- passionately interested in the field
- intelligent, logical and capable
- well-prepared academically and personally
- able to take on the challenges of grad school
- able to establish good rapport
- able to finish the graduate degree on-time, and
- an outstanding representative of the school
How important is the SOP?Admission committee members have often mentioned that an SOP can be the deciding factor when they consider an application. The student’s statement of purpose could give them an edge over their peers. Considering your SOP is a part of your application that you are completely in control of, you should spend as much time as possible to ensure you write a powerful one.
What is the committee looking for in a student’s SOP?Tell the committee your story. Show them what makes you the person that you are as when they read your SOP, they are trying to put a face to your application. In addition, they also want to know why you have selected their program over similar programs at other universities. Tell them why you have selected their program and how it is essential to realizing your future career goals. Not only is the committee trying to assess your eligibility for the program, but they also want to better understand your personality. In terms of eligibility, they expect to learn about your academic background, volunteer and extracurricular activities, and relevant work experience, if any at all. This is to ultimately understand how all these experiences have prepared you for their program. Professors also look for a student’s passion for the subject and the enthusiasm to learn. They also try to gauge whether there are inconsistencies between the student’s story, and the letters of recommendation. Also, do ensure you do not write a one-size-fits-all SOP for every university you apply to, as this is something that professors do not like. Many universities also have their own SOP specifications, so always ensure you have read their guidelines.
The First ImpressionWhile many admission committee members have mentioned that they do read all the SOPs, it is still important to create a strong first impression to have an edge over your fellow applicants. A powerful introduction can also translate to more focus on the part of the reader to what is being said throughout your SOP.
What to avoidAccording to Amit P. Sheth, who has over 20 years of experience serving on an admissions committee and is presently the Director of Kno.e.sis at Wright State University, he always tries to assess whether the candidate’s SOP is original. After years of reading SOPs, he says most committee members know whether a Statement of Purpose has been written by a student. He does this because it gives him a good indication of the candidate’s communications skills, which he believes is all the more important for MS/MA/MBA students. He then looks at whether the candidate has done his/her research on the university, the course, and the faculty. Very often students write a generic essay that can be used for many universities, which makes him lose interest.
Fill in the gapsYou can use your SOP to tell the admission committee about gaps in your academic or professional life. For instance, if you have a good reason for scoring poorly or have a break in work experience, you can mention the reason in your SOP. As a prospective student, the committee members will often consider your personal background while deciding whether to grant you admission to their program. Informing them of a troubled past, poorer financial background, or health problems, will show them what you have had to endure and give them an idea of the person that you’ve become as a result of these hardships. To come up with a statement of purpose that meets above criteria, here are the 5 steps to get you started:
STEP 1: Know what your target school is really askingYou should start with checking your target school’s program website for specific details about SOP. For example, here is what Stanford University mentions about SOP for MS in CSE:
Statement of Purpose – Your Statement of Purpose should be concise, focused, and well written. It should describe succinctly your reasons for applying to the proposed program at Stanford, your preparation for this field of study, research interests, future career plans, and other aspects of your background and interests which may aid the admissions committee in evaluating your aptitude and motivation for graduate study. The Statement of Purpose must be no more than two pages in length, single-spaced.Here is another example from University of Southern California for MS in EEE:
The statement of purpose should succinctly describe your reasons for applying to the proposed program at the Viterbi School of Engineering, your preparation for this field of study, study interests, future career plans, and other aspects of your background and interests which may aid the admissions committee in evaluating your aptitude and motivation for graduate study.Basically, both the schools – and majority of the other schools where you would be applying – ask for the following four key questions about your background and interests:
- What you want to study?
- Why you want to study it?
- What experience you have in your field?
- What you plan to do with your degree once you have it?
STEP 2: Answer Defining QuestionsThese defining questions are meant to help you bring out your story and demonstrate to the Admission Committee why you are special. A crisp, clear and well-backed story significantly increases your chances of admission into your target school.
STEP 3: Write First Draft of SOPNow that you’ve got a list of questions to work on, its time to put together all this information about yourself in the best possible way. It all starts with a great hook. The university gets lots and lots of applications and if your introduction isn’t great, there’s a high chance that the committee may not read the rest of your SOP. Watch for how you’re coming across in your SOP. The committee isn’t just paying attention to what you’re saying, but how you’re saying it. An SOP that reads like a story is always going to be more memorable than an SOP that is a more detailed replication of your CV. However, remember to keep your stories relevant to your application and quantifiable. Ensure that your SOP has all the information that the committee would require. At the same time, avoid going into too much detail about something that shouldn’t be the focus of your SOP. While most committees appreciate a conversational tone in an SOP, you have to keep in mind it is part of your application and needs to be formal as well.
STEP 4: Assess, Iterate and Improve till you are satisfiedYour essay is terrific if you get a strong YES for these questions:
- Is your SOP a terrific story that people love? [send it to at least 5 people and get enthusiastic nods from each]
- Do you have a great opening paragraph that grabs the reader’s attention? [oftentimes, the admission committee will not go beyond your first paragraph if you cannot hook them with your opening]
- Have you showcased the most life-changing event in your life and how is it affecting your career and academic aspirations?
- With the number of applications every program receives, you need to ask yourself if you’ve clearly explained why you are the right candidate for the program.
- Ensure that you’ve really done your research on the program. You don’t want to give the committee the impression that you’ve copied whatever they’ve posted on their website in your SOP? [Brownie points for students that have read research papers of professors in the stream and university that they want to apply to. You should be able to add a lot of value to your SOP by telling them which papers you liked and what you liked about them.]
- Is it really clear why you have selected a particular university and program, and why is this university and program the best option for your profile?
STEP 5: Go through References & Samples
Organization of SOP
- A “hook” that demonstrates your passion for the field
- Explain your background in the field
- Showcase your deep interest in the field
- Description of your academic background in the field
- Specific classes you have taken, given by name
- Specific professors you have had, especially if well-known in that field
- Extracurricular activities in the field
- Publications or other professional accomplishments in the field (perhaps conference presentations or public readings)
- Explanations about problems in your background (Only if needed)
- Explanation of why you have chosen the specific grad school
- Mention a professor or professors with research that intrigues you and mention why you would like to learn from them and work with them
- Specific features of the grad program that attract you