How to Write a Great Statement of Purpose for Grad School

The statement of purpose (SOP) is a critical component of your application. SOP is the best way for admissions committees to get to know you. It should convince readers that you have solid achievements behind you that show promise for your success in graduate studies. Here is a brief guide on how to write a great statement of purpose for graduate school.

Introduction

Think back to a moment in an exam when you didn’t know the answer. What did you do? Write a generic, long-winded statement with a smattering of what you hope are keywords to fill up space? If yes, then you know that this strategy only yields vague answers which more often than not is not what the teacher is looking for.

Keep in mind Orwell who famously said, “This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose”. “As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.” 

The same applies to SOP (Statement of Purpose)! Writing a generic statement for each application leads to an unsatisfactory outcome because SOPs have to be tailored to each university and the course you are interested in to show your interest and improve your chances of getting in.

Before we jump into tips for writing SOP, it is important to note that these are only guidelines to set you on the right path. Think of it as a personal interview – it is specific to each person and there is no one way to write it well. It is also important to note that an SOP for MS, undergrad, jobs, fellowships, etc all require a different approach. That being said, the process of writing and a basic format applies to everyone across the board and it is worth studying before formulating your statement.

Evaluation Factors for Judging an SOP

To know how to prepare an SOP, we need to begin by understanding the common criteria used for judging a good and great SOP. They include

1. Content

The first thing to keep in mind is that an SOP cannot be long-winded. Universities first skim through your statement before anything else so make sure to keep it clear, correct, complete, and concise. Clearly include the purpose of your writing and the range of activities it is relevant to in addition to any limitations or exceptions. 

2. Coherence/flow

There should be a seamless transition between paragraphs and ideas. Use information condensing techniques like tables, lists, and visual data (diagrams, graphs), etc to make your statement an easy read. Provide any definitions and full forms that readers may not know. 

 Roughly, the chronological sequence should look like:

Past experience–(informing)–>present research–(can be applied to)–>future research

3. Language

Opt for short clear grammatical sentences whenever possible to express your ideas. Contrary to what you may intuit, poetic language may be off-putting and signal an attempt to make up for a lack of academic understanding. Additionally, avoid using the passive voice- always express yourself with “I” and avoid references to gender when speaking of another person.

4. Knowledge

While it is not necessary to explicitly state future research, you should at least explain how your past work can contribute to your future work in accordance with the flow mentioned above. You don’t want to bring in your research topic out of thin air and make you seem uninvested in it. 

5. Authenticity

While it may be tempting to include grandiose fabrications, it is essential to remain honest. 

Remember that all you mention can be verified by cross-referencing. For example, something like a low GPA may seem detrimental, you could always use it to highlight your efforts to overcome your shortcomings and posit yourself in a positive light.

Things to Keep in Mind before Starting

To write a good SOP, here are some things you need to get done before starting out:

1. Gather a list of relevant achievements

While volunteer work at an NGO is a good addition to an application it may not bear relevance to your particular degree. Hence, only include experience which you can show will contribute to your future work. You can always try to express your past work in this way as well. For example, “my time as a volunteer involved extensive research on local waste disposal laws before formulating a plan of action, hence helping me develop my research skills”. 

2. Identify your goals for pursuing the degree

Make sure the reader knows your future plans and how your interest in this degree will be relevant to you in pursuing those goals.

3. Explore the faculty and programs of your chosen University

Do extensive research on these aspects, reach out to the professors you would like to work with, and even the University itself to make sure you know what you’re getting into. Mention names and faculties in your SOP to bring out this understanding.

What to include in an SOP

With context now established, here are points you need to include:

  1. Academic achievements
  2. Relevant extracurriculars
  3. Future goals
  4. Work experience
  5. An emphasis on your suitability for grad school

Remember that your first draft is not going to be the final draft so don’t keep hesitating to start. Likewise, don’t expect your statement to be perfect the first time around. The golden rule is to write, edit and rewrite till you are satisfied. Also, remember to show your drafts to trusted professors/teachers and other mentors to get feedback and advice.

As mentioned before, this is a good beginner’s guide but you need to be able to structure your statement based on your degree and course. Here at Nirali Advisory we can give you detailed insights and guide you through the process of writing, applying, and more. Book a 1-on-1 consultation session with Nirali Mehta today or contact NiraliAdvisory!

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Nirali Mehta
Nirali is an overseas academic consultant who holds an MBA degree from New York’s Fordham University and is an alumnus of St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. She is based out of Mumbai and loves working with undergraduate and postgraduate students to help them with their applications for colleges abroad.
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