- What is a Statement of Purpose, SOP?
- What do Colleges Look for in a SOP?
- Getting Started
- Ask Yourself
- Editing and Rewriting
- Structuring Your Personal Statement
- Writing a Winning Statement of Purpose
- List of Words not to Over Use
What is a Statement of Purpose?
As the name signifies, the Statement of Purpose is your personal statement about who you are, what has influenced your career path so far, your professional interests and where you plan to go from here. It need not be a bald statement of facts; several successful SoPs address these questions through anecdotes, stories or by describing their hero/mentor. But whether your SoP is subtle or to the point, it must be well written to be successful.
This is because the SoP is the only part of your application packet over which you have full control. Your academic and extra-curricular records are in the past. Most people only take one or two shots at the GMAT, GRE or TOEFL, and these scores could be adversely affected by conditions on the test day. It is important to choose recommendation letter writers carefully, but while you hope they give you the best possible recommendation, this is not within your control.
The SoP is your chance to talk directly to the admissions committee. To make yourself stand out from among a multitude of similarly qualified candidates. To convince the committee that you have the spark, the thirst for knowledge that could add value to your classes. Most of us work hard for the standard tests the GRE, GMAT, TOEFL and others. We attend classes or peruse study aids. We give practice tests and do everything within our power to aim for the highest possible score. Because we know that these test scores, while not a perfect tool, are crucial to our chances of gaining admission and even a scholarship or assistantship. The SoP or essay, on the other hand, is put off till the last possible moment. It scares us we look at those oh-so-perfect essay examples in the admissions guidebooks and wonder how we can ever write so well. Or wonder what shining instance we can pick out of our normal, average lives to show that we are unique and remarkable. Or how to pick our way through the minefield of endless Do’s and Don’ts. Or, after overcoming all these obstacles, we falter at the seemingly endless revisions, wondering if this latest draft is good enough (If I read that essay once more, I’ll scream!). Finally we write something, because times a-pressing and we have to meet the application deadline. We do our best, juggling the writing process with the last-minute paraphernalia of applying checking forms for errors and completeness, collating the application packets, making sure transcripts, recommendations, work samples and resumes go in their right envelopes, worrying about transit times. We feel thankful when the essay is over, do a quick scan for obvious mistakes, and send it on its way. If you do it this way, you are practically throwing away your chances of admission (see the next section, A good SoP will certainly improve your chances of getting admission to the school of your choice, and even compensate for weaker portions of your application such as less-than-perfect grades. A bad SoP, on the other hand, has the potential to drag down an otherwise strong application. If you plan correctly, you can give yourself enough time to submit a well-written, thoughtful, polished essay that will boost your chances for admission. Equally important, this is a great opportunity to look inside yourself and be rewarded by a better understanding of who you are. Writing a reasonably good Statement of Purpose is not an impossible task. It requires care, attention and patience. And enough time for you to be able to write several drafts, show them to people and polish the essay till you get a version you are happy with. Done right, this will even turn out to be an enjoyable process. And you will be the richer for it. Read on.
What do Colleges Look for in a Statement of Purpose?
The primary question admissions committee members ask themselves when they read a Statement of Purpose is: What does this essay tell me about the person who wrote it?
Put yourself in an admission officer’s shoes. From among thousands of applications, you have to choose the fraction of students that will comprise next year’s incoming class. A mix of interesting, confident and enthusiastic people who will make the class a stimulating place. Academic achievements and good test scores are important. But in an era where the majority of applicants have good academic records, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between individuals and decide who gets the offer of admission. When you apply, each of the items in the application packet -recommendations, extra-curricular achievements, work samples – adds an extra dimension to your personality. But it is the SoP that brings you to life. Which is why each essay is read carefully by at least two and often four or five people before a decision is taken on the application. Does this mean that the SoP is the main deciding factor? No. Your academic record, grades and the courses you took- are the first section admission committee members turn to. Standardized test scores are useful to know where you stand in the applicant pool. For graduate schools, relevant work or academic experience is important. Being from a reputed school or college confers a distinct advantage. What your teachers or boss think of you goes a long way towards the school’s opinion. A good work sample can show your creativity, skill and professionalism. However, only the SoP or application essays can bring out your uniqueness. And therefore make or break your application. An applicant who does not take the essay seriously is throwing away the best opportunity available. So are the admission officers looking for specific personality sorts? Well, yes and no. Creativity, curiosity, pride in your work, an enthusiasm for learning, a capacity for teamwork, the ability to think independently and so on are all good attributes, and most of us share these in varying proportions. But what schools look for is a mix of individuals that together form a well-balanced class. This would include several personality types. It is good to go through the school’s brochure or web site, speak to people about it, visit if that is possible; get a feel of the student mix that they look for and decide if this is the school for you. However, trying to tailor your SoP to reflect what you think the school is looking for can be dangerous business. The people who read your application have been doing so for years and are skilled at spotting fakes. They are likely to know soon if a particular author is saying something for effect or if an essay does not ring true. And that means almost certain rejection. What is this, you might ask. Of course we want to have an effect on the admissions officers. The important thing is to do so without appearing dishonest. If, for instance, you talk about your deep desire to make society a better place, your application should reflect it. Have you done anything about this desire? Can you talk about your actions and experiences? A small example of something you did, not necessarily spectacular, can do more towards boosting your chances than the noblest platitude can. Don’t try to be something you are not. Don’t try to tell the admissions committee what you think they want to hear. Be honest, look inside yourself and do your best. Which brings us to the next point – self-knowledge. The people who read your essay want to be convinced that you have thought long and hard about who you are, what are the things you appreciate, what inspires you. What you want out of life, and where you are going from here. It is not necessary to have all the answers, after all, several admirable people have no idea where they are going even at age 40 or 50. It is necessary to show that you have thought about this. And that these life experiences have taught you something. Finally, you have to show a desire to learn. From your books and teachers, from your classmates, from music or art, from life itself. Too vague for you? Turn to the section on starting your SoP and find out how these attributes translate into concrete steps.
A. Recalling and analyzing your experiences – write short paragraphs on the following:
- Pick a memorable accomplishment in your life. What did you do? How did you accomplish it?
- What sort of important activities have you engaged in? With whom? what role did you play?
- What work experiences have you had? What was your job? Responsibility? How did you carry it out?
- Now look over your paragraphs. What skills and qualities do you see that you possess? For example, consider working with others. Were you a leader? Important “team” player?
- Looking at what you have found, you can now look for skills and qualities that will help you in graduate school. What factors stand out?
NOTEYou will undoubtedly have more material than you can use. This is good, but you need to make strategic choices.
B. Your career goals – write two short paragraphs:
- What career have you chosen? What factors formed this decision?
- What evidence shows that this is a correct choice? That is, how can you show that this choice is realistic? (Personal experience in the field is a good place to begin.)
- Why are you interested in your chosen field of study? How and when did you begin to get interested?
- Why do you want a graduate degree?
- Why do you want to study abroad?
- What was the most rewarding class you took in college and why?
- What was the most rewarding assignment you did and why?
- In addition to classes, how else did you learn about your field of interest (e.g. books, seminars, lectures, conversations)?
- Do you feel your grades (university and graduate school if applicable) and test scores (GRE, GMAT, LSAT, TOEFL, etc.) accurately reflect your academic ability and potential? Why or why not?
- What kinds of academic skills (research, lab, etc.) did you learn in college?
- Were you involved in any especially memorable academic accomplishments in college? Describe them.
- Who or what has been the biggest influence on your academic development and why?
- What are your short and long-term career plans? How certain are you of them?
- How will pursuing a graduate degree help you reach your career your goals?
- What current and past work experiences have you had? What were the most important things that you learned from them?
- What hobbies do you do in your free time?
- What clubs or other extracurricular activities did you participate in during college? Did you hold any leadership positions?
- Have you won any awards for your extracurricular achievements?
- Have you done any volunteer work?
- Is there anything impressive about your background (e.g. experiences, accomplishments, family history, cultural background)?
- Did you have to overcome any unique obstacles growing up?
- Are you responsible? If yes, describe how.
- Are you creative? If yes, describe how.
- Are you honest? If yes, describe how.
- Are you independent? If yes, describe how.
- Are you mature? If yes, describe how.
- Are you hard-working? If yes, describe how.
- Are you confident? If yes, describe how.
Read the essay question carefully to find out what the university expects you to write about. While you don’t have to stick to the questions asked, you must be sure to answer them all in your SoP. Refer to your lists of background research and write about two handwritten pages in response to the essay question. Go through them the next day.
Remember that your essay has the following objectives. Show your interest in the subject. Rather than saying that you find electronics interesting, it is more convincing to demonstrate your interest by talking about any projects you may have done and what you learnt from them. If you have taken the initiative to do things on your own, now is the time to talk about them. Show that you have thought carefully about further studies, know what you are getting into, and have the confidence to go through with it. Have the admissions committee like you! Avoid sounding opinionated, conceited, pedantic or patronizing. Read your essay carefully, and have others read it to find and correct this. Demonstrate a rounded personality. Include a short paragraph near the end on what you like to do outside of your professional life. Keep the essay focused. Each sentence you use should strengthen the admissions committee’s resolve to admit you. So while you may have done several interesting things in life, avoid falling into the trap of mentioning each of them. Your essay should have depth, not breadth. The resume is where you should list achievements. Remember that you have very little space to convey who you are, so make every sentence count.
Pitfalls your essay must avoid: Repetition of the resume or other information available from the application form. Things that could have been written by just about anybody and your individuality does not come through. It is not a honest account in response to the essay question (why you want to study what you do, what you have learned from an event/person in your life and so on). Things that are embarrassing, highly personal and emotional should be avoided unless it makes a unique, creative point. The admissions committee would not appreciate reading about the pain you went through after breaking up with your girlfriend or boyfriend. An account of how you overcame difficult family circumstances, illness, or a handicap, would be a valid point to include in your essay. However, avoid over the top emotional language.
Editing and Writing
Take another 7-8 days to write 3-4 more drafts. Go through the objectives and pitfalls often. Refer to, and edit your lists as you go along.
While each paragraph should make a complete statement on its own, the essay should logically progress from paragraph to paragraph. Read your essay for flow, or have someone else read it, and ask yourself if there seems to be an abrupt shift between ideas in two consecutive paragraphs.
This follows naturally from flow. Do all the paragraphs mesh together to form a cogent whole? Does the essay, through a logical progression of ideas, demonstrate your interest, enthusiasm, and fit in the department you have applied to?
Avoid slang and abbreviations. For acronyms, use the full form the first time and show the acronym in parentheses. Use grammatically correct English and ALWAYS read your essay carefully for spelling mistakes before you send it off – your computer’s spell check may not flush out all the errors. Try to make your essay crisp, cutting out unnecessary adverbs, articles and pronouns (for instance, a careful reading may yield several “the’s” that are superfluous).
Use a consistent tone throughout the essay – it will only confuse the admissions officers if you alternately sound like Ernest Hemingway and Shakespeare, and is hardly likely to endear you to them! While you should avoid flowery language and cliches, there is no harm in looking for the most apt phrase or sentence. Be careful while using humor – it can misfire and harm your chances.
Structuring Your Personal Statement
You’re sitting in front of the computer screen. Your word processing program is open, but the screen is blank. You’ve been staring at it for what seems like an eternity. You don’t know where to start or where to go. What are they looking for? How are you supposed to write it?
The cause of your frustration? An application essay. You can write application essays in many different ways, but the human interest story provides an effective model for writing your essay and easing your frustration. You read human interest stories in newspapers and magazines all the time. They are popular and effective because they engage the reader’s interest, persuade him or her of the writer’s point of view, and sell periodicals. Similarly, an application essay or personal statement must engage the admissions staff, convince them of your viewpoint, and sell you.
Human interest stories typically have the following structure: lead, thesis, body, conclusion. Using that structure for your personal statement provides you with a framework around which to build your essay.
Begin with a lead, also called a hook. A lead is usually a brief anecdote, a question, a startling statistic or quote, or a gripping description of a scene. The lead has a very important job: hooking the reader. Any writer will tell you that the first few lines of an article, ad, or letter determine the success of that piece. And the same is true for your essay. Put your most interesting tidbit at the beginning.
Now that you have the reader’s attention, tell him/her the point of your essay–the thesis. The thesis can be a one-sentence summary or road map of your personal statement. It typically follows the lead and introduces the body, the longest section of your paper.
The body provides evidence to support your thesis. In writing the body avoid generalities and platitudes; give concrete examples from your life. Writing about specific experiences has a number of advantages:
- Specifics keep the reader’s attention more effectively than generalities.
- Drawing on situations in your life will distinguish you from other applicants who superficially may be very similar to you.
All good things must end; so too must your essay end with a conclusion. The conclusion ties up the essay by briefly referring back to the lead, restating the thesis, and if relevant, mentioning some long term goals.
Lead, thesis, body, conclusion. That is the structure of a successful human interest story and personal statement. After all, the effective personal statement really tells a human interest story–a human interest story about you.
Writing a Winning Statement of Purpose
Before you start, check out the tips below on “Getting Started”
I. Determine your purpose in writing the statement
Usually the purpose is to persuade the admissions committee that you are an applicant they should choose. You may want to show that you have the ability and motivation to succeed in your field, or you may want to show the committee that, on the basis of your experience, you are the kind of candidate who will do well in the field. Whatever the purpose, it must be explicit to give coherence to the whole statement.
- Pay attention to the purpose throughout the statement so that extraneous material is left out.
- Pay attention to the audience (committee) throughout the statement. Remember, your audience is made up of faculty members who are experts in their field. They want to know that you can think as much as what you think.
II. Determine the content of your statement
Be sure to answer any direct questions fully. Analyze the questions or guidance statements for the essay completely and answer all parts.
For example: “What are the strengths and weaknesses in setting and achieving goals and working through people?” In this question there are actually six parts to be answered
- strengths in setting goals
- strengths in achieving goals
- strengths in working through people
- weaknesses in setting goals
- weaknesses in achieving goals
- weaknesses in working through people
Pay attention to small words. Notice: This example question says through people not with people, if it says with people, answer that way.
Usually graduate and professional schools are interested in the following:
- Your purpose in graduate study. This means you must have thought this through before you try to answer the question.
- The area of study in which you wish to specialize. This requires that you know the field well enough to make such decision.
- Your future use of your graduate study. This will include your career goals and plans for your future.
- Your special preparation and fitness for study in the field. This is the opportunity to relate your academic background with your extracurricular experience to show how they unite to make you a special candidate.
- Any problems or inconsistencies in your records or scores such as a bad semester. Be sure to explain in a positive manner and justify the explanation. Since this is a rebuttal argument, it should be followed by a positive statement of your abilities.
- Any special conditions that are not revealed elsewhere in the application such as a large (35 hour a week) work load outside of school. This too should be followed with a positive statement about yourself and your future.
- You may be asked, “Why do you wish to attend this school?” This requires that you have done your research about the school and know what its special appeal is to you.
- Above all this, the statement is to contain information about you as a person. They know nothing about you that you don’t tell them. You are the subject of the statement.
III. Determine your approach and the style of the statement
There is no such thing as “the perfect way to write a statement.” There is only the one that is best for you and fits your circumstances.
- There are some things the statement should not be:
- Avoid the “what I did with my life” approach. This was fine for grade school essays on “what I did last summer.” It is not good for a personal statement.
- Equally elementary is the approach “I’ve always wanted to be a __________.” This is only appropriate if it also reflects your current career goals.
- Also avoid a statement that indicates your interest in psychology is because of your own personal psychotherapy or a family members psychological disturbance. While this may have motivated many of us to go on to graduate study in psychology, this is not what your audience is necessarily looking for in your statement.
- These are some things the statement should do:
- It should be objective yet self-revelatory. Write directly and in a straightforward manner that tells about your experience and what it means to you. Do not use “academese” or jargon.
- It should form conclusions that explain the value and meaning of your experiences such as:
- what you learned about yourself
- about your field
- about your future goals
- about your career concerns.
- It should be specific. Document your conclusions with specific instances or draw your conclusions as the result of individual experience. See the list of general Words to Avoid Using without Explanation listed below.
- It should be an example of careful persuasive writing.
Considerations about the Essay Form:
- Keep to the Page Limit Number!!! Reviewers have to read hundreds of these applications, don’t overburden them with extra pages.
- Do not leave in typographical errors. You don’t want to be taken less seriously due to a typo, rite? ; )
- appealing to me
- exciting, excited
- enjoyable, enjoy
- I like it
- satisfying, satisfaction
- I can contribute
- Its important
- helping people
- meant a lot to me
- feel good
- I like to help