Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The Statement of Purpose

An application to SAIS Bologna has several parts. We discussed some of the challenges in a post last month.

Two weeks ago we shared our thoughts on standardized tests. The bottom line of that post was this: Get going on the standardized tests, including any English competence exams, because they take time and you may want to take them more than once.

Today's topic is the statement of purpose (aka "statement of aims"). This is obviously an important element of an application because it requires the candidate to express why graduate school and why SAIS Bologna. These may seem obvious questions, but the answers are not.

Irena and Sebastian 
There is no stock answer and no set format or style. We are looking for unique individuals with special qualities -- and these have to be conveyed somehow in the statement.

What better experts on statements of purpose than current students? We turned to Irena Peresa and Sebastian Alexander Ernst, who wrote outstanding statements when they applied for the 2011-12 year.

You'll notice that Irena and Sebastian Alexander took slightly different tacks in preparing their statements. But that is quite normal -- each candidate will follow their own path and their own intuition.

Here is what they said:


Writing a statement of purpose is probably the most time- and mind-consuming part of any application. Communicating the fact that you are an ideal pick to the selection committee, under word-limit pressure, is indeed hard.

Having been part of a few similar committees over the years, I had had the chance to read hundreds of statements of purpose. It is clear that most students are aware of the main do's and don’t's, and follow the rules carefully. However, that is often times not enough – a statement needs to convey a part of your person. Sincerity in the statements always struck me because it disclosed to the reader a motivation somehow beyond the expected level as well as required personal traits.

For this reason, I chose not to have my statement of purpose reviewed by many people. The feedback received from my colleagues was great, but most of it did not end up in the final version because these views were not really mine. I decided to stick with what came from my own brainstorming and see where it took me.

Undertaking extensive research on the M.A. at SAIS (curriculum, professors, etc.) and comparing it with others helped me a lot. After that, I knew exactly why I had chosen the program, and what I wanted to obtain from it. And even though it was not the most logical step following my previous experience and education, for me it made perfect sense.

Once I realized where I wanted grad school to take me (and how), writing a sincere and strong personal statement seemed a much easier task.


Drafting a statement of aims eventually comes down to telling your side of the story. For me, it meant both a challenge and a chance to distinguish myself from others.

While I was confident about why I wanted to pursue a career in international relations, connecting the different “dots” was not as easy. To make sure the experiences and accomplishments were relevant and persuasive for “my story,” I had different people review my drafts right from the beginning. These evaluations played an important role in the process of identifying and emphasizing my individual strengths.

Whether or not you decide to involve your peers, I strongly believe that every piece of writing will benefit greatly from a large number of drafts. Constantly reviewing and reevaluating your statement, however, requires a lot of effort and can be extremely time-consuming. This is why I began the drafting process well in advance to ensure I had enough time to make my statement as strong as possible.

In combination with conveying knowledge of the programs I applied to, I sought to convey a sound story that would stick to the reader’s mind. Telling a proper story – in my case an uncomfortable encounter with a Brazilian street child – emphasizes your motivation and serves as an excellent guide through your statement as long as it relates to your past experiences and future aims. This kind of personal insight enhances your chance to stand out among the large number of highly competitive applicants, which is in the end what matters most.

Nelson Graves