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 in our free profile evaluation 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?
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.
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 structured 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 a spiritual guru’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 (SoP words circling around your head?). 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 reviewer can consider 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.