Write that winning SoP

Updated - November 01, 2016 08:32 pm IST

Published - September 25, 2016 05:00 pm IST

Your statement of purpose should make you stand out. Some pointers to drafting that polished essay, and pitfalls you must avoid.

Be crisp and concise. Don’t make your SoP text-heavy.

Be crisp and concise. Don’t make your SoP text-heavy.

A statement of purpose is a student’s personal introduction to the admissions committee of a university describing his/her background, interests, future plans and why he/she wishes to pursue a particular programme at the university.

A typical SoP includes a catchy opening statement, information about what triggered your passion for the field of study you want to pursue, and what background research/ courses you have already worked on.

Here are some guidelines you can follow to write an effective statement of purpose.

  • The SoP must emphasise your passion for the subject, interest in research in it, why you chose the university, in addition to details of the background work you have already done in the area.
  • Start your SoP with a catchy opening statement or introduction. Remember, there would be around five professors in the admissions committee with around 300 to 500 applications. Make your SoP stand out.
  • SoP must ideally be one or two pages in length in a standard word document.
  • Use crisp and concise language and avoid making it text heavy. Write in active tense instead of passive. Use simple words instead of complicated jargon. Use a clean layout with left or justified alignment of text with ample “white space” and at least six-point spacing between paragraphs.
  • Proofread your SoP several times. Spell check is not enough. Spelling mistakes can weigh down your SoP and adversely affect your admission prospects.
  • Get at least three other people to proofread your SoP and suggest corrections.
  • The flow of the SoP must be coherent. Describe what triggered your interest in the domain and how you nurtured it over the years.
  • Avoid clichéd statements. Mention a couple of sentences about your leadership skills, extracurricular activities, awards, accomplishments, and so on, in the middle of the SoP. Don’t talk about these at the very beginning or the end.
  • Avoid irrelevant details such as winning a high school speech contest, an inter-school debate, sports competition or having been a great dancer or musician, unless it significantly adds weightage to your application and is noteworthy.
  • Don’t try to evoke sympathy by emphasising too much on your financial problems, gender-based discrimination, and so on. It usually does not work. Do not waste space by writing quotes from top scientists, philosophers, and so on, either.
  • Don’t be arrogant. Avoid saying things like “I am an IITian. Doesn’t that speak for itself?” or “Your university must be fortunate to have a researcher like me.” Remember, there is tough competition and the tone of your SoP might tick the admissions committee off.
  • It is highly recommended that you interact with professors from the field you are applying for at the university. You can then write at least one paragraph mentioning that you are fascinated by their research and think you could contribute significantly to it with new ideas.
  • Explain why you wish to study at the university over all other universities. You can highlight which professors’ research interests align with your own and with whom you would like to work.
  • Don’t attempt flattery. Professors don’t fall for it.
  • Highlight why you picked a particular programme and how it would help your future plans. You can mention the stage of your career you are currently at; how the additional technical and research knowledge will help you progress in your career, and so on.
  • Never ask for funding in your SoP. Do not mention that you would not be able to join the programme if you don’t get funding. It is a breach of etiquette to request funding in addition to admission.
  • They may not reject your application just because you requested funding, but they may pick another candidate who is equally good and who has not explicitly requested funding. You have to show that you are financially independent even when you apply for PhD programmes. You can talk about it when an offer of admission is made or with your professors/ advisors over phone.
  • If you are running close to the deadline at another university and have to choose, you could ask your professors at this university about funding options and get a confirmation from them through an email (in addition to the offer of admission).
  • Avoid repeating yourself.
  • Always write your own SoP. The admissions committee could do an extensive check for plagiarism and verify if the SoP was actually authored by you.

Last-minute checks

  • Make sure you are addressing the SoP to the correct university, programme and professors. Avoid mistakes such as “I request you to consider me for admission to the prestigious MS in CS programme at Stanford because the professors here are performing amazing research and I eagerly look forward to studying at Harvard University.”
  • Use the services of sites such as http://www.statementofpurposesample.com/ to get your SoP critiqued.
  • The last two paragraphs must be devoted towards making compelling conclusive statements to convince the admissions committee that you are sincerely interested in pursuing the chosen programme at the university. You must not appear shaky or unconvinced.
  • After completing your SoP, check grammar, formatting, spellings, and so on, several times. Misplaced commas, colons or wrong spellings can weigh your application down.
  • If you are applying to eight different universities, you can reuse the generic format of the SoP but tailor the last part about the professors at each school and their research to specifically suit each of them. This website has some useful information about SoPs: http://www.uni.edu/~gotera/gradapp/stmtpurpose.htm

The writer is president and founder, www.coolgrad.com

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