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How to Write a Statement of Purpose

If you’ve decided to apply for graduate studies, almost all universities will require you to write a Statement of Purpose (SOP). This letter, usually 2-3 pages in length, can make or break your application. Regardless of your grade point average, work experience, test scores, or undergraduate mastery of your potential future area of study, your Statement of Purpose is very influential at most institutions when determining your candidacy for admission. Please note that these instructions are more specific to admission into a PhD program.

1. Start early. Give yourself at least a month to gather the information described below and produce a final version of your Statement of Purpose.

2. Investigate the current research trends of the university to which you are applying. Read faculty publications, current interests, and all the admission requirements (specifically those of your Statement of Purpose).

3. Talk out the details of your life with a friend or trusted acquaintance. Recall small details, anecdotes from childhood, service you might have given at earlier times, and other rich palpable details of your life. You will recall items you have forgotten or deemed minor, one of which may add energy and meaning to your Statement of Purpose.
4. Think carefully about what you want to research as a graduate student. Note that this may change during the course of your studies, but you will want to enter grad school with a solid idea of what you want to do and what you can provide to the university.

5. Create a strong opening paragraph of five sentences or less. Briefly explain who you are, where you’re from, why you have chosen the particular field to which you’re applying, and why the university is among your first choices. Be specific. Don’t tell the faculty how wonderful their university is or that you want to study there because it’s the best in the state/nation/world. The faculty already knows this.

6. Mention faculty members with whom you could conduct research by name along with their areas of expertise. For example, “I am interested in working with Dr. Margaret Jones on sociolinguistic comparison because…” or “I have seen Dr. Allara’s publications on the use of genetic markers in biochemical reactions and would like to investigate…”

7. Tell the university why they should choose you over someone else. Explain what you can contribute to that particular field or specialty. Keep in mind that college faculty will accept you if they believe you can further their reputation. Plan how you will accomplish that task and include it in your Statement.

8. Fill the rest of your essay with more detailed information about your undergraduate education, work experience, and potential research topics.

9. List all the enclosures you will include in your application and give a very brief description of your portfolio.

10. Thank the admissions committee for their time. Chances are they are reviewing hundreds of applications along with yours.

11. Provide your contact information.

12. Go back and revise, edit, revamp, etc. Have someone else edit it. You’ll probably cut out a lot of stuff. Then edit some more. Remember to include everything above while aiming for 2-3 pages maximum. This is where being very concise and to the point is important. After the letter is perfect, edit some more.

13. Print your letter, sign it, and include it as the first item of your application portfolio (although be aware that some schools will want you to send it electronically).

Tips

  • Presentation is important. Use a legible font (such as Times New Roman) and respect term paper-style margin standards (1″ – 1.25″) and font sizes (11-12 pt). If you cite sources, be consistent with your style sheet (Chicago, APA, etc.). Do not mail in an SoP with wrinkles and/or coffee stains or it might end up in the trash where it belongs.
  • Remember that your first paragraph should be no longer than four or five sentences, but it should give a summary of the entire Statement of Purpose. Many graduate committees will read your first paragraph to decide if the rest of your application is worth reading as well.
  • Keep it clear and concise, yet detailed and specific when it comes to faculty and areas of potential research.
  • Don’t tell the admissions committee how amazing you are. Avoid empty phrases like “I’m talented”, “I’m very intelligent,” “I’m a great writer/engineer/artist” or “I had the highest GPA in my department as an undergrad.” Show them through your professional Statement of Purpose and application portfolio and let them decide if you are amazing enough to attend their institution.
  • Should you attempt to explain how “amazing” you are, make sure that you justify it. Yet, you must remain humble. For example: “I believe that I have the confidence in myself to strive for the furthest goal.”
  • Use short anecdotes to highlight your strengths. After committee members have read a few dozen statements, they all start looking alike; some specific and interesting details can help a candidate to stick out. Of course, it helps if these anecdotes are related to the broad point you’re making in your statement.
  • Focus on your previous and future research experiences. Many students make the mistake of summarizing their CVs. Committees that bother to read your application know already that you’re a good student; they now want to see whether you’ll make the transition to a more unstructured and self-directed form of learning in graduate school. They look for evidence of this by seeing how you describe your past research experiences and your future plans. The key is not particularly the topic you propose–the committee will expect that to change, as your awareness of graduate school increases. Instead, they will look to see whether you have a realistic and well-informed sense of what a graduate student would expect to do in a degree.
  • Remember that a Statement of Purpose is only one, albeit an extremely important, part of your graduate school admission portfolio. Carefully examine all the requirements on the university’s admissions webpage before you submit an application.
  • Apply to as many schools as you can afford to pay their application fees. Four distinct Statements of Purposes for four different universities should be your minimum.

Warnings

  • Avoid sending the exact same Statement of Purpose to all the universities to which you’re applying. The admissions committee will easily spot a cookie-cutter essay and more than likely reject you. Admissions committees also notice whether or not you include specific references to people, labs,groups etc., within their departments.
  • Don’t be overly specific about your research goals if you are actually somewhat flexible. If there are no faculty in a particular department working in your described area who are taking students in a given year, you might be rejected even though you are considered “above bar”. At the same time, there’s no point pretending to be interested in a broader range of topics than you are.
  • Don’t be too technical, i.e., using words or jargon-style expressions within your field that are unfamiliar to you or that you have picked up while skimming literature relevant to your studies; if you use a term blatantly incorrectly it may deter your acceptance.
  • Don’t use superfluous descriptions or poetic phrases. The best SoP is well-organized, but also concise. Get to the point as you would in a cover letter for employment.
  • Avoid being too poetic in applying for creative writing graduate programs. Address the questions without too much extraneous material. Your writing portfolio is more than enough writing to show your talent.

Sample Essays

1. Civil Engineering (SOP)

2. Computer Science and Engineering (SOP)

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