According to this MIT statement of purpose guideline, the statement of purpose seems to be an important part of a PhD application. However, I have also heard that, in the case of MIT, the statement of purpose is only reviewed after the application has been tacitly accepted.

So, how crucial is this part of the application, and what part does it play in the process of graduate admissions at top schools in the US?

  • I have never heard of "tacit acceptance," can you explain what you mean by this?
    – RoboKaren
    Commented Nov 1, 2014 at 18:06
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    Nevertheless, some may argue... Who? This is simply untrue.
    – user1482
    Commented Nov 1, 2014 at 21:44
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    simonsfoundation.org/science_lives_video/michael-freedman This question reminds me of wathching this video. Michael Freedman, a fields medalist, told the story that how he got into Princeton. The key piece was a photo of him.
    – user23738
    Commented Nov 2, 2014 at 4:25
  • @RoboKaren: I guess, it means that the application was accepted considering everything but the statement of purpose and only then the statement is regarded (for whatever reason).
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Nov 5, 2014 at 13:57
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    If something is in your application, reviewers will read it, and if you write a completely ridiculous statement of purpose, the reviewers are going to notice and turn you down. This "tacit acceptance" statement is absurd. Commented Nov 5, 2014 at 20:25

5 Answers 5


You have to specify which discipline, but for the social sciences the statement of purpose is the most important item in your portfolio.

We also look at grades, GREs, and letters but we scrutinize the statement the most. A good statement can resuscitate a candidate with middling grades, a bad statement can condemn an otherwise good student.

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    I agree with the point here made about social sciences and the SOP importance. Very important.
    – user15282
    Commented Nov 1, 2014 at 15:50

This is an extremely general question, since it doesn't refer to the discipline. Since another answer comments on the social sciences, I'll speak up for physical sciences. (I'm in chemistry.)

We look at every facet of the portfolio. To do otherwise is to ignore useful information on the applicant. Let's be honest, we don't have much data. We get grades, GRE general scores, GRE subject scores, and recommendation letters. Plus the statement.

I mentioned in my answer to another question that GRE scores will sometimes serve as a first screen, to cut the pile down to a level we can really analyze. But that's not a "tacit acceptance". (I don't even know what that might mean.)

Yes. After a first cut, we look at the statement of purpose 100% of the time.

And yes, if someone writes a lousy statement with an otherwise good package, it's a bad sign. It tells us that the student just doesn't care to do a good job. Is that someone I want as a grad student? Probably not.

Even if a student has stellar grades, GRE, and a paper in Science but the statement is poorly written, I'm going to think twice compared to a student who might be a bit behind, but seems to have a vision and sells themselves well in the statement.

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    "Even if a student has stellar grades, GRE, and a paper in Science but the statement is poorly written" that might be a bit of hyperbole :) would you really reject a student with a paper in Science based on a bad SOP? I wouldn't. (of course this extreme case is irrelevant to close to 100% of all applicants)
    – xLeitix
    Commented Nov 5, 2014 at 7:48
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    Yes, it's hyperbole, but certainly we're going to ask questions.. Like how much of the Science paper was from this student? My point stands. A good student with a poor SOP is going to get questioned because the pieces don't add up. Commented Nov 5, 2014 at 13:55

I serve occasionally on the PhD admissions committee in the computer science department at Stanford. To me, your grades and test scores are less important than your statement of purpose and your recommendation letters. To clarify: the statement of purpose is very, very important. I want to see how you articulate your future plans, how you think about and approach research.


Original Answer

I would add an exception to @RoboKaren's answer. Economics programs tend to place very little weight on statements of purpose. Econ is perhaps a bit different from other disciplines because the first year is all coursework.

In a statement of purpose for an econ program one should highlight relevant previous courses/skills (especially math/stats) and indicate a few areas of interest (e.g. "Macro labor" not a dissertation proposal). Minimize the fluff.

Several economists (including Susan Athey [Stanford] and Jeffrey Smith [Michigan]) have composed helpful guides on grad school admission. I'd bet others have done the same in other disciplines.

Edit In Reply to Comments

The general point that I hoped to make with this post (which was implicit but which I will now make explicit) is that the importance of the personal statement (and the nature of the application in general) is particular to a given discipline.

Why don't economists care about personal statements? First, it is costless for applicants to overstate/misrepresent their interests, talents, background, enthusiasm, etc. Second, given the other materials available to the adcom (see below), even a truthful statement is more or less superfluous. Third, deemphasizing the personal statement reduces the advantage enjoyed by native English speakers in admissions.

What do economists care about, then? By far the most important component is faculty recommendation letters. It means something if a faculty member is willing to say that someone is "the best student they've had in eleventy years in the profession". Suppose a faculty member misstates the qualifications of the applicant and the applicant is admitted (and perhaps offered a stipend). If the applicant fails out, then (1) the adcom will be disinclined from believing the recommender the next time around and (2) there may in certain cases be some informal social/professional consequences (i.e. "Hey remember that time you recommended that one kid and we wasted a spot and 25k on him just so that he could drop out in April of the first year?").

I don't think that this is a perfect system (or that admissions are perfectable) but that's just the way it works and has worked in pretty much any econ department for quite some time. Depending on your view of economics, it either more-or-less works OR goes towards explaining why econ is so messed up(!).

  • Thanks. But I believe that first-year course work is not sufficient to guarantee little-value on statement of purpose; could it be economists's "application" of "efficiency". I doubt the adequacy, and I believe the importance of statement of purpose. For otherwise one only admits a collection of scores.
    – Yes
    Commented Nov 2, 2014 at 14:10
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    @Kurt I talked to an admissions director at a top-10 econ PhD program recently, and he explicitly stated that (at his school) statements of purpose can never help you, it can only hurt you. I believe he recommended to keep it polished and generic absent extraordinary circumstances. Recommendation letters, research experience, classes taken, and grades are probably 95% of the decision at top schools.
    – Roger Fan
    Commented Nov 3, 2014 at 18:56
  • Yep, then good luck to this school's future :)
    – Yes
    Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 1:05
  • @Kurt I'm sure that a school tied for the top econ PhD program (by US News) isn't doing too bad. I will also note that every academic economist that I know of assumes that top schools don't care about SOPs; that kind of consensus isn't born without reason. You can argue with the value of ignoring SOPs, but you can't argue with the fact that it is the current reality.
    – Roger Fan
    Commented Nov 5, 2014 at 18:43

I have to agree with what one of the CS guys wrote above, that in CS we consider the SOP to be extremely important. Also, you should know that MIT does not usually 'tacitly' accept anyone based on only their grades and numbers. Usually, a tacit acceptance comes about because you have a funding source lined up; perhaps you've secured a fellowship or you've established very close contact with a faculty member in MIT or the college you're applying to, and that member has agreed to accept you into the group INCUMBENT on your getting through the general grad school admissions process. At that point, your SOP might not seem as important because it's obvious you've found your focus, and in most cases, the SOP is merely an avenue for you to articulate your focus ('purpose') in a convincing, objective fashion.

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