Writing A Successful Grad School
Statement of Purpose

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The Statement of Purpose, or SOP, is a critical element of any graduate school application. It certainly shouldn’t be treated as an afterthought. This essay allows admissions committees to learn more about who you are, what you bring to the classroom, and how you’ll fit in with the program you’re applying for.

The SOP acts as something of a cover letter for your graduate school application, filling in the blanks left by your academic resume. It should convince the reader that you have the qualifications, drive, professional goals, and maturity to earn a spot in their program. Beyond that, the SOP should help the admissions committee determine whether you're the right fit for the program's culture, philosophies, and academic style.

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What is A Statement of Purpose (SOP)?


The SOP is a requirement for most graduate programs in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the UK. Sometimes interchangeably referred to as a personal statement, the SOP is an opportunity for graduate applicants to add context to their application and academic transcripts, which won't necessarily tell the reviewer much about the applicant as a person. The statement represents one of very few opportunities to address the committee directly, painting a picture of who the applicant is as a person, beyond GRE scores and transcripts.

It's in your SOP that you'll explain your interests and how you'll add value to the program you're applying to. It's also an opportunity to explain a less-than-perfect grade, a career change, or your reason for returning to school after several years in the workforce. That said, like a cover letter you'd use to explain your qualifications for a job, it's important that the focus stays professional and relevant. In these next few sections, we’ll go over what an SOP should include, plus some tips for writing one that will increase your chances of getting into grad school.

What Do Grad Schools Look For?


Graduate school admissions departments require a statement of purpose not because they care about you and your big picture dreams, but to make sure that you're a great fit for their program. They want to see that you can think for yourself and why you believe that this particular graduate program is your first steppingstone on the path to success.

Committees want to see candidates that have well-defined research interests that relate to their academic or professional experience. With that in mind, your SOP should point toward evidence that you're really invested in your chosen discipline and that you have a background that will set you up for success.

SOP expectations vary by program. If you’re going for an MBA, for example, your personal statement should go over your professional experience and how this degree stands to help you move on to bigger and better things. Students pursuing a program heavy on lab work will want to discuss research projects, touching on what they’d like to explore next and who they’d like to work with, either within the school or in the wider field.

It should also demonstrate that you're a committed student that understands the challenges ahead.

So, how do you strike a balance between writing a statement of purpose that sets you apart from the pack, while at the same time, gives the admissions department exactly what they're looking for? In this next section, we'll go over the steps that will help you craft a winning essay, then move into some tips and tricks for sealing the deal.

Steps to Take When Writing Your Essay


Be Aware of Specific Requirements and Prompts


Pay attention to the prompts and follow the instructions very carefully. Many applicants make the mistake of creating an SOP template and using it to apply to multiple programs.

While the SOP does follow a basic outline, it's important to understand that every university has a different set of requirements and topics they want you to address.

In general, most universities look for the following in terms of format and tone:

  • Unless the brief states otherwise, SOPs are typically 1-2 pages, typed in a standard font (Arial, Helvetica, Times New Roman).
  • Be sure to include your full name and the program you're applying to at the top of each page. In some cases, essay pages might become separated, so it's best to err on the side of caution, here.
  • Use a confident, active voice, and use simple, concise language to explain your ideas.
  • Since your SOP will be read by faculty, using the style and terminology common in your profession is okay, here. Just make sure that your essay is otherwise accessible and easy to understand.

Keep in mind, unless otherwise indicated in the instructions, your SOP is an academic-style essay, not a personal one. While it should cover a few personal details from academic background to the "why" behind your choice to apply, it's important to maintain a tight focus on academics.

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Prepare an Outline


It can be hard to know what you should include in each section of your SOP. Typically, an SOP follows a simple five-paragraph essay format that covers all of the points that admissions officers expect you to include.

Here's a breakdown of what that might look like:

Introduce Yourself


Your first paragraph should describe who you are and the objective or career goal that this program will help you achieve. You may approach this section by including the following information but working it into a “hook.”

  • Why are you interested in this field of study?
  • What areas of this subject interest you most?
  • What sparked your interest in this subject matter?

Explain Your Academic Background


This next section moves into your academic background—essentially, you’re getting your qualifications out of the way early on.

  • What was your major?
  • Which classes did you take?
  • What other experiences do you have with this field? think work experience, internships, or extracurricular activities.
  • Explain any research you've done or professors you've worked closely with.

Awards, Accomplishments, Research


Next, you’ll want to move on to bigger and better things—such as what you’ve accomplished thus far in an academic context.

  • What awards have you received that demonstrate competence in your field?
  • Has any of your work been published?
  • What presentations have you given?
  • Have you participated in any notable research projects?
  • What was the subject of your thesis/dissertation?

Outline Your Academic Goals


What’s next for your academic career?

  • What do you hope to achieve academically?
  • How will this graduate degree prepare you for future professional work or research?
  • What type of work do you plan on doing after graduation?

Preparation


Here, you’ll want to include any professional experience, certifications, or other pursuits that have helped you prepare for this next stage of your education.

  • What research or professional work has helped you prepare for this program?
  • What activities have you been involved with recently that demonstrate your interest in this field?

Why Are You Interested in this Particular Program?


This section should highlight specific examples of why you’re interested in pursuing this program over another.

  • What does this university/program offer you that other schools don't?
  • Which courses and professors most interest you?
  • What makes you a "good fit" for this institution?
  • What can you bring to this program?

Explain Any Missing Details


Poor performance, big career changes, or other inconsistencies should be addressed in your SOP. While it may be uncomfortable for some students to lay out their shortcomings, if you have anything that could be misconstrued as a red flag for the committee, bring it up. It’s better for you to address it than to let them come up with their own reasons for apparent inconsistencies.

Talk About the Big Picture View


Look toward the future and lay out what you hope to accomplish. While the goal of the SOP is to help you land a spot in the program, you should end your essay looking beyond admission and graduation.

What opportunities will this degree unlock? You might lay out possible next steps like landing a job as a manager in your field and, from there, outline your plan for earning a position in the C suites. Or, you might discuss how this program will provide you with the tools you need to give back to your community, build a company, etc.

From an admission officers' perspective, it doesn't make sense to admit a student without a long-term goal over another applicant that cites specific examples for how this program will allow them to do X, Y, and Z.

Be Specific, Unique and Enthusiastic


Whatever you say in your SOP, you need to be very specific in the language you decide to use and the details you choose to include. While this is a personal essay, it needs to be laser-focused on why you're applying to this particular program, why you're a great fit, and what you hope this degree will help you accomplish.

This isn't the place to talk about your baking hobby or your love of basketball. You'll want to make sure you only include activities that speak to your academic capabilities; what experiences in your school or work life make you a great researcher or collaborative colleague?

While the focus is essential, you don't want to be boring either. Begin your essay with a unique hook, then drill down into the essential information. Your opener might be a compelling story that underscores why this field is right for you. Or, it might focus on an idea in your field that you're really excited about. Remember, whatever you decide to write, it should tell the reader about your unique interest in the program.

Relate your interests and plans to your chosen program


This section should provide a brief overview of your academic career up until this point. Discuss any research projects, your thesis, or any published work. You'll also want to include any relevant extracurricular activities you participated in. Meaning, volunteer work or clubs related to your field of study, not unrelated hobbies.

Finally, if your program has special requirements like pre-requisite coursework or foreign language proficiency, you'll want to mention those in your SOP as well. That said, your research interests should be the focus of this section. Talk about what inspired your interest in this topic and how you hope to contribute to the field and the current state of scholarship in the field in general or on a specific subject.

Your SOP should also link your research/academic interests to the school you're applying to. Are there professors at the school that you admire and hope to work with? If so, be sure to name them and cite specific examples of their work to demonstrate your interest.

Make Sure They Know Why You Want to Be There


Many applicants write their SOP based off of a template rather than developing their statement separately for each individual school. However, it's not enough to change the name of the university and the professor you're hoping to work with. While your goal at the moment may be to secure a spot at any one of the several institutions you're applying to, it's important to account for the differences between each one.

Schools vary considerably when it comes to cultures, philosophies, academic environment, and resources, so applications must acknowledge these factors and why you feel that they align with your academic goals/future career path. If you associate with different parts of each school, your essay should reflect that.

Here are some valuable questions you can ask to decide where to focus your essay:

  • Does the department offer a unique specialization?
  • Is it considered a top program?
  • Do they offer access to valuable resources in your field?
  • What is it that compelled you to apply to this particular school?

Proofread, Refine as Necessary and Get Someone Else to Edit and Review


Your statement of purpose is a representation of who you are as a person. As such, you'll need to make sure you proofread, fine-tune, and ask for help. Small things like typos, complex language, or striking the wrong tone can color the reader's perception of you, making you appear unprofessional and unprepared. Before sending your statement of purpose off to the school, make sure you review your essay. Run through a checklist that includes the following to make sure that you didn't miss anything important.

  • Make sure you followed all instructions to a T. Does the essay provide the information requested? Does it follow requirements about spacing, font size, and margins?
  • Proofread the entire piece, checking for spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes.
  • Is the SOP the appropriate length? It should be between 500 and 1000 words. (Schools may provide you a specific requirement for length.) If it's too short, you may need to expand on a few points. Alternatively, if it's way longer than 1000 words, trim the fat. Consider how you can articulate key points using more concise language.
  • Set your essay aside for a few hours or come back the next day to create some distance. The thing about writing is, the longer you've been working on something the harder it is to spot basic mistakes. Whether it's a convoluted point, unfinished sentence, or a handful of typos, a fresh set of eyes will do you good.

Additionally, students often make the mistake of keeping their essays to themselves. Getting a few extra pairs of eyes on the case can only help you. While friends and family might not be experts in your chosen field, they can offer insights into how well you tell your story, as well as identify areas that require some clarification. For example, family members might offer up valuable stories from your early school days that directly tie into your pursuit of this field.

Be sure to show your SOP to someone with a more professional background as well, such as a mentor or a professor who wrote you a recommendation. This will allow you to get feedback from someone that understands what admissions committees are looking for and can help you determine whether you're on the right track.

Tips for Writing a Winning SOP


Do a Free Write to Work Out Ideas


If you've been staring down a blank page, trying to come up with the perfect hook for your SOP, just start writing. Consider industry trends and new discoveries you’re excited about, why grad school is important to you, your research or business ideas, etc. As you start putting your thoughts on paper, you might start to see patterns emerge that will help you get your essay on track.

Give Your Angle Some Careful Consideration


While your SOP is a professional document, your goal here is to present your educational background and qualifications as a story. Ideally, as a story the admissions committee hasn't heard before. Saying things like "my hope is to one day cure cancer" or "I've always wanted to be a writer" don't exactly offer much depth or originality. Instead you need to explain what you’ll bring to the classroom that no one else does.

Finding the right angle may well be the hardest part of your graduate school application. You can start jotting down some qualities about yourself that make you well-prepared for a graduate school program. Think about specific examples that highlight your strengths, not generic adjectives like "intelligent" or "hard worker."

  • Are you a great problem-solver?
  • A creative thinker?
  • Do you have the ability to pull insights from your research and connect them to real-world examples?
  • Do you have strong leadership skills?
  • Are you great at working collaboratively?
  • Great at balancing the demands of an intense workload?

Think about those key strengths and how they relate to the program you're interested in. Consider why you want to be a part of this program, specifically why it’s the right choice for nurturing your existing skills toward a larger goal.

An admissions committee wants to see that their candidates have a big picture understanding of how their field of study relates to a specific profession, as well as the potential impact they might have within an industry or community. Ultimately, the person evaluating your application wants to make sure that the decision to attend graduate school is an informed one, and that you have the maturity and vision to stick with your plan.

Be Careful About How You Explain Extenuating Circumstances


If something happened in your personal life that impacted your grades or caused you to take a break from your studies, you'll want to mention it. Otherwise, the admissions committee may get the impression that you're unreliable.

Things like poverty, illness, or challenges balancing work and studies happen, but you'll want to frame your experience in a positive way. Rather than making excuses, frame your experience in a way that shows determination in overcoming obstacles.

The personal statement is also a great place for candidates with less-than-perfect transcripts to prove that they have what it takes to succeed in this environment. Highlight specific examples that point toward your commitment to personal improvement or lessons learned, as well as the steps you've taken to prepare for graduate school.

Use a Formal but Conversational Tone


Many statements of purpose fall into the hyper-formal category, or they're too casual. The former won’t do much to set you apart from the crowd, while the latter makes it look like you don’t take the program seriously. Instead, a conversational tone - think friendly expert - will serve you best.

Here are a few tips:

  • Your statement of purpose should strike a balance between being respectful and professional, but also unique and easy to read.
  • Make sure you follow the instructions, go through your qualifications, and outline why the program aligns with your goals - but don’t shy away from projecting warmth.
  • Avoid using slang, crass language, or overly complex words.

Don't Make Up Stories


We get it, coming up with a story is difficult. Especially if you feel that you don't have a particularly interesting history to draw from. If you’re struggling to pull compelling details from your normal life, don’t lie about it. Admissions officers are experts at sniffing out a tall tale, as they’ve likely read thousands of applications and SOPs. If they detect deception in your personal statement, chances are they’ll go with a different candidate that took a more authentic approach.

The point is, if you're telling a story, only write one that's true and that points toward your hopes, dreams, and passions within the context of the program you’re applying to. It's also worth pointing out that you don't need to dig into your past to get personal. Focusing on what inspires you about this field, the work you hope to do, or your path to uncovering more about this passion may honestly be more appropriate for an SOP than a childhood story.

Quantify Your Narrative


Just like any article or research paper, adding numbers and citing research brings legitimacy to your content. While sure, you're talking about yourself, adding things like the number of years you've worked in an industry, awards won, rankings, etc. add both authority and authenticity to your narrative.