Wait it’s the holidays and I don’t have a statement of purpose?!?

If you’re looking to apply for an HGSE master’s program, we’re about a week and a half away from the deadline. Confession time: as a classroom teacher, winter break is the moment when I finally got serious time to work on my Statement of Purpose. I had a few jumbled paragraphs, and I had thought about why I was applying, but between lesson planning, grading, four fall weddings, writing letters of recommendation, and being a person, I hadn’t made great progress.  

Thank goodness for a two-week winter break.

I had attended an HGSE session about the application process in November. At the session, people asked questions that made it clear they were on their eighteenth draft, or that their purpose was impressively specific — they wanted more inquiry-based STEM instruction…by female teachers…in Bangladesh. I sat there silently panicking that I had missed the boat and feeling like my “I want more kids to learn more” purpose wasn’t good enough. An admissions officer said the best Statements of Purpose made her cry, no big deal.

If you’ve already had your next door neighbor and your grandmother read your latest draft, this post isn’t for you. Go enjoy winter and eat cookies or ice skate or something. For those of you who are more like me: you can do this.

Here’s what I did:

  1. December 22 & 23: I sat down with my notebook and free-wrote for five notebook pages over two days. There are descriptions of the macro problems in education I see and my “how to” for addressing them, stories about specific students I’ve taught, an explanation of why I teach, questions about education that I don’t answers to yet, lessons I’ve learned about schools and kids and teachers,  what I’m good at, and a list of things I want to be able to say about my career when I retire. Then, I read what I wrote and noted the themes. Overall, I tried to answer three questions provided by HGSE:
    1. What is motivating you to go to grad school?
    2. What skills, beliefs, and experiences do you bring? How did you get to this point?
    3. Why Harvard? How do you know this is a right program?
  2. Dec 26-28: I tried really hard to write but I was home and enjoying my family and my high school friends and Netflix and powering through the last few college recommendations I had to write. It took getting into a new space (for me, a coffee shop) to get me started. It also took starting in the middle — I couldn’t come up with a beginning moment to dive deep into. I found that answering “why Harvard” and “why now” clarified my more general “why grad school.” This process was two long mornings; once I had something to work from, it became much easier to work in smaller time chunks in between being a good family member.
  3. Dec 29 & 30: Frustrated that I couldn’t figure out how to begin, I took a break from writing and went to Twitter and my smart teacher friends to read and think about education more broadly. Through my reading, I found a program I thought was really cool that wasn’t workable in my education context. Describing what I liked about the program, why it wouldn’t work, and how that mismatch pushed me to want to do grad school became my beginning, which further clarified my purpose. It wasn’t orthodox, but it worked for me (I guess!).
  4. Dec 30: I knew I had it when I could say my reason for going to grad school in one (long) sentence to the last friend I saw before leaving Minnesota.
  5. Jan 2: Once I had in all the things I wanted to say, my statement was pretty disjointed because I had written it without a clear plan and over multiple days. I sat down and followed the advice I give to high school juniors and reverse-outlined what I was saying. From there, I wrote why I was including each piece. That helped me clarify my thinking and condense my writing.

    Making it make sense (#5)
  6. Jan 3: This is where I should have given it to other people to read. I did not. Don’t be like me. Make anybody else read it (see #8).
  7. Jan 4: I did, however, read it aloud and to myself repeatedly, trying to make it sound smooth and stay under the word count.
  8. Do not, under any circumstances, read it after you are done submitting it before hearing back. I found a mild typo in a sentence I had wordsmithed to death and spent two weeks haunted by a misplaced “for”. Even if I hadn’t found an actual error, rereading made me feel trite. A year out, it feels meaningful again, but it wasn’t helpful at the time.

I would have loved to have done this process over the span of months, but this weeklong intensive is what I had. Writing in the same places I worked on college applications in ten years ago (my bed, the kitchen table, and the coffeeshops of south Minneapolis) added an extra level of reflection. 

Becca Schouvieller is in the Instructional Leadership strand for experienced teachers within the Learning & Teaching program. She taught social studies in Maine for six years and is excited about civic education, rural education, college access and preparation, working within existing schools to improve teaching quality, and finding the best breakfast sandwich in Cambridge.