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Before you start working on your Statement of Purpose, you should have a clear idea about how your SOP should portray you to the admission committee of the schools you are applying to. Here is a quick checklist:
- 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
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 asking
You 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?
So, how to go about answering these key questions?
To get you start thinking, we have broken those four key questions into a set of defining questions below.
STEP 2: Answer Defining Questions
These 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.
What is your dream for the next 10 years? What is your road-map to achieve the same?
Would you be interested in pursuing research or work in the industry after earning your master’s degree?
How will this specific program in these specific institutions, in this specific country, help you? Was there a specific feature or offering that differentiates this program from the rest?
How much experience do you have in the field you are interested in? What kind of experience do you have?
What additional skills are you hoping to gain from the master’s program?
What are your biggest strengths? What achievements demonstrate these strengths?
What is your biggest weakness? How has it affected you till now? What have you done about it?
Apart from work and education, what would the admission committee be interested in knowing about you? Do you have some interesting extracurricular activities or hobbies? Are you actively involved in social work
What are your biggest achievements at college and/or work? What were the situations, complications and results in each of those events?
What are the biggest challenges you have faced in your life? How did you overcome them?
What did you learn from them and how has it changed you personally or professionally?
Is there a particular professor at the university you hope to study with or do research with? If yes, why?
What skills or knowledge do you bring to the university or program that could prove useful?
Do you know about the student culture and community at the university and why do you think you would fit in?
What do you expect to gain from the university and program?
STEP 3: Write First Draft of SOP
Now 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 satisfied
Your 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?
So until you reach yes for all the above questions, keep iterating and improving every word, sentence and idea of your SOP.
Feel free to reach-out to your friends, family and professors for feedback on your SOP. Many of them would be more than happy to proof-read and help you clarify your thoughts.
STEP 5: Go through References & Samples
Sample – Interesting opening of SOP
When I was eleven, my aunt Eva passed away and left me something that changed my life: a library of about five thousand books. Some of my best days were spent arranging and reading her books. Since then, I have wanted to be a librarian.
Comments: Quite interesting, direct, new spin to reading and catches your attention in a unique way and professors will remember this student who had her own library!
Sample – Boring opening of SOP
I am honored to apply for the Master of Library Science program at the University of Chicago because as long as I can remember I have had a love affair with books. Since I was eleven I have known I wanted to be a librarian.
Comments: Boring because they know which program you are applying for. You are saying nothing of great value, and this is a boring start!
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
SOP Sample Skeleton
Start with your favorite quote and describe a life-transforming event that made you select the stream that you want to pursue. Be sure to convey your passion for the stream and not just state that you are passionate about it.
In other words, what are your reasons for choosing to undertake the specified course of study?
A write-up about academic performance in college, projects and the different things you pursued that helped you gravitate toward your program interest.
Any internship / Extracurricular activities (if applicable).
A write-up about academic performance and why you chose the specific program.
In other words, how is your selected course of study relevant to your previous academic and/or employment background?
What are your goals? What are the skills you will need to achieve those goals? How will the program help you?
In other words, how is your selected course of study relevant to your future education and/or career plans?
Why have you chosen to study in Country X rather than in your home country?
How will this course benefit you when you return to your home country?
Conclude your story.
Program Choice Essay: Please provide an essay that explains why you chose your intended program of study. What interests you the most about this major? If Undecided, what areas of study do you look forward to studying in college? (50-500 words).
The human brain has never stopped amazing me. It is perhaps the most complex of organs, boasting between 50-100 billion nerve cells or neurons that constantly interact with each other. These neurons carry messages through electro-chemical processes. This itself leaves me dazzled.
I have been intrigued by the human mind and how it works. This has been enhanced through my study of psychology in my course of study in standard eleven and twelve. Every day I see aspects of human behavior that could have come straight from a Psychology textbook! It is Psychology brought to life, and that has made me realize more than ever how much I want to move my interest in Psychology from my hobby to my career.
I wish to pursue research in the field of Neuropsychology. It, I believe requires a detailed study of both the human mind and the brain. While Psychology deals with the mind, biology deals with the brain and all its components. Such a coalesce of the two disciplines will only be possible with liberal arts education. I don’t quite remember what generated my interest in psychology, but it was definitely fueled by the television series Brain Games that aired on National Geographic. Brain Games was an inspiration for me to the fascinating exploration of the science behind how we process information, perceive our surroundings, and respond to stimuli.
These little minute activities as we think, they are , are demonstrated by experiments, optical illusions, and brainteasers that keep us wondering about how beautifully designed our brain is. Psychology, I believe let me in to a different world altogether. The cerebral experiments that I read about and watched, showed me how with the help of psychology one can play on the brain’s shortcomings hence explaining why our cognition works the way it does and there started my eye-opening journey into the mysteries of our mind. What keeps me preoccupied with thoughts most of the time is that how often our brains’ wondrous abilities stand in the way of our basic comprehension skills. The subject never fails to overwhelm me. Every time I read some new information, it leaves me mesmerized by what the labyrinth of neurons inside my skull can do. Reading about the subject keeps me curious and inspires me to learn more and more. This made it clear to me that I must choose it as my subject in the future. Watching and reading about our mind and our brain, only makes me believe that this is my calling and this is what is making me happy and will make me happy when I take it up as a profession. A good liberal arts education in my subject of interest will increase my capacity to understand and enjoy humanity’s cultural and scientific achievements. It will increase my orientation for knowledge that will reduce my confusion and frustration that comes from being unable to put into context or words my thoughts, my decisions or phenomenons that I encounter in my daily life.
It is said, ‘Build a life you don’t need a vacation from.’ Instead of thinking of escaping to a beautiful Island from the stressing schedule and routines of life, I want to choose a life for myself, that makes me feel as good as I would on that island in each and every moment of my life. I believe, if I do what I love, this would not be a difficult thing at all.