How to write a successful Graduate Degree Purpose Statement: Part 2

Josh Nelson
Jan 17, 2019 · 7 min read

Over the past year, I’ve had an opportunity to review and make recommendations for a number of different individuals seeking advice on their graduate degree purpose statements (GDPS). I’ve already written an article on the subject, but in this article, I’m going to expand on some of those ideas and write about other big items that I focused on when helping others write their GDPS.

  1. Be Specific — But know when to stop.
  2. The “what” is important — But not as much as the “why.”
  3. Subjectivity vs Objectivity — Lean into it.
  4. Narratives are based on transitions — Refinement is paramount.

If you haven’t had a chance to check out my previous article, I highly recommend taking a peek at it prior to diving into it this article as it covers some fundaments which this article will sit on top of.

Here a link to it. Part 1.

1) Be specific — but know when to stop.

Perhaps the number one crime that I saw when reviewing GDPS’s over the past year was the lack of specificity. If you’re going to talk about something then actually talk about it. Arguably there are instances when you cannot because of an NDA, but in most instances that wasn’t the case.

For some basics, instead of saying “I worked with a non-profit”, simply list the name which grounds it in reality. Or if you’re talking about a system, tell us in brief about the system and what it does. Such as if the system is a VR based house exploration system, talk about what it does for actual people or/and the business.

But know when to stop…

If it doesn’t relate to your main goal or purpose within the GDPS question then remove it. This can be hard to swallow as it can at times seem like it is all entirely important and shouldn’t be trimmed. But frankly put, at the end of the day you have a limited amount of space and have to fight against a sea of other essays. That means that above all your answers need to be thought-provoking and memorable. This won’t happen if the essay’s subject is unrelated to your main goal which can sow seeds of confusion and cause of challenging digestion.

So ask yourself, when being specific, have you gotten lost in the weeds? Does your specificity help your narrative or are you wasting potentially incredibly valuable real estate on details that don’t matter?

EX: It doesn’t matter how a system worked unless you built it or improved it.

EX: It doesn’t matter what the program does if it doesn’t relate to your overarching goals, ambitions or drive.


2) The “what” is important — but not as much as the “why.”

What you do matters. It shows that you’re making an active contribution to the world. But when considering an application for a competitive program, either what you did must be absolutely amazing (like starting an extremely successful non-profit or business) or it really shouldn’t be the star of the show. Because at the end of the day these schools, when building a cohort, are seeking out people that contribute, stimulate conversation and drive progress forward.

Those last two items are key. Because what you do can be random and happenstance (ask any two-year-old why they drew with a red crayon instance of a blue crayon for example), it can be a random act that just led to another random act. And this is the reason the why of what you do matters. Because the why is indicative of thought, and intent. Purposeful actions are an incredible indicator of who you are and what you are capable of, but most people will only know this by you making sure to spell it out within your essay.

In many ways, this builds off my point from my first article which was to write “proactively”. One was to express a proactive mindset is to shift the focus away from what you did to why you did it.

Another way to think about it is that what you’ve done is a historical retrospective review locked in time. But why you did something can not only help explain and add context to the past what but provide a good indicator of how you will perform and what you are capable of accomplishing in the future — given the right chances.

As a final note of the subject, why you do something can be powerful, but it should be predicated on the what which provides it substance. It’s great to have dreams, but not putting them into action is equally as damaging as not know why you did something.


3) Subjectivity vs Objectivity — Lean into it.

Statement: “I want to make a difference.”

Great. So you want to make a difference… based on what? What measurement are you using? Something objective or subjective? It doesn’t really matter which you choose as long as you own it.

For Example: “I want to make a positive difference in the world that connects and honors all cultures.”

This is an objectively great statement. Sweet. Go. Make your difference. We all want to see it. By simply saying “positive” before difference your modifying it for the better. But to play the devil's advocate, you can even say that Hitler was attempting to make a positive difference in the world based on his own subjective understanding of what would be good. So it’s important to make sure you contextualize your statement and ground it. Hence the “connects and honors all cultures,” which provides additional levels of specificity and removes, to a certain degree, the subjectivity which can weaken and water down your statement.

However this statement: “I want to make a difference that can be felt in the community and empowers individuals to find success…” this I would argue is more subjective than the previous statement. What community? Which individuals? What does empowerment mean? What does success look like? For different people, it is obviously different.

Granted you don’t have time or room in a short essay to explain the exact definition of each word, but make sure that you take ownership of the connotations that you’ve applied to it. If it’s subjective, let it be known and lean into it. If it’s objective, rinse and repeat.

Here’s a great personal example. I love the word “simple” when describing design. I use it to a fault, because to me “simple” means “without excess, having been subject to rigorous refinement (which builds off the actual definition of ‘easily understood or done; presenting no difficulty’).” To me, simple is the exact opposite of “basic,” which I define as “default, void of careful consideration but present and accounted for (which builds off the actual definition of ‘forming an essential foundation or starting point; fundamental’).”

Be extremely careful of the words you use and what they mean.


4) Narratives are based on transitions — Refinement is paramount.

The most powerful GDPS’s are those that tell powerful emotive stories. Stories can have this amazing capability of transcending themselves to become something greater… something memorable — but only if you let them. Remember when you’re submitting a GDPS you are one of perhaps 100 others… or even 1000+. You’ve got to stand out, and one way you can do that is to make sure your narrative is refined, and extremely easy to digest.

With that stated, it’s important that there are transitions. A transition is defined as a “process or a period from one state or condition to another.” Complete thoughts should be reflected in your narrative and each individual section should work together to paint a larger picture of a whole individual.

When you’re applying, your essay crafts a picture of who you are. You want to leave the reader with an image of an individual that is fully formed, as opposed to Frankensteins beast; which was stitched and sewn together. What this means is that even if your individual paragraphs are separate ideas, make sure there is a clear logical flow between them. Don’t jump around, but smoothly glide into the next item.

For instance, your 500 or 600-word essay should follow a narrative story arch:

  • Beginning — intro & action
  • Middle — rising action & climax
  • End — resolution

There should be clear movement from the beginning to the ending so that when the reader arrives at the end they know they’ve finished and can see a complete thought. Of course, how you get there are very like crazy, but the point still stands. Here’s for instance how I broke my own one section of my GDPS down:

  • Beginning — Why I’m applying & what I’ll do.
  • Middle — Building background, experience 1, experience 2, drive to apply
  • Resolution — What I expect to accomplish in the program

Or something roughly like that. It’s important to note that not only did I weave a story within one answer, but that I used all three essay’s to build on each other while being capable of existing as separate entities.

One of the best ways to make sure you’ve got logical transitions within your essay is to simply have another person read it. Even better yet, have them read it out loud to you in person. There should be a linguistic flow, a certain level of musicality as it were. This, however, is only achievable by refining your essay. So make sure that when it comes to the last day of submission you are not scrambling to piece it together to hit the deadline, but can sit back knowing that you invested time and energy into the essay and are prepared to showcase your very best.


These are just a few more things that I’ve learned while reviewing other peoples essay over the past year. I hope that you’re able to implement these into your essays and work to improve them, refine them, and all together make them more awesome.

Happy writing!

Josh Nelson

Written by

Product Designer @ Facebook || Founder of the Project Cobalt.

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