How to write a statement of purpose – Complete Guide
As the admissions season approaches, everyone has a list of their favorite colleges handy. But what about the SOP that you need for applying? Read this article to understand the nitty-gritty:
A statement of purpose (SOP), sometimes a personal statement, is a critical piece of a graduate school application that tells admissions committees who you are and what your academic and professional interests are. You're applying to how you’ll add value to the graduate program.
Jared Pierce, associate director of enrollment services at Northeastern University, says a strong statement of purpose can decide a graduate student’s admission.
“Your statement of purpose is where you tell your story about who you are and why you deserve to be a part of the [university’s] community. It gives the admissions committee the chance to get to know you and understand how you’ll add value to the classroom,” he says.
The most important thing about the statement of purpose (or personal statement) is that it ties together grades, test scores, and application and expands upon it, giving admissions officers a much more expansive window into who you are as a student and a person.
Although the graduate application and academic CV provide a lot of information about you as a candidate, the letter will tell them “who you are” and “what you want to be” in a much more detailed and personal way than the other components in the application package.
A statement of purpose is an essay that summarizes your past work and preparation for graduate studies. It lays out your most important experiences (e.g., jobs, internships, apprenticeships, teaching) and accomplishments (e.g., publications, presentations, grants, exhibitions, speaking engagements) to get you into your first-choice graduate program.
Whereas strong grades and test scores are the foundation of your application and are necessary to be considered for top programs, your experiences are what set you apart. Therefore, your statement of purpose aims to organize and present your academic journey in a way that convinces the top institutions’ admissions committees that you are perfect for their program.
Before entering a graduate program, the graduate faculty need to know why you are interested in coming to this institution or program and how it will help you achieve your larger academic and professional goals in life. They also need to see that you are a person capable of high academic achievement in their given program. It means an extended history of your academic achievements during your undergraduate career (and graduate career if you have attended grad school) and the goals and objectives you set for yourself.
Ultimately, you need to stand out as a candidate from the field, showing why the admissions officers should accept you over the many other strong graduate candidates. The Statement of Purpose should highlight why you are more than just your test scores and grades—it could even help you overcome a less-than-perfect score in a class and account for any missing years in education. Therefore, remember that your SOP should be honest, candid, and, most importantly, complete.
You know you’re cut out for grad school. You’ve likely spent countless hours in the lab trying to get your experiments to work or given up weekends and fun with friends to dig through archives for your thesis project. You may have even presented your work at conferences and left feeling more excited than ever about your work.
Grad school & SOP
Your graduate education will be the next step toward your dream career, regardless of whether your goal is to become a professor, get a fancy position in the industry, or work for the government.
Unfortunately, applying to graduate school can be a daunting task. Whether you’re still in school, working, or both, it’s hard to muster the time and focus to sit down and get started on your applications. And even when you do get around to it, you might not know where to start. How do you translate years of education and hard work in a field into a standout application? What accomplishments do you choose to highlight in your graduate school statement of purpose? How do you write the kind of statement of purpose that will get you into your dream school?
Writing your statement of purpose.
Once you have an outline containing all the details you want to include in your statement of purpose, it’s time to write everything out.
Your statement of purpose should initially introduce a theme or reason to tie your accomplishments together and present a logical argument for why you have decided to attend graduate school. An article could be an academic interest that ties your experiences together (e.g., Russian history, particle physics, microbiology) or a general concept you’re interested in (e.g., size scales, human interaction, efficiency). It is best to keep this short and to the point. Simply state what you’re interested in and what made you want to go to graduate school. To reiterate, you want to keep this discussion formal and not get overly personal.
Backing up your introduction with your experiences and accomplishments
Now for the meat of your statement of purpose: the experiences that led you to graduate studies. This section must logically argue why you are a good fit for the graduate program and apply a clear and seamless narrative to your accomplishments.
How do you make a logical argument for graduate studies? Let’s say that you mention wanting to study X in your introduction. When presenting each experience, you note how it has prepared you to study X by helping you experience one of the attributes of an exemplary graduate student: determination, competence, self-motivation, passion, independence, etc.
But rather than simply stating your independence, for example, you should note any accomplishments that display your independence. For instance, if you funded your research through a grant or fellowship, weave that detail into your experience discussion.
Narrative in a statement of purpose is achieved by incorporating reflections on your accomplishments and using clear transitions to string together the various experiences listed on your CV logically.
The ending: What are your academic interests? What will you do in the future with a Ph.D.?
By the time you reach the end of your statement of purpose, you will have reasoned that you are a capable and driven person ready to pursue graduate studies. Now it’s time to convince the admissions committee to accept you into their specific program.
The conclusion of your statement of purpose should contain two paragraphs:
A discussion of your academic interests and specific professors and programs that draw you to a particular institution
A discussion of what you intend to do beyond graduate school
The second-to-last paragraph should specifically state what you are interested in working on during your graduate studies. You’ll need to research departmental or program-associated professors at a given university with whom you’d like to work, as well as mention some areas the program excels in and how those fit with your educational goals.
To make things easier when applying to multiple schools, you can keep the general field of interest (e.g., Colonial History, Microbiology, American Literature, etc.) the same across all of your statements and customize the professors and the specific topics (e.g., Colonial History of Haiti during a certain period, Microbiology of Histoplasma, American Literature during the Gilded Age) for each school.
The second-to-last paragraph should answer the following questions:
What are your academic interests?
It should be more specific than what you stated in your introduction. For example, instead of merely saying that you are interested in history, explicitly mention which era of history is in that specific country or region.
How will you explore your interests at the school you are applying to?
For example, the school may offer the best education in an important technique in your field (e.g., leading experts in CRISPR, on-site cyclotron, etc.).
Are there any specific professors whose work you are interested in? What about their work interests do you/apply to your academic interest?
Name names and keep it short. For example, I am intrigued by the work of Dr. Mark Zane on the excited state dynamics of biological molecules.
In the very last paragraph, you can get a bit cheesy. You’d want to state what you intend to do beyond graduate school, make a broad statement about your reasons for attending, and reiterate your passion for your field of interest. If you chose a theme in your intro, end with that. It doesn’t have to be long, but it should leave the reader with a personal connection to you regarding your shared field of interest.
(A note on mentioning future endeavors: Unfortunately, there is a general bias within academia regarding the future endeavors of graduate students. Most of the time, the people reviewing your application are academics and want to train future academics. If you want to apply your Ph.D. to a career in academia, then state so. If you want to apply your degree to industry and you’re applying to a school that reveres academia (you can usually tell by just asking around), then keep your career aspirations more general. For example, if you’re applying to a science-based graduate program, say you’ll use your degree toward becoming a better scientist. Be sure to go along with this during your interview.)
In either of these two paragraphs, you should mention the name of the school you are applying to. And remember to change the institution’s name for each application! Moreover, you want to “show” the school that you’ve put some thought into why you are applying to spend 4-7+ years at their institution. Here’s an example of personalization in the second-to-last paragraph:
1st First paragraph: Overarching statement of goals
Within this first section, students need to clearly and concisely let readers know what they hope to accomplish by completing this degree. For historians, their goal may be to earn a Ph.D. that allows them to move into a postsecondary teaching role upon graduation. Biologists may want to use the degree as a springboard for a meaningful research position. Whatever the reason, panels need to understand what you hope to do both generally and specifically. While the historian's goal may be a teaching role, they must provide specific examples such as periods, methodologies, or frameworks they hope to study to prepare them for specific teaching positions.
2nd Second paragraph: Explanation of why you’re pursuing this goal
It is the space where students need to clearly define their experiences up until this point in their life and connect those experiences with their desire to pursue a graduate degree. Schools want to see that you have a robust and grounded reason for pursuing advanced education, as those who don’t often find that they aren’t prepared for the rigors of graduate school. Individuals working within the business may find themselves hitting the ceiling and discover that the next logical step involves an MBA. Meanwhile, those working in political science may find that a master’s in public policy helps them get to the next rung on the latter. Use this paragraph to passionately express your intense focus on meeting goals regardless of your field.
3rd Third paragraph: Academic/personal survey of the field
Not all schools require this section in their statements of purpose, but those that want to see that students possess a good command of the discipline before admitting them. Students can use this section to highlight any books or studies that motivated them to pursue higher education. They can also discuss specific frameworks and methodologies they hope to study while enrolled.
4th Fourth paragraph: Explanation of why this is the perfect program
As discussed by Maxwell earlier in this guide, admissions panels want to see that students understand how their goals and interests align with the department’s vision and values. Some students decide to highlight a few professors in the department with whom they would like to study, while others discuss the accomplishments of alums they respect and want to emulate. Many paths exist to highlight individualized programmatic interests. Students can use this space to creatively demonstrate their knowledge of the school and department to impress the admissions officers — so long as they connect it back to their goals.
5th Fifth paragraph: Summary of SOP
Having laid out your case from various angles and made sure to hit all the points required by the school, the final paragraph provides you the space to briefly cover all the high points once more and wrap up the statement with a neat finish. While it’s important to restate the most important aspects of yourself and your goals, be sure to keep this section short since it contains no new information
Although there are multiple ways to demonstrate passion throughout your statement of purpose, it helps always to take an enthusiastic tone when writing about your experiences. Don’t mention anything negative in your statements of purposes, such as a poor mentor, a graduate student who mistreated you, or a nasty grant application reviewer. In addition, don’t badmouth any collaborators, as it reflects poorly on you, and the collaborator may even have a relationship with the individuals reviewing your application. You also shouldn’t complain about applying a faulty method to your experiments or creations. And, of course, you don’t want to complain about difficulties with your work that might show you are not committed and easily give up. Stay positive and share your excitement for the journey leading to graduate school.
I hope it has helped you. Contact us at apguru.com for any admission-related or entrance exams-based queries. Happy to help.