BS-ing huckster. You may still (optionally!) mention a few of your accomplishments, in a dry, factual way, but to be overly enthusiastic about accomplishments that are rather small in the overall scheme of academia is somewhat less professional than you ideally want to seem. If you’re already thinking like a graduate student at a good PhD program, then you won’t be too impressed with yourself for having published in the Kansas State Undergraduate Philosophy Journal (even if that is, in context, a notable achievement). Trust your letter writers. If you’ve armed them properly with a brag sheet, the important accomplishments will come across in your file. Let them do the pitch. Also, don’t say you plan to revolutionize philosophy, reinvigorate X, rediscover Y, finally find the answer to timeless question Z, or even teach in a top-ten department. Do you already know that you will be a more eminent professor than the people on your admissions committee? You’re aiming to be their student, not the next Wittgenstein – or at least that’s how you want to come across. You want to seem modest, humble, straightforward. If necessary, consult David Hume or Benjamin Franklin for inspiration on the advantages of false humility.
* If you are applying to a program in which you are expected to do coursework for a couple years before starting on a dissertation – that is, U.S.-style programs as opposed to British-style programs – then I recommend not taking stands on particular substantive philosophical issues. In the eyes of the admissions committee, you probably aren’t far enough in your philosophical education to be adopting hard philosophical commitments. They want you to come to their program with an open mind. Saying "I would like to defend Davidson's view that genuine belief is limited to language-speaking creatures" comes across a bit too strong. Similarly, "I showed in my honors thesis that Davidson's view...". If only, in philosophy, honors theses ever really showed anything! (“Argued” would be okay.) Better: "My central interests are philosophy of mind and philosophy of language. I am particularly interested in the intersection of the two, for example in Davidson's argument that only language-speaking creatures can have beliefs in the full and proper sense of 'belief'."
* Don’t tell the story of how you came to be interested in philosophy. It’s not really relevant.
What to Write
So how do you fill up that awful, blank-looking page? In April, I solicited sample statements of purpose from successful recent PhD applicants. About a dozen readers kindly sent in their statements and from among these I chose three that I thought were good and also diverse enough to illustrate the range of possibilities. Follow the links below to view the statements.
- Statement A was written by Allison Glasscock, who was admitted to Chicago, Cornell, Penn, Stanford, Toronto, and Yale.
- Statement B was written by a student who prefers to remain anonymous, who was admitted to Berkeley, Missouri, UMass Amherst, Virginia, Wash U. in St. Louis, and Wisconsin.
- Statement C was written by another student who prefers to remain anonymous, who was admitted to Connecticut and Indiana.
Each of the statements also adds something else, in addition to a description of areas of interest, but it is not really necessary to add anything else. Statement B starts with pretty much the perfect philosophy application joke. (Sorry, now it’s taken!) Statement C concludes with a paragraph describing the applicant’s involvement with his school’s philosophy club. Statement C is topically structured but salted with information about coursework relevant to the applicant’s interests, while Statement B is topically structured and minimalist, and Statement A is autobiographically structured with considerable detail. Any of these approaches is fine, though the topical structure is more common and raises fewer challenges about finding the right tone.
Statement A concludes with a paragraph specifically tailored for Yale. Thus we come to the question of...
Tailoring Statements to Particular Programs
It's not necessary, but you can adjust your statement for individual schools. If there is some particular reason you find a school attractive, there's no harm in mentioning that. Committees think about fit between a student’s interests and the strengths of the department and about what faculty could potentially be advisors. You can help the committee on this issue if you like, though normally it will be obvious from your description of your areas of interest.
For example, if you wish, you can mention 2-3 professors whose work especially interests you. But there are risks here, so be careful. Mentioning particular professors can backfire if you mischaracterize the professors, or if they don't match your areas of stated interest, or if you omit the professor in the department whose interests seem to the committee to be the closest match to your own.
Similarly, you can mention general strengths of the school. But, again, if you do this, be sure to get it right! If someone applies to UCR citing our strength in artificial intelligence, we know the person hasn’t paid attention to what our department is good at. No one here works on AI. But if you want to go to a school that has strengths in both mainstream “analytic” philosophy and 19th-20th century “Continental” philosophy, that’s something we at UCR do think of as a strong point of our program.
I'm not sure I'd recommend changing your stated areas of interest to suit the schools, though I see how that might be strategic. There are two risks in changing your stated areas of interest: One is that if you change them too much, there might be some discord between your statement of purpose and what your letter writers say about you. Another is that large changes might raise questions about your choice of letter writers. If you say your central passion is ancient philosophy, and your only ancient philosophy class was with Prof. Platophile, why hasn’t Prof. Platophile written one of your letters? That’s the type of oddness that might make a committee hesitate about an otherwise strong file.
Some people mention personal reasons for wanting to be in a particular geographical area (near family, etc.). Although this can be good because it can make it seem more likely that you would accept an offer of admission, I'd avoid it since graduating Ph.D.'s generally need to be flexible about location and it might be perceived as indicating that a career in philosophy is not your first priority.
Explaining Weaknesses in Your File
Although hopefully this won't be necessary, a statement of purpose can also be an opportunity to explain weaknesses or oddities in your file -- though letter writers can also do this, often more credibly. For example, if one quarter you did badly because your health was poor, you can mention that fact. If you changed undergraduate institutions (not necessarily a weakness if the second school is the more prestigious), you can briefly explain why. If you don't have a letter from your thesis advisor because he died, you can point that out.
Statements of Personal History
Some schools, like UCR, also allow applicants to submit “statements of personal history”, in which applicants can indicate disadvantages or obstacles they have overcome or otherwise attempt to paint an appealing picture of themselves. The higher-level U.C. system administration encourages such statements, I believe, because although state law prohibits the University of California from favoring applicants on the basis of ethnicity or gender, state law does allow admissions committees to take into account any hardships that applicants have overcome – which can include hardships due to poverty, disability, or other obstacles, including hardships deriving from ethnicity or gender.
Different committee members react rather differently to such statements, I suspect. I find them unhelpful for the most part. And yet I also think that some people do, because of their backgrounds, deserve special consideration. Unless you have a sure hand with tone, though, I would encourage a dry, minimal approach to this part of the application. It’s better to skip it entirely than to concoct a story that looks like special pleading from a rather ordinary complement of hardships. This part of the application also seems to beg for the corniness I warned against above: “Ever since I was eight, I’ve pondered the deep questions of life...”. I see how such corniness is tempting if the only alternative seems to be to leave an important part of the application blank. As a committee member, I usually just skim and forget the statements of personal history, unless something was particularly striking.
For more general thoughts on the influence of ethnicity and gender on committee decisions, see Part VI of this series.
For further advice on statements of purpose, see this discussion on Leiter Reports – particularly the discussion between the difference between U.S. and U.K. statements of purpose.
See here for comments on the 2007 version of this post. You might want to skim through those comments before posting a comment below.