Perhaps the single most important part of the application is the statement of purpose (also called the letter of intent, among other names). The statement will vary in length, depending on whether you’re applying to a master’s program or a PhD program, as well as the school’s specific requirements. Generally speaking, however, a statement of purpose for a master’s program will usually be limited to 500-1000 words. A statement of purpose for a PhD program will likely be limited to around 1500 words. What I’m going to do here is to concentrate on PhD programs, although the advice also works for master’s programs, with a few exceptions (which I’ll try to note at the bottom).
Here are some tips I found helpful. They’re in no particular order, and if anyone would like to add anything, please do.
1) Discuss the questions that motivate you. One of the primary things an admissions committee is looking for is a candidate with a couple of focused, interesting, and burning questions they can bring to the program. Focused questions are neither too broad nor too narrow. They demonstrate that you’ve done some thinking about a topic and that you may even have a general sense of where you’re headed, but you’re open to learn a lot more. If your questions are too broad it could mean you haven’t really grappled with the issue much. If your questions are too narrow it might convey the idea that you’ve already solved your problem, and in essence don’t need the help of a PhD program to engage it. Interesting questions address current debates in your field and the interests of those you want to be working with. Burning questions are those which you can continue to ask for years on end. In other words, these need to be questions that you can (and perhaps will) ask throughout your PhD studies. Here are some examples. Bad question: Why is ritual so important in religion? Good questions: Can we assume that ritual is a universal phenomenon? If not, how do we create the discourse and vocabulary necessary to do comparative work?
The important thing about “selling yourself” is positioning your ideas in the form of questions as your number one selling point. While other selling points are important, I would say that none are as important as this.
2) Prove that you have the motivation to engage your questions. You can incorporate past experience here as demonstrative of your motivation. “During my master’s program…” or “In studying with Professor…” or “While living in…”. An admissions committee wants to know that you have the stamina to make it through the 5-10 years of a PhD program.
3) Show that you’ve acquired some of the skill-set necessary to engage your questions. Admissions committees realize that you’re not going to come into the program with all the skills necessary to write a dissertation or to become an academic. At the same time they do want to know that you have acquired some of the skills and are acquainted with working to do such. This might include some of the language skills necessary (another post will have to be done to define what this means).
4) Have people read it; especially people that are on the faculty of the school you’re applying to. I paid more attention to the advice for restructuring my statement from people on the actual admissions committees. It was also helpful to get feedback from some of the current students as well as other friends who knew me (although the latter may not understand the process of writing a statement of purpose for a PhD program). While doing this, don’t be too assertive. This is a fine line to walk, and being already enrolled in a school you’re applying to (for a master’s program for instance) will help you to know the culture of the school; but generally speaking, you’d have to create a relationship with your would-be advisor in the first place. And if the relationship is good, asking him or her to take a look at the statement shouldn’t be too much.
5) Get examples of successful statements. I can’t over state how much it helped me to see other successful statements for the programs I was applying to. This is where networking (especially through LDS channels) could come in handy if you’re applying to schools at which you know no other students. I think I had about half a dozen or so statements of purpose from people who had been accepted into the programs I was applying to. Coincidentally most of the schools I was unable to get successful letters from I was not admitted to.
6) Include something about why it’s significant for you to study at the institution your applying to. This is where you’d customize your statement a little for each application. What profs do you want to work with? Library facilities? Other nearby institutions? Organizations affiliated with the university? Etc.
For master’s programs, I would recommend most of the same things except I’d keep in mind that expectations in terms of points 1-3 are not as high.
Again, these aren’t hard and fast rules, so they’re open to be challenged and I welcome any additional thoughts.