The statement of purpose in graduate program applications: Genre structure and disciplinary variation

By Betty Samraj and Lenore Monk


Betty Samraj and Lenore Monk conducted a qualitative research study on the genre of “personal statement” or “statement of purpose.” This genre is unmentioned by Swales, and only a few studies existed before their research. They describe the genre as and occluded genre, as it is not one most linguists consider. The data for their study was gathered from successful statements of purpose submitted to master’s programs in three departments, Linguistics, Electrical Engineering and Business Administration. Their different methods of research included websites, surveys, books and interviews. They then analyzed various areas of composition, which included functionality of the statement, organization, approaches taken, and crucial information included and left out. Their conclusions and results include specifically focusing on cross-disciplinary differences and on statements written for entrance to master’s programs. 

Their goal for the study was the analysis of statements of purpose submitted to different departments under the knowledge equipped by disciplinary specialists. They first start their study with a survey of print and electronic resources of the personal statement writing process. They particularly selected 10 websites that purported to provide information for graduate programs based on common and specific knowledge. The websites fit into categories of websites that provided knowledge with a fee, websites seen to be electronic equivalents of text and websites generated by university career centers. They also chose books based on three categories; program not specified, programs specified as graduate programs and specific specialized programs. They did however find that not many books gave specialized advice to students in a specific disciple as most of it gave vague and generic descriptions. They also conducted one interview with one informant from each category of someone important in the graduate admissions process. The authors intended to gather information from common and most prevalent sources just as prospective applicants would find them. They did however find that not many books gave specialized advice to students in a specific disciple. 

Within their report they include three tables to supplement their studies. Table 1 gives a representation of the number of statements analyzed from each program from both native English speakers, and non-native English speakers. Table 2 gives a representation of types of handbooks and guides for prospective graduate students in different levels. Table 3 seems to give the most significant information as it draws out the moves and steps in statement of purpose from the three programs. This table shows the reader the exact things they noticed in the evaluation of the personal statements examined from real applicants. 
The two authors then conclude their research with appropriate deductions and findings from their research. They find that the statements from the three disciplines in the study include the two main rhetorical moves: Background and Reason for Applying. What is more interesting, however, is how these topics are vastly different among the three disciples. This may mean that what an Electrical Engineer and Linguistics applicant consider appropriate background information are vastly dissimilar, as many would have thought background information can only mean one thing. The also conclude that the Electrical Engineering and MBA statements seem to be the most distinctive from each other. Also, the interview with the informants from the Linguistics and Electrical Engineering departments generated some contrasting views on the lack of information on the writing of this genre. The engineering informant spoke on the ramification that the applicant should “know” what to say while the Linguistics informant recognized the nature of the occluded genre.
Ultimately, this study supplemented prior studies by the addition of different inter-disciplinary research. Their findings show that, although statements from the three disciplines may contain the same rhetorical moves, they differ in the basic steps used to realize some of the moves. These results lead to suggestions for EAP instruction and also for master’s programs imploring statements from prospective graduate students.


(1)“In addition, a study of statements can enhance our understanding of a genre for which successful exemplars are not always readily available.”

(2)“The genre, statement of purpose, may not be so occluded when we consider a sub-genre, such as a statement that is part of an application for and MBA program. However, the situation appears to be somewhat different in the case of other disciplines-specific statements such as those submitted to master’s programs in Linguistics.” 

(3)“In other words, in these statements, the applicant seeks to accomplish two rhetorical goals: one to argue why the program should desire the applicant and two, to argue why the applicant finds the program or degree desirable.”

(4)“For instance, it is not uncommon for applicants to arrive at a gap in their background after discussing their work experience or for an applicant to discuss what they attained in an undergraduate degree and relate that to further gains from a graduate degree.”

(5)"I have completed my bachelor of engineering course from University B.D.T. College of engineering… Over 50 years old, it is one of the most prestigious and reputed institutions in India. Needless to say the competition is very intense. The quality of education and the general standard of student ability are of the highest order. As a result every mark is hard earned and nothing is made available on a platter. I have been amongst the top 10% in the Instrumentation Technology department in the last three semesters. (EE1)"

(6)“Further studies could investigate the overlap between advice given in these resources and the structure of successful statements submitted to a particular discipline and level.” 


Samraj and Monk found quite an interesting niche to fill within the branch of linguistics that studies the use of genres. Certainly, I had never considered the statement of purpose to be a genre, but the description fits. It is a functional format of literature that is systematically used over and over again. It serves a really important purpose, often making or breaking students' educational careers. Studying the statement of purpose in the way that Samraj and Monk did has important implications. It provides a good amount of insight about how well preparatory texts work, about how students in different disciplines prioritize what makes the worthy candidates, and also about how native English speakers have an advantage in the whole process of writing a statement of purpose.

I really appreciate the analysis and organization of the gathered data. When I think of a qualitative experiment, I often ask myself how to judge the quality in a non-biased, objective way. Samraj and Monk interestingly turned their qualitative data into quantitative data. They cleverly created a standard for the ideal statement of purpose paper as described by the books and websites that students can view, and, in order to account for variability in that standard, did a separate analysis of said books and websites. The books helped create the standard, or rather, addressed all of the possible sections of a statement of purpose paper, and the samples were searched for those sections, resulting in a tally of how many samples showed those sections. The resulting data had a lot to say about the trends in moves made in the genre amongst different disciplines.

I also though that interviewing the admissions officers was a really interesting piece of data, because it evaluated whether or not the interactive texts were effective, what each disciplinary program actually values, and how much of an advantage native English speakers have. This is especially observable in quote numbered 5 above, in which an engineering applicant from India discusses his oversees undergraduate experiences and sites rank and difficulty of the program; this happens to be a common trait of non native English speaking applications.

Overall, I really enjoyed the read. It really informative and I was very interested by the objective and the data.

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