Statements of Purpose and Letters of Recommendation

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Statements of Purpose and Letters of Recommendation

  • GSPI
  • Reality Series
  • October 15, 2008

Statements of Purpose

  • Recipient’s multiple goals
    • Evaluate the fit of your interests, values, personality, and priorities with their program
    • Evaluate your background and goals to complement the quantitative and factual other information
    • Evaluate the quality of your background and preparation for their program
    • Identify deficiencies, how you intend to or have addressed them
    • Evaluate your writing skills

In Context – the Narrative

  • GPA, GRE, other numerical
  • Coursework, efficiency, breadth
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Skills – writing, math, statistics, research, clinical or context-specific skills (schools, industry, foster care)
  • Letters of recommendation
  • STATEMENT should tie all of these together, make you a coherent person
  • Statement is especially important if you have weaknesses and/or idiosyncratic interests


  • Be concise, clear, don’t obfuscate, BE CLEAR!
  • Use chronological and logical organization
  • Don’t be too vague, evaluative, be more specific
  • Sound confident but not arrogant (open, humble, grateful)
  • Every single word must be spelled correctly
  • Pay special attention to apostrophes, capitalization, syntax
  • First paragraph should be written last, it is your best work
  • Attend, 100%, to instructions
  • If no page limit specified, suggest 2-3 pages

Who Am I, Anyway?

  • More difficult than simply accounting for your actions, thinking about who you are and how this fits in with your goals is tremendously important.
    • What choices (easy vs. difficult courses, extracurricular activities) have you made so far about your academic life?
    • What courses do you most enjoy? Why?
    • What do you most enjoy about your chosen field?
    • What are you doing when you feel most competent and engaged in your chosen field?
    • What books or articles do you spontaneously pick up and read?
    • When you think about what you want to do in your daily life, what is it that you’d like to be doing in 10 years in your career?


  • Personal background
  • Career goals
  • General area of interest
  • Academic objectives
  • Clinical/practicum experience
  • Research/other academic experience
  • Special skills
  • Fit with program
  • Fit with faculty members

Beginning the Essay

  • Yikes! This is REALLY hard! (yes, self-reflection is hard, especially when you’re actively developing!)
  • Write free-form on each module
  • Fill in with specific information (use CV as a method)
  • Polish and look at overall organization
  • Write first paragraph, synthesizing
  • Write an individual paragraph for each school about your fit with the program and faculty

Personal Background

  • Don’t make yourself into a victim. Be empowered by your downfalls and how you responded to them, learned from them
  • Be somewhat objective, describe family history, how early experiences influenced who you are now
  • Link personal background to goals for the future – helping others in your community – what is the impetus for your goals?

Career Goals

  • Be informed:
  • What types of careers are there? What do people do who are working in that career?
  • What education do you need for your career goal?
  • What qualifications do students need to enter graduate school in that area?
  • What settings, populations, research questions do you hope to be working with?

General Areas of Interest

  • Be organized and coherent with other materials
  • Cite literature, don’t be afraid to use concepts and theories from your courses to interpret your own goals
  • Be clear and concise – many decisions are made on clarity of goals!

Academic Objectives

  • What do you want to get out of your graduate program?
  • What types of coursework, internship, research, and other experiences will help you to prepare for your career?
  • Can the program help you to meet your goals?
  • Does the program have sufficient flexibility to work realistically into your life?

Clinical/Practicum Experience

  • If possible, stay in a setting for a year or more (continuity, maturity, responsibility)
  • Keep careful track of the number of hours you work on different responsibilities
  • Keep careful track of all training you have received and given
  • Keep careful track of all skills you have gained
  • Keep careful track of all of the products that you have generated (procedure manuals, conference papers, etc.)

Research Experiences

  • Stay in a lab for a year or more
  • Diversity in skills is critical
  • Show leadership skills after learning the basics
  • Be as helpful in providing research assistance (library, web-based), data collection, data entry, data management and analysis, writing as possible.
  • Offer to assist with conference papers, publications once you’ve been in a lab for 6+ months

Other Academic Experiences

  • Student clubs and organizations (Psi Chi, Multicultural Psychology Association, Sigma Xi, Phi Kappa Phi, etc.) Member or officer
  • Awards or recognition
  • Volunteering for the department
  • Special experiences

Special Skills

  • Bicultural/multicultural
  • Bilingual/multilingual
  • Statistics and methodology
  • Conferences, publications, public speeches
  • Testing, assessment
  • Software, specialized techniques (E-Prime, Neuroscan, LexiCor)


  • Know their program well!
  • Never ask a question before looking at web pages and all publicly available information
  • Describe how the program’s mission, courses, and experiences match your graduate education and career interests
  • Describe how the faculty and other specifics (medical center, other) will facilitate your meeting your goals
  • Describe how you are qualified and ready!

Anything Else?

  • Low GREs, GPA, other weaknesses should be addressed directly, but ONLY if they truly are a weakness (better to ask faculty to address)
  • If you have done something extraordinary – managed a family, aging parent during your undergraduate years or survived a tragedy and persevered, be vocal!

Letters of Recommendation

  • Usually 2 - 3, sometimes 4 letters required
  • Don’t add extra letters just because, but if you have 4 referees who have something meaningful to say, it probably won’t hurt; Especially if the 4th has meaning

Letters of Recommendation

  • Forms ask time known, good candidate, academic record reflect ability, acceptable in own program
  • Items on which candidates are often evaluated - Scales
  • Recommend, top 1%, etc.

Letters of Recommendation

  • Ask yourself how your professors view you
    • Academic achievement
    • Research ability, experience, or potential
      • Especially advanced or honors courses that parallel advanced courses elsewhere
    • Teaching potential or experience
    • Verbal skills, public speaking ability
    • Leadership ability
    • Character, honesty, integrity, ethical & moral standards

Letter of Recommendation

  • Sometimes letters are as important as grades & test scores
  • But can’t compensate for poor grades, test scores
  • Once initial cut, recommendation letters can be very powerful
  • Provide insight into the individual’s abilities, work habits, etc.
  • Can signal problems

Letter of Recommendation

  • If you ask a referee who doesn’t know you well, your letter is likely to be less than wonderful
  • Specificity is viewed positively, perceived credibility of referee
  • Longer letters for students they like & admire
  • Too-long, they may only be skimmed

Letter of Recommendation

  • Traits that are viewed most negatively
    • Often hands in assignments late
    • Is arrogant
    • At age 29 is a bit immature
    • Participates often in class, but comments tend to be off-target or rambling
    • Is dependent & can be “clingy” when insecure
    • Misses classes frequently
    • Requires considerable structured direction
    • Is brilliant but unmotivated
    • Likes argument for its own sake
    • Is poorly groomed & unkempt

Letter of Recommendation

  • Traits that are viewed most positively
    • Is a self-starter
    • Is highly motivated to achieve
    • Is responsible & dependable
    • Is always willing to pitch in & help out
    • Has a professional manner & attitude
    • Participates effectively in class
    • Is outgoing & friendly
    • Has a good sense of humor

Letter of Recommendation

  • Improvements are important, if you see a flaw, fix it
  • Remind professor of things that might be problematic, be sure to remind your referee of your fixing the obstacle!
  • If you were praised or did something, remind
  • Printed information: resume (CV), paper, statement of purpose, etc.

Letter of Recommendation

  • Best bet: professors with whom you’ve worked, taken several courses with, whose professional identity is aligned with your own
  • Especially statistics professors who are impressed with your abilities
  • Services: should be someone who teaches or works in your field and can comment, based on direct observation of your abilities

Letter of Recommendation

  • Best to ask professors from whom you’ve received good grades (taken a course), have a good relationship with, taken upper division courses from - especially if they’re difficult courses
  • Other department?
    • Yes, especially if relevant
    • Must match your goals
    • Child development or FES for developmental psychology
  • Worked with but not taken classes from
    • Not as good - professors need to know who you are academically

Letter of Recommendation

  • Field work supervisors - especially if clinical, counseling, applied programs
  • Employers if your job bears a clear relationship to your field
    • Computer programmer applying for quantitative program
  • Only ask your therapist if you had a dip in grades or inconsistencies that would be addressed by this person
  • Not family or friends
  • Religious schools may require a letter from a clergy member

Letter of Recommendation

  • Reputation of letter-writer matters
  • Have previous students done well?
  • Is the person important in her or his field?
  • All things being equal, a better known referee is better than a lesser known
  • Full-time better than part-time or teaching assistant
  • Fieldwork supervisor with PhD better than MA or BA

Letter of Recommendation

  • You have to ask a professor, don’t just leave materials
  • Must be respectful, careful, sensitive
  • List names of referees who have agreed to write you letters
  • SCARY? But professors are asked all of the time & understand
  • Reach them in person
  • Direct discussion of situation and needs
  • Office hours or call ahead
  • If you have to write, include a photo

Letter of Recommendation

  • “I’m here to ask you if you would feel comfortable writing a strong letter of recommendation for me.”
  • If they say yes, be ready to give them forms, other information
  • If some reservations, discuss, make sure that the letter will be positive
  • I would appreciate it if you would tell me if you will write about any reservations
  • Main reason professors say no is because they don’t know you well enough; May not have enough time; May have some real-world reservations

Letter of Recommendation

  • Three weeks is usually enough time
  • Complete negotiations by mid-November for December & January deadlines
  • Faculty don’t want to write letters over break
  • Providing information is important - resume (CV) statement of purpose, transcripts, GPAs, list of courses in major, courses you plan to take, papers you wrote for the professor, GRE scores, comments about other things, courses/experiences you shared with your referee, relevant work, experiences

Letter of Recommendation

  • Informational package -
    • Should be well-organized & neat
    • Complete & accurate
    • All forms should be typed; make it easy to read; Type your name on each form; Fill out waiver of rights; If no forms, say so
    • If paper, provide addressed envelope, stamp
    • Cover sheet with list of schools, deadlines, type of program ONLINE OR PAPER
    • Give referee all the letters at one time, not a few at a time
    • Don’t ask for letter of recommendation; If referee wants to give it to you, they will

Letter of Recommendation

  • Informational package -
    • Waiver?
    • Up to you
    • Looks better if you waive your rights, but you should have the right to see the letter
    • Makes a difference in the letter
    • Write poorer letters if students do not waive their right
    • View letters where students waived as less biased, more honest
    • Go back to your professor and let them know how you did!

What should I consider when filling out application forms?

  • 8 - 16 hours per application at the beginning
  • Second & subsequent applications may be 4 - 6 hours
  • Save time by getting organized, having paragraphs written, etc.
  • Sometimes apply to university & department
  • Usually want statement of purpose as well
  • Most time - essays & experimenting with forms
  • Compute your GPA several different ways--takes time

What should I consider when filling out application forms?

  • Make at least two photocopies of each application form
  • Pencil in information at first
  • Second copy for trial with typewriter
  • Use fillable (pdf) forms if at all possible
  • Put N/A instead of leaving any spaces blank
  • If it won’t fit, continued on next page or see attached sheets and have appropriate headings
  • Or you can just put in what you can and say see CV for more
  • Neatness really counts

What should I consider when filling out application forms?

  • Cover letter only if needed to explain a special circumstance (my referee has just arrived back from another country or I speak English well). Only if no other place to put it
  • If you have a resume (CV) or other material and they don’t explicitly say not to include such things, then you should

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