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Post by: Natalie Solis, MTS 2020, HDS Office of Admissions Graduate Assistant

This article is part of our How to Apply series, which answers common questions about the application process and includes these articles:

What does the Admissions Committee look for in a statement of purpose?

Since the statement of purpose (SOP) is one of the most important components of the application for admission, it is crucial to spend a significant amount of time to reflect, draft, and revise your statement. It can be approached in multiple ways and there is no formulaic method to writing a strong SOP. When I applied last year, I found that taking time to reflect on my discernment process and writing various drafts helped me find the appropriate writing style that best suited my priorities.

Generally speaking, a coherent SOP should demonstrate who you are, why you want to attend Harvard Divinity School (HDS), which resources you hope to pursue, and what you want to do with your HDS degree and experiences upon graduation.

Below, I’ve included more information from the HDS website:

“The statement of purpose (1,000 words) is an integral part of the application and is evaluated with great care by the Admissions Committee. It should include your general background (education, work experience, volunteer work, and/or relevant personal experience) and how this background has prepared you for graduate theological study, specifically at Harvard Divinity School (HDS). It should also include your vocational or career objectives and why you believe your desired program at HDS will aid you in achieving those objectives.”

How should I write the statement of purpose?

There is no one specific way to write the SOP. Since the degree programs at HDS are flexible and self-directed, it is important to be clear about your intentions in attending HDS, whether it is taking classes with specific professors, participating in specialized field education opportunities, or getting involved with research centers. While your plans may change while you are at HDS, expressing how you see HDS fitting into your larger path is important for a competitive application.

Should I write what I think the admissions committee wants to hear?

No, authenticity is key when writing the SOP. Since the admissions committee reviews hundreds of applications, an inauthentic statement of purpose is easily discernible.

I am unsure about my graduate degree goals. How should I proceed with the statement of purpose?

Starting the discernment process by reviewing admission materials and selecting a degree program that suits your specific goals is necessary for submitting a strong application. While we understand that the discernment process continues in grad school and that your goals are likely to change, it is important that you are thoughtful in preparing your SOP and are able to articulate to the Admissions Committee that you are a serious applicant. Any graduate program is an investment of time and money, so it is important that you articulate how a graduate degree at HDS fits into your long-term goals. In other words, grad school should not be the goal in and of itself, but should be a stepping stone within a longer path. If you find that you are unable to express these goals, you might want to consider talking with your mentors or emailing our office to set up a phone-appointment with a Graduate Assistant. After taking these steps, if you still feel unsure about why you would like to attend HDS, it is also possible that you are not ready to apply this application season and ought to think about waiting for next year.

When should I start working on the statement of purpose?

You should start working on your statement of purpose as soon as possible. It often takes multiple revisions to write a compelling statement of purpose. Since the SOP asks you to detail multiple aspects in a limited word count, striking a balance entails a commitment to the writing process.

What can I do if feel stuck while writing the statement of purpose? 

I found it helpful to talk out my interests with mentors who knew me well whenever I had writer’s block. Additionally, I sought out feedback on drafts from people who knew me well to proofread my statement of purpose.

Any final tips?

Edit, edit, edit! The SOP is your chance to make an impression on the Admissions Committee, so do make sure to double-check for any typos. Each year we receive SOPs where people have forgotten to change the name of another graduate school to HDS. On occasion, applicants will even upload the incorrect document, like an SOP intended for another school. To avoid mistakes like this, we recommend that you review your application materials item by item before submitting the application. After it is submitted, we cannot make exchanges or substitutions even in the case that you have a spelling error or uploaded the incorrect document. We understand that many people reuse parts of their SOP from other schools, but it is crucial that you customize your SOP specifically to your goals at HDS.

I hope this information assists in writing your statement of purpose. Please reach out to us if you have any additional questions as you complete the application for admission at admissions@hds.harvard.edu. Good luck with your statement of purpose!