Statement of Purpose – the Critical Factor in the Master’s Application

by mba

The springboard to admission

Kofi Kankam earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Biology (focus on Neurobiology) from Harvard College, his Master of Education degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and his MBA from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Prior to Admit Advantage/Admit.me, Kofi cofounded and successfully exited an educational software company offering job training and preparatory materials to universities and various corporations. Kofi began his career as a consultant for Accenture in New York City servicing the telecommunications space.

In graduate school admissions, what is a personal statement and what is its role and weight in the admissions process?

The personal statement is the main opportunity for the candidate to directly express themselves to an admissions committee. Personal statements are intended to give the applicant a forum to describe their interest in pursuing a particular graduate degree as well as the particular professional pursuit they intend to apply their degree to.

It is intended to tie together the various parts of the application including the letters of recommendation, resume/CV, interview, and the non-essay data portion, by providing the most expansive platform for the applicant to directly advocate for their candidacy. Indirectly or directly, it addresses questions such as the applicant’s communication and persuasive abilities, authenticity, catalyst and desire for a particular degree, values, and confidence in their candidacy.

The weight varies from school to school (and programme to programme), but it is considerable in terms of admissions. Essentially, assuming that the applicant has academic marks and test scores in the appropriate range, the personal statement is a… the… critical factor in determining if a candidate’s application is successful.

In many education systems around the world, the admission process does not require any essays or a personal statement, often just test scores. What should these applicants know to improve their chances of admission?

Beyond doing well in their exams, the applicants need to do well in the areas they can control including the interview and the letter of recommendation. They have to capitalise on any soft elements that are related to their candidacy and interest in pursuing a degree. For example, the interview becomes very important because it represents the sole opportunity for the applicant to present themselves and effectively showcase their candidacy in three dimensions as opposed to two. This opportunity cannot be overstated in its importance. Additionally, the opportunity to have an objective “third party” review of a candidate via the letter of recommendation is important to influence. The applicant should focus on both with more intensity in an application environment where there is no essay or personal statement.

How does the personal statement differ from admission essays? Can one school request both and how to approach each of them?

A personal statement is a kind of admissions essay. It typically is more focused on a candidate’s reason for applying to the programme and their particular interest in the field of study. Essentially, it’s more personally about the candidate.

An admissions essay may ask a range of other kinds of questions including: biggest weakness, times you’ve had to overcome a mistake, how you would introduce yourself to your classmates, etc… There are a range of questions that may be asked in an admissions essay, many of which may overlap with the content of the personal statement. A school may request both, though I don’t believe most would.

How does all the research for selecting schools help students craft an outstanding statement of purpose?

The research enables applicants to have useful information that they can leverage to tailor their background to the specific school’s application. Thus, they can best demonstrate their fit with the particular programme, which would be most succinctly expressed in the personal statement.

The kind of information that a user can leverage to propel their statement of purpose from good to great includes knowledge about the specific programmes a school offers, employers who hire from the programme, highly touted professors, alumni who have done well in the areas in which a candidate wants to study, where and how students live, how they spend their free time, and specific teaching styles.

When applying for admission to more than one university or programme, should the personal statement be adapted, and if so, why and how?

Yes, it should be adapted by using the research mentioned in the response above. Such adaptation will enable the applicant to demonstrate that the school is a good fit and will help the admissions officer feel comfortable that the applicant will do well in the programme. Additionally, it will highlight that the applicant actually does want to attend the programme, which is important to most schools that monitor their yield – the percentage of accepted students who decide to matriculate.

How can personal meetings with admissions representatives, campus tours, and webinars help applicants build strong arguments in their personal statement?

They contribute to the research that a candidate obtains. Additionally, the meetings with the admissions reps give an opportunity for the candidate to build an advocate for their application. A candidate who makes a favourable impression on an admissions officer and who uses that initial interaction to build a relationship may be advantaged during the formal application review even beyond a strengthened personal statement.

What are the pros and cons of looking at sample statements of purpose?

A candidate who reviews successful statements of purpose will gain knowledge of two items: the specific structure of a successful statement of purpose, and the knowledge of the content that schools find attractive. The inherent risk, and potential negative, is that the applicant will be persuaded to believe that only the content in the sample essays is deemed acceptable by schools. And that is an incorrect assumption that can be fatal for two reasons: (1) The candidate may not be able to support that version of content based on their background; (2) The candidate may weaken the unique portions of their application and thereby weaken the application as a whole.

What are the major mistakes that grad school applicants should avoid when working on their statement of purpose?

A few key mistakes are to be avoided: (1) Not doing enough research on the schools so a candidate cannot and does not tailor their application to each specific school; (2) Not speaking to students or alumni and not detailing the personal, non-website information in the application itself; (3) Copying the content of other successful candidates, effectively deciding to share what a candidate perceives a school wants/desires versus being authentic.

What help can graduate school applicants use while preparing their personal statement so that the admissions committee can see their authentic work, genuine ideas and style of expression?

A candidate should use a tool which helps to structure their application pursuit while also offering a process for candidates to determine what their stories, experiences, and accomplishments are. Obviously support which helps them target the right fit and mix of graduate schools is quite important. There are consultants like those at our company, Admit Advantage, who can help guide that process. We have created a tool that directly helps MBA applicants to execute a process, Admit.me. It starts with an assessment of the candidate and their chances of admission.

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