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A prospective graduate student is normally not hyperspecialized and inflexibly hyperfocussed on a certain well-developed research line (like a more mature mid-career researcher could be) just yet.

That is to say, even if such student worked on topic "X" (say, in the area of algebraic geometry) for their master's thesis, they may well be flexible and willing to expand their horizon and start working on any interesting topic in algebraic geometry that falls within a certain wide range "A" (that possibly includes "X").

So, I assume, any school which is (1) reasonably prestigious, (2) conveniently located, (3) endowed with "good" mathematicians that work on a quite wide range "A" of topics within algebraic geometry is in principle a good fit for an application of said student. Any other reasons are (at least in my opinion) less relevant.


In this context, what does it mean to tailor a statement of purpose for a specific school?


In particular, how can one convincingly and professionally show that a certain school is a great fit for his academic career and education?

I have heard that the "Why is our university a good fit for you?" question for a statement of purpose is just a way of checking if a student has "done his homework". But what is that actually supposed to mean?

  • Niggly point: I think you mean "prospective graduate student" (only pointing this out as the rest of your thing is so well written). – Matt Jan 13 '18 at 22:55
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I have been involved in graduate admissions for a quite a few years. Answer below is based on that experience.

This question about fit is a way to make sure that you know approximately what you are getting yourself into.

You do not have to stroke professors' egos by telling how great they are. It does not help your application. If you have interest or past experience in some area, mention it of course, but do not engage in gratuitous flattery. Instead we want to know why this school is suitable to you at all. For example, if you are interested in doing mostly algebraic geometry, but are applying to a department that has no algebraic geometers, this would be a poor fit. If there is a reason you like the location (e.g. a significant other working nearby, or cheap flights home), it does not hurt saying so either.

What we want to avoid is to have a 3rd or 4th year graduate student drop out because they cannot find an advisor in their preferred area, and are utterly unhappy because of location or because of something else.

In general, the statement of purpose is your opportunity to present evidence that you will make a good researcher one day. That includes your scientific background, various personal traits as demonstrated by your past, and your accomplishments. See an excellent answer to another question by JeffE for more details.

  • +1 but I should say that for universities that imagine themselves in the top five of their disciplines, mentioning the location as the sole reason you want to attend would be insulting at best. It’s a plus for mid-tier universities though. – RoboKaren Feb 19 '18 at 18:47
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    @RoboKaren Did you call my university mid-tier? :-) – Boris Bukh Feb 19 '18 at 21:52
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This particular question's answer can be found in the job advertisement.

I usually prefer writing in a Question-Answer fashion. When the position is advertised, there will be a list of required skills. For each requirement, stating how you fulfill that requirement is the most straightforward and neat way to answer your question.

As a side note, you may include the possible reason why the committee would not want to pick you, and justify your counter argument.

  • Thanks for that side note. :) How much do you think that "makes or breaks" your application? I suppose it could backfire if the reason given by the student doesn't prove to be as convincing as the committee's own understanding of the candidate would have been. – Abhishek Soni Jan 23 '18 at 16:36
  • Chances are, the committee can guess everything that the applicant guess, and even more. Even if that is not the case, they will appreciate that you know your weaknesses. Of course, I assume that you write them what is already obvious from your CV :) – padawan Jan 23 '18 at 17:38
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For your starting default draft, write it in a way that will convey your excitement about diving into research. It shouldn't look like a CV. You can show motivation, creativity, fantasy and enthusiasm. (No one is going to invoke a money-back guarantee several years from now if you didn't realize your dream as you described it in your statement of purpose.)

Now for the tailoring to the specific school.

  • Look at some webpages for the university and the department. Try to get a feel for what makes this university and this department different from the average, and what appeals to you. Check your draft to see if there's something you can emphasize, to convey this. Example 1: if the university emphasizes early student involvement in research, and you participated in a research project as an undergraduate, make sure you've talked about that experience, and how it shaped your development. Example 2: if the university has an innovative interdisciplinary focus, you can use that as a hook.

  • Which of the department's specialty areas intrigue you? Read some faculty bios. When editing your essay, see if you can tie some of your fantasy ideas in with something you read about in the faculty research interest overviews.

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Speaking as somebody who's been writing my applications for PhD programmes recently, here's what I did (whether it's "convincing" or not is yet to be seen!):

My statement of purpose at its core outlined my (relevant) experiences as an undergraduate. For me, these included my degree, my final year project and my year in work experience during my degree. These core things didn't change much from application to application.

What did change is how I related these to where I was applying/ to which department I was applying. For example, one of the universities I applied to is not in the UK, it's abroad. I then made more of an effort to highlight things I've done where I had to work in new environments, and tackle new problems.

Depending on the supervisors/projects I was going for, I might highlight units I've studied which relate to those particular things, and why they gave me an interest in the project I was applying to.

As opposed to vastly changing the content, I changed what I put emphasis on. Depending on where you're applying, some experiences/units you've taken/etc will be more relevant to some places (or to some particular projects) than others.

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The university want to avoid a situation where they take on a student who fails to complete - look at your application from their point of view. They want to know that you will be competent and happy enough to survive four arduous years at their institution, with the loneliness and destitution that is the life of a graduate student. Give them the signals that show them that you will survive.

Your statement of purposes is an opportunity to show that you have the diligence, foresight and skill to check the research strengths of their school, and you have some sensible reason for regarding that school as a preference for you. The university will want to know that your interests are broad enough to allow you to find a suitable research topic that can be supervised by someone in their faculty (preferably with backup, in case they have staff changes during your candidature), and you are able to narrow your focus when needed to get down dirty and do the work. They want to know that you have interest backed up by competence and diligence.

Demonstrate some knowledge of the faculty and their research interests/projects: This is an opportunity to demonstrate that you have done your due diligence and checked the various school webpages, faculty profiles, etc., to show that you are aware of the broad research strengths of the school, what they are best known for, and how reputable their research is in different fields. If you have read some of the papers by their faculty, mention this. If you have seen some of the faculty give talks, presentations, etc., in an area of interest to you, mention this. Show that you have a broad awareness of the main strengths of the school. If it is a prestigious school, their strengths are probably numerous, but you should still be able to mention a few specific areas.

Mention some areas of interest to you that align with the school: It is important to be able to mention at least a few research areas of interest to you, and be able to point to faculty/research groups in the school that work in those areas. Bonus points for being able to point to some specific work by the faculty that you particularly liked and is of interest to you (bearing in mind that you are only just applying for grad school, so you probably don't have a wide knowledge of the literature in any area). Show that when you have learned about various fields in your undergraduate degree, it gave you lots of ideas for possible avenues of research. Ideally you will have lots of ideas -your mind is flooded with them- and you can't wait to talk to the professors at this school to see if any of your ideas are feasible!

Back up your interests with your skills/qualifications: If you're interested in a particular field of study done by this school, what evidence can you show to demonstrate that you are well-qualified to start study in that area. Did you do well studying this area as an undergraduate? Did you get good grades, win an award, write a good project, etc.? Did you ever do any research work on it as an undergraduate? (Remember that most of the applicants to a prestigious grad program probably nailed their undergraduate degree, so make your achievements relative to this cohort.) Ideally you want your statement of purpose to show interest backed up by evidence of high competence (relative to other applicants).

Show how excited you are to study there: Convince the school that you will be happy there, and you have the personal skills to make friends and create a life for yourself that will sustain your time there. Unhappiness/loneliness is a killer of graduate degrees, so they want to know that you are a low-risk candidate for dropping out. You should have a tone of excited anticipation - show that you are looking forward to graduate school, and you are excited about studying there.

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In my experience, research interests can be even more flexible and broad than you suggest. In particular, it is extremely common for your research interests as a graduate student to change during the first few years, even drastically -- and everyone who is reading your personal statement knows this.

Let's say you write on your application, "I am very interested in topic Y and more broadly, area B". This does not imply that you have research experience in topic Y or area B; it implies only that you are interested in it (and have a passable understanding of what that topic or area entails). It will certainly look favorable if you do have experience in Y or B, but what is most important is that you have any experience, even in a completely different area A.

So what does it mean to "tailor" the statement of purpose to a particular university? It essentially means, (1) choose your interests wisely, and (2) don't be afraid to pick interests outside of what you are normally comfortable with, if they will make your application look like a good fit. I especially emphasize (2) -- it is very easy to think that you cannot express interest in something unless you have studied it extensively, but this is not true, and anyway, how will the admissions committee be able to tell? As long as you get someone to read over your application and it sounds like you know what you are talking about, your interests will be taken at face value.

A corollary to this is to make sure to justify your extensive knowledge and research experience separately from your interests. Since people fake interests all the time, just saying you're interested in a topic doesn't imply experience and knowledge, so you should make sure that experience and knowledge are sufficiently conveyed in one way or another.

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