How to write an SoP | MS, MBA, PhD

A well-written Statement of Purpose (SoP) can open the doors to the best graduate schools offering Masters (MS), PhD and MBA degrees. They can even help tide over some weak areas in your profile and achieve more than just a top university admit – like the envious situation of getting a full MS scholarship despite a low GRE score.

Many international students (including Indians) who are non-native English speakers think an SoP is a way to demonstrate their grasp over English. It’s not. Your TOEFL and IELTS performance is a better indicator of your comfort with the English language.

While the nuances of how you write a good SoP can differ based on the degree, the geography and the overall objective (which may not necessarily be academic in nature, as some companies ask for an SoP for a job too), there are some fundamental tips and ideas that apply to all variants of the SoP.

Rather than keeping it completely open-ended, we’ll assume you are writing an SoP for MS programs, as that’s the degree that’s made the term ‘SoP’ buzz-worthy among international students.

 

Why is writing an SoP important…and difficult?

The big problem with using the objectively designed application form to evaluate MS applicant profiles is that there’s hardly anything outside the academic world to really judge. It’s great to have a single page summary of a person, but not very practical when you are trying to understand someone’s aptitude and future prospects.

As admission consultants, we face the same issue (that admissions committee officers do) every time someone posts their qualifications, entrance exam scores and the number of years of work experience on our free profile evaluation forum and asks us to look into our crystal ball and reveal their future. We can’t!

However, what does help is when applicants share some more information about their aspirations, likes/dislikes, fears and more. The dead application, with an emotionless listing of some numbers (academic grades) and facts (degree, university), now starts transforming into a real person. We can now imagine what might happen when that person is put in a demanding academic world.

That’s why an SoP is important. It can tell a compelling story that a plain application with basic facts and statistics (like exam scores) just can’t.

In an MBA admissions process, there’s an interview too that provides another opportunity to applicants to demonstrate their capabilities and potential. That’s missing in MS programs.

The decision to accept or reject your application will be taken (without speaking with you) based purely on the few elements that constitute the MS application.

That makes the SoP even more important in the MS admissions process.

What makes it difficult to write an SoP is that there are no formulaic approaches to it. Often, the SoP requirements are open-ended and vague. You may be given a word count (300 / 500 / 1000 words) or maybe they’ll let you decide.

Assuming you decide on the word-count (say 500 words), what next? There’s so much you’ve done during the last 20+ years of existence on this planet. What should you write about that isn’t already been covered in your transcripts and letters of recommendations?

Confusing!

 

How to write a good SoP?

Writing 500 words can take, well, around 30 minutes. But writing a statement of purpose can take several days.

Why so? What’s the big deal in creating an SoP?

There are a several steps that you need to do before you can create an SoP that can get you the attention and reaction you deserve from the admissions officer.

 

1. Introspection

Introspection sounds like something retired people do when they have a lot of time on their hands. But by then it’s too late. So we start doing a little bit of that right now, when it matters more.

We aren’t talking about sitting in the garden and entertaining general philosophical thoughts. Rather, it’s about recapitulating (in your head or on paper) all the important events that have happened in your life that have influenced your thoughts & actions, and made you who you are today. And what you want to be tomorrow.

When you aren’t being inducted into a hypnotic trance by a trained hypno-therapist, it can be quite difficult to keep your mind focused and think about these long-forgotten things.

Maybe it was a bad performance in kindergarten where the teacher insulted you in class (that’s a true story btw!) that made you serious about doing well in academics.

Or it could’ve been a more recent incident about facing a difficult programming problem that triggered your interest in finding a more structure way to tackle bigger problems of a similar nature.

These are only examples. What you come up with, during the introspection, may not be directly linked to your course of study, but they might matter. Or maybe they won’t.

But you’d never know till you create a super-list of such stories first and then eliminate the ones that you think are trivial and not relevant to share with the guys in the universities.

 

2. Academic & Industry Research

After having spent enough time looking inwards, it’s time to look outwards now to put it all within context.

[Sorry if this is sounding like Baba Ramdev’s meditation camp. Hang in there. We’ll get back to the materialistic world soon.]

When you are applying for a university degree, you are looking forward to an academic upgrade in a very specific niche. And there’s a bigger purpose to it as well, beyond getting the degree. Getting a job!

You need to be clear about both. What are you expecting from the degree? And why are you placing your bets on this university?

Consider these two snippets that an applicant might be thinking of while working on his SoP for MS in Computer Science in a top U.S. university:
 

SoP Example 1

Since childhood, when I used to play computer games the whole day (and I still do), I knew I wanted to do something big in the world of computers. But due to my low entrance exam score, I had to take up metallurgical engineering. This is not what I want to do in my career. I’m sure with an MS from the world famous brand of Harvard, I can change my life around…

 
Here’s what’s wrong with it. Though it may seem as if you’ve poured your heart out, it’s vague and not very credible.

You are blaming destiny for things not going right. And you want Harvard to come in and fix things. Even if your GRE exam scores are decent enough, an SoP written like this will not impress anyone.

That’s why you’ll need to research more about the college, the curriculum, the professors, the university culture and where students who have completed the Masters course are heading.

 

SoP Example 2

I was first exposed to the world of programming in school. The interest grew into a fascination during my engineering days as I realised during my final year project how distributed computing could be used to solve bigger and complex problems…I was intrigued by the work that CMU and specifically Professor Nagarajan Schwarzenegger has been doing in this field. I’d love to learn more from him….

 
Not perfect. But at least we aren’t talking in thin air. It’s becoming a little more specific and a little more real.

There’s a logical connection between the events that happened and influenced or interests that’s probably encouraged us to explore a Masters degree at this stage.

It shows that you’ve done your research about the university strengths, and read up on specific Professors who teach on the program.

 

3. Writing the SoP

Now when you have enough clarity about what you want from the program and how you aim to get it, it’s time to dip your feather in the ink pot.

Start writing in a new Word doc and for the first draft (there will be many) don’t worry about the word-count, grammatical mistakes and typos. Try to get all those brilliant but possibly haphazard thoughts out of your head and into the file.

Don’t worry if it looks like one big ugly mess. And just because you have taken care of the typos, don’t assume it’s perfect either.

This is our raw material. We need to give it shape and form. That’s what reviewing and editing your SoP is all about.

For the initial drafts, don’t involve anyone else. They’ll probably get frustrated after reading it once or twice. External reviewers can wait till you are pretty sure that you’ve done all you can in your power.

Go back and read it aloud, rather than just browsing silently. You’ll get a better idea of how it comes across when someone else would be reading it.

 

4. Reviewing the SoP

In the next few review and editing rounds, work towards polishing the SoP and getting it in the final shape. Which means you’ll need to start chopping off the fat (extra words) and work on the flow, impact, relevance and presentation.

After a few cycles, your brain will start going numb. Your eyes may start playing tricks on you (floating letters a la Taare Zameen Par). Point is, there’ll be blind-spots that you can’t see.

This is a good time to bring in those external reviewers. Make sure you share not only the SoP but also the other admissions related data (recommendations, resume), so that the review looks at the cross play with the various elements.

Whether you choose to work with professional SoP reviewers or manage it informally (via friends & relatives) is your call.

But do ensure that the reviewer is objective and unbiased, has an idea of how the admissions process works and how admission officers evaluate profiles.

 

That’s a quick tour of what you need to do in order to write a strong SoP that’ll impress the admissions team and get you into the best university that your profile deserves.

If you get stuck while writing your statement of purpose, you can always reach out to us (without waiting for the alphabets to start flying). We’ve seen a fair share of SoPs to know what works and what doesn’t. Here’s more about our SoP review service.

Read these related posts:
SoP for MBA admissions
Full scholarship from an Ivy League University


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MBA Crystal Ball provides professional Admissions Consulting services. Hire us to improve your chances of getting into the top international universities. Email: info [at] mbacrystalball [dot] com

Sameer Kamat //
Sameer Kamat
Founder of MBA Crystal Ball. Author of Beyond The MBA Hype & Business Doctors. Here's more about me. Connect with me on Google+ | Twitter | Facebook | Linkedin

18 Comments

  1. Mehar says:

    Hello Sameer,

    I graduated this year in June with a 5 year law degree, during my course I realised that I would like to pursue an MBA in America. Do you think that I should gain work experience before applying to the colleges and would it be of any help in the application process as any work I do would be in the legal field and I want to change my field to marketing.

    Also could you please tell me your thoughts on doing a MBA after law, would it be an asset or a hindrance during the admission process?
    (My percentage is 65.7 and the CGPA is 8.5, I am not sure which formula to use to convert it to GPA, as the calculated result is different for percentage and CGPA. Can you please tell me which is the accepted method by the colleges in America. )

    Thank you

  2. Sameer Kamat says:

    Mehar, you should definitely get a few years of experience before considering an MBA.

    With a law background, it’ll be easier for you to stand out in the crowd of applicants from India, but without the experience, most top business schools won’t consider you.

    As with any big career change planned after the MBA, your aspiration to move from legal services to marketing would need justification in the essays. The legal eagle in you would need to find a solid argument to defend such a radical move.

    Here’s a post we wrote on GPA to Percentage Conversion.

  3. kinjal says:

    Hello Sir

    I am a BSc student hoping to complete my BSc in 2018.
    I wish to get an MBA from HBS but i am not pretty sure that which program is best for me. i don’t have experience in business or profession.
    having a little knowledge about HBS. I really need your advice in this regard.also,how could i get a full scholarship in HBS.
    please guide me what steps should i follow.

    kinjal

  4. Sameer Kamat says:

    Kinjal,

    It would be too early to worry about MBA applications at this stage when you’ve just started your degree. Get a few years of solid work experience before you even start thinking of another degree.

    However, to answer your query, Harvard is among the most difficult business schools to get into. Your competition will be with folks like this Indian applicant who got into both, Harvard and Stanford (on a full scholarship).

    Bottomline here is that you’ll need to consider applying to a mix of business schools abroad where your chances of getting are high.

  5. Parag Patel says:

    I have completed bachelor in Electrical Engineering and now i have applied for master of science in Computer Science.

    I have enough soft material for GRE preparation

    Is it good decision to switch from electrical to computer science??

  6. mounika says:

    Can i get help in planning my m.sc in us

    Do we have to write gre for doing m.sc in fashion designing or any other exam??nd i have completed my b.sc in fashion which is of three years

  7. Ryan says:

    Hello Sameer –
    I am an IIT BTech with GPA (7.8). 6 years IT experience all in US. 1 year as a Programmer for Indian body shop. Fortune 50 company liked my work and hired me and now Director of App development managing a budget of 10 Million dollars and team of 10 + 10 (off shore). Completed MS CS part time with a 4.0 GPA. Looking to move into Finance area. Is MBA from a Top school a good route?

  8. Narendra Bande says:

    Hello,

    I am petroleum engineering graduate and I have been working for last 10 years. Currently oil prices are plunged and I do not think they will be very promising in 2016. Currently I am out of job. my friends suggested me to pursue higher education – invest time and money.

    So question is same whether MBA or MS. MS in US is 2 years whereas in. UK is only a year course. (If I am not wrong). But it will give me a chance to work in UK or US when the prices will be back.

    Please reply. If you are in mumbai, then I would like to meet you personally.

    Regards,
    Narendra

  9. Sameer Kamat says:

    @Mounika: GRE is the primary entrance exam for most Masters (MS) programs in USA.

    @Ryan: MBA is generally a good degree to manage such transitions. But as your entire experience has been in non-finance roles, it will still be difficult convincing recruiters why they should hire you.

    @Narendra: Going for (any) international degree is a bad idea if you are going there to fill the void in a career. The program (MS or MBA) will start only next year. If you are just starting out, it’ll be a long wait.

    Marketable skills are valued more than degrees, Try getting another job if you can, rather than just waiting for a degree to turn the tide.

  10. Vivek Sharma says:

    Hi, Sameer sir,
    I,am pursuing B.E in electronics and telecommunication from mumbai university. I, have heard that people normally prepare for M.S in third year, i, am sure that i would continue to be in technical field in future,so should i prepare in third year or after gaining some work experience. The most important thing the “financial details”, i, am from a middle class family (earning about 6-7 lakhs per annum) so is M.S a suitable option for me, if yes then please suggest me some books so that i can start my preparation as early as possible. sir please reply. as this is a very important decision of my life.
    Thank You

  11. PRACHI says:

    hey,
    I have given my GRE my scores are not good I scored 314 ( 162 in quant and 152 verbal). Still i am trying once to apply some good universities with the same score. I want to pursue masters in economics. i have done with LOR, have started working on Statement Of Purpose but am a bit confused what should i write my long term goal because i dont really want to go for Phd but people say that for economics student they actually want you to do P.hd can you help.

  12. P.Vishva Ranjani says:

    Hi,

    Im in 3rd year of my Bachelor degree doing pharmaceutical technology, i would like to do MS after my UG and im under a big confusion of entering into universities My questions are
    1. How to look for a good university in my field?
    2. What are the eligibility criteria to enter into them?
    3. How to get scholarships?
    4. How to prepare for GRE either by going to institutes or doing preparations by self ?

  13. Aritra says:

    Hello, I am a student of history. I have done 3 years of Bachelor and 2 years of m.a. If I apply for PH.D, Will I be considered as qualified to do so?

  14. jess says:

    Hello sir,
    i have completed my B.Sc with physics and i have applied for PGDM in IBM in Canada. i need help in writing an SOP for visa… May i get your help in writing one effective SOP?

  15. Tripti says:

    Hie,

    I did My Masters In Finance & had a experience of around 10 Months in Axis Bank As Relationship Manager. I m on my way for PhD in US. Bit Confused between Finance/Economics/Human Resource. As i have keen interest for pursuing in HR, but want to know what are the opportunities ahead. Please throw some light on it.
    Is GRE & TOEFL/ILETS necessary to give ?

  16. Aayush says:

    Hello Sameer ,

    I am a lawyer by profession , who has done 5 years law program . I also have a 4 years of work experience and would like to pursue MBA program in Human Resources. As i think after having a law degree and going for MBA would be an excellent choice in respect to the market. I have started working on Statement Of Purpose but am a bit confused what should i write in respect my elective course.

    Can you help me out in this thing ???

  17. Rahul says:

    Hello Sir, I am Rahul Nalawade, MBA, With 6 years of experience in Marketing, Currently running own business of Commerce class and Direct Selling agent for Citi, HDFC, Induind Bank in Credit card and Loan section.

    I would like to do PHD in Marketing. Could you please suggest some good university name in Australia, Germany, which offer scholarship.

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