Writing Your Intellectual Statement of Purpose

The first step in writing your statement of intellectual purpose is to establish the goals of your proposed program. 

  • What is the topic or issue that you want to study? 
  • What questions do you want to answer about this topic or issue? 

In all disciplines, scholars consider various questions that help them establish and organize knowledge. For example, the kinds of questions that a political scientist may ask about the city of Detroit may be quite different from the questions and approaches that economists, anthropologists, or urban planners employ in studying the city. Different methodologies will be appropriate for answering different kinds of questions. 

  • What kind of knowledge are you trying to develop through your Individual Major Program and what is the best method for gaining that knowledge?

Much of this initial work will involve understanding the goals and objectives of existing majors and academic disciplines. You need to understand existing majors in order to make the argument for a unique, individual major. So the first step is to get a good idea of the programs that are already available. Look through the list of majors and minors on LSA pages, and departmental websites. Read the descriptions of various programs related to your proposed area of study and look at their required courses. 

  • Can you accomplish your goals through one of these programs? 
  • Or through the combination of an existing major and minor? 
  • Or through a major and a set of well-chosen electives? 
  • If not, why not?

In order to have a thorough grounding in a discipline, LSA majors ask students to gain some understanding of the discipline’s historical foundations, breadth of content, and the theoretical frameworks that guide intellectual inquiry within the discipline. In designing an Individual Major Program you are incorporating ideas, approaches, and questions from multiple disciplines. You need to be able to articulate how integrating aspects of these different disciplines will yield a more thorough understanding of your topic. So the next step in writing your statement of purpose is to research and consider the methods, goals, and practices of the various academic disciplines you will be using. 

  • What methods and theories do anthropologists employ to gather and interpret information about human culture? 
  • How are these different from the methods and theories used by sociologists, psychologists, or economists? 
  • How do scholars in the humanities understand human culture? 

Answering these questions will often require that you do some preliminary reading on the disciplines you propose to employ. You might also find it helpful to meet with faculty members or department advisors to discuss the goals and objectives of their disciplines, and how they might be employed in your proposed area of study. Finally, think about how the combination of different methods will give you a richer understanding of your topic or issue than any single discipline in isolation would.

Having gathered this information, you are ready to start drafting your statement of intellectual purpose as a formal essay. You might begin biographically. 

  • How did you become interested in this topic or issue? 
  • Was it through a particular course or co-curricular activity?

The focus of the essay, however, should be on the goals, objectives, and methods of your program. 

  • What do you hope to learn about this topic or issue? 
  • What methods and theories will you use to gain this knowledge? 
  • How is the program of study that you propose substantially different from existing majors in LSA? 
  • How does this interdisciplinary approach to your studies give you a more complete and thorough understanding of your chosen topic or issue?

Throughout this process, it is important to meet with the  Program Advisor to talk through your ideas and to determine whether there are any majors or programs that have been overlooked. It is useful to keep in mind that because Individual Major Programs often differ widely in content and focus there is no single formula for writing a successful proposal.

Using the Sweetland Center for Writing

The  Program Advisor can help you articulate your ideas and shape your curriculum.   Form and content, however, are always intertwined in the writing process.  Many students find that it is helpful to meet with a writing instructor at the Sweetland Center for Writing to help think about the best way to articulate, organize, and present the learning objectives of their proposed major.  Since this process requires critical examination of the core issues in your proposed curriculum, Sweetland considers intellectual statements as academic writing rather than personal statements. In the "Course" category of Sweetland’s online appointment request form, choose "other" and enter "Individual Major Program - Statement of Intellectual Purpose."

The presentation of yourself and your project in the statement of purpose often has a strong influence on the Committee’s decision. Spelling, grammatical, and rhetorical errors in the final draft can significantly detract from the message you want to send.  Students are strongly encouraged to visit the Sweetland Peer Tutoring office in G219 Angell Hall to craft and polish the final draft of their statements.